Sunday, May 01, 2005

Francis Gary Powers

Today, I was in attendance at a talk given by Francis Gary Powers, Jr. at the Wings Over the Rockies air museum. Gary is the son of Francis Gary Powers, who was shot down over Russia by one of 14 SA-2 surface-to-air missiles the Soviets threw at him. At the time, he was gathering photo intelligence from about 70,000 feet in a U2 for the CIA on May 1, 1960, 45 years ago today.

It was a good talk; Gary spent much of it honoring his dad by describing in great detail what happened that day and until his death in 1977 when the L.A. NBC news affiliate helicopter he was piloting ran out of gas and plummeted to the ground.

I was struck by some of those details. For instance, when the shock wave from the missile exploding near the U2's tail dissabled the plane, the wings broke off and Powers, in a very compact cockpit, fell 55,000 feet pitched nose first in a screwdriver spiral. He contemplated destroying the plane's camera and film with a self-destruct unit under the cockpit. Doing so would likely have killed Powers if he didn't attempt to eject before firing the switch. However, Powers could not orient his legs in order to eject without severing them when the ejector rockets under his seat fired. So he manually released the canopy, which flew away, then inched his way out of the seat until he was halfway out. As he was going to push the camera-destruct button, he was sucked from the cockpit without ejecting. His chute opened automatically at 15,000 feet; as he floated down he watched a black sedan following his descent along farmer's gravel roads. He landed in a field and was quickly attended by children who helped him remove his helmet and pressure suit. The farmers with the threatening pitchforks came next, followed by two men who said little, then took him away in the car.

He was interrogated for weeks by the KGB, then tried in a Soviet publicity-show trial and sentenced to 10 years. He spent 18 months in a Soviet jail attached to KGB headquarters before he was exchanged for convicted Soviet spy Rudolph Abel. You can read about the political intrique associated with this elsewhere. It's a quintessential Cold War story worth knowing.

While I was watching the talk, I sat behind a retired Air Force Colonel and a retired Air Force General, both of whom had been introduced before the talk. Each was a former U2 pilot, and one flew the SR-71 Blackbird as well. Fortunately, my eyesight is pretty good and so are my ears, so my seat afforded me an eavesdropping station.

At one point, Gary mentioned that his dad had been threatened by his Soviet interrogator with a copy of the New York Times that appeared days after it was revealed publically by the Soviets that they had captured an American U2 pilot. The article said Powers had trained in Nevada. Powers had told his captors he had trained in Arizona. Gary said his father told him that at that moment he realized he might as well tell the truth "because the American media will do it for you whether you like it or not." I overheard the general say to the colonel, "That's the truth." I'm not sure how to read into that, but it's definitely worth reading into. Feel free.

While he was watching the presentation, the colonel was looking through a three-ring binder containing multi-page lists of all the men who had flown (and from what I could tell still fly) U2's. Names, ranks, locations, beginning flying dates. I could clearly see all the information and was struck by how valuable such a compilation would have been to the Soviets, or today, to a terrorist group or the North Koreans. And all I had to do is pay $6 and sit in the right spot.

So the talk, and walking around the museum looking at Cold War fighters and the B-1A on display, got me thinking. I'll talk about that in my next post. For now, my memories are cast on the Cold Warriors like F.G. Powers the First.


Blogger ajmac said...

Fascinating stuff. Talk about courage!

10:33 AM  

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