Francis Gary Powers

48

Francis Gary Powers : biography

August 17, 1929 – August 1, 1977

On February 10, 1962, Powers was exchanged, along with American student Frederic Pryor, in a well-publicized spy swap at the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin, Germany. The exchange was for Soviet KGB Colonel Vilyam Fisher (aka Rudolf Abel), who had been caught by the FBI and jailed for espionage.

In 2010, CIA documents were released indicating that "top US officials never believed Powers’ account of his fateful flight because it appeared to be directly contradicted by a report from the National Security Agency, the clandestine US network of codebreakers and listening posts. The NSA report remains classified, possibly to spare the blushes of its authors. For it is now possible to piece together what really happened high over Sverdlovsk on May 1, 1960, and to understand why America’s most secretive intelligence agency got it so wrong". According to the article cited, the still classified NSA report is incorrect based on the CIA documents that were declassified which show that Powers’ account of being shot down at altitude was accurate.

Legacy

Powers’ son, Francis Gary Powers Jr., founded a museum of Cold War history in 1996. Affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, it was long essentially a traveling exhibit until it found a permanent home in 2011 on a former Army communications base outside Washington.

Aftermath

Powers received a cold reception on his return home. Initially, he was criticized for having failed to activate his aircraft’s self-destruct charge to destroy the camera, photographic film, and related classified parts of his aircraft before his capture. He was also criticized for not using an optional CIA-issued "suicide pill" to kill himself. After being debriefed extensively by the CIA, Lockheed, and the Air Force, on March 6, 1962, Powers appeared before a Senate Armed Services Select Committee hearing chaired by Senator Richard Russell and including Senators Prescott Bush and Barry Goldwater Sr. It was determined that Powers had followed orders, had not divulged any critical information to the Soviets, and had conducted himself “as a fine young man under dangerous circumstances.”

Powers worked for Lockheed as a test pilot from 1963 to 1970. In 1970, he co-wrote a book called Operation Overflight: A Memoir of the U-2 Incident. Lockheed fired him, it was widely believed, because the book cast negative publicity on the CIA. Powers became an airborne traffic reporter for radio station KGIL Los Angeles. A fixed-wing pilot, he was then hired by television station KNBC to pilot their "telecopter", a helicopter equipped with externally mounted 360-degree cameras. The telecopter had been in service for years, and was purchased from KTLA, Channel 5.

In 1976, Powers’ biography (written with Curt Gentry) became a television movie, Francis Gary Powers: The True Story of the U-2 Spy Incident. Lee Majors played the role of Powers.

Fatal crash

Powers died in 1977 in an accident. He had been covering brush fires in Santa Barbara County. As he returned, his Bell 206 Jet Ranger helicopter, registered N4TV, ran out of fuel and crashed in the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area several miles short of Burbank Airport. The National Transportation Safety Board report attributed the probable cause of the crash to pilot error (poor fuel management). According to Powers’ son, an aviation mechanic had repaired a faulty fuel gauge without telling Powers, who misread it. At the last moment he noticed children playing in the area, and directed the helicopter elsewhere to prevent their deaths. If not for the last second deviation, which compromised his autorotative descent, he might have landed safely.

Powers was survived by his wife, two children, Dee and Francis Gary Powers Jr., and five sisters. Powers is buried in Arlington National Cemetery as an Air Force veteran.

Early life

Powers was born in Jenkins, Kentucky, to Oliver and Ida Powers. He grew up in Pound, Virginia, just across the state border. Graduating from Milligan College in Tennessee, in 1950, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force. After completing his training, Powers was assigned to the 468th Strategic Fighter Squadron at Turner Air Force Base, Georgia, as an F-84 Thunderjet pilot. According to his son, he did not fly combat missions during the Korean War, because he was recruited by the CIA for his outstanding record in single engine jet aircraft. By 1960, Powers was already a veteran of many covert aerial reconnaissance missions.