This Week in EUCOM History: April 30 - May 6

May 1, 1960 -- U.S. U-2 spy plane shot down over Soviet Union

On May 1, 1960, a United States U-2 spy plane was shot down in the airspace of the Soviet Union. The incident happened fifteen days before the scheduled opening of an East–West summit conference in Paris.

Air Force Captain Francis Gary Powers left the US base in Peshawar, Pakistan, on a mission with the operations code word GRAND SLAM to overfly the Soviet Union, photographing intercontinental ballistic missile sites in and around Sverdlovsk, Mayak and Plesetsk, and then land at Bodø in Norway.

Soon after the plane was detected in Soviet air space,  Soviet Air Force Lieutenant GeneralYevgeniy Savitskiy ordered the air-unit commanders "to attack the violator by all alert flights located in the area of foreign plane's course, and to ram if necessary."

Because of the U-2's extreme operating altitude, Soviet attempts to intercept the plane using fighter aircraft failed. The U-2's course was out of range of several of the nearest surface-to-air missile sites, and one SAM site even failed to engage the aircraft since it was not on duty that day. The U-2 was eventually brought down near Degtyarsk, Ural Region, by the first of three SA-2 Guideline (S-75 Dvina) surface-to-air missiles.

Capt. Powers successfully bailed out and parachuted to safety. He was captured soon after. Powers carried with him a modified silver dollar which contained a lethal, shellfish-derived saxitoxin-tipped needle, but did not use it.

The SAM command center was unaware that the plane was destroyed for more than 30 minutes. One of the Soviet MiG-19 fighters pursuing Powers, piloted by Sergei Safronov, was also destroyed in the missile salvo. The MiGs' "identify friend or foe" (IFF) transponders were not yet switched to the new May codes because of the May 1 holiday.

A close study of Powers' account of the flight shows that one of the last targets he had overflown was the Chelyabinsk-65 plutonium production facility. From photographs of the facility, the heat rejection capacity of the reactors' cooling systems could have been estimated, thus allowing a calculation of the power output of the reactors. This then would have allowed the amount of plutonium being produced to be determined, thus allowing analysts to determine how many nuclear weapons the USSR was producing.

The Four Power Paris Summit between president Dwight Eisenhower, Nikita Khrushchev, Harold Macmillan and Charles de Gaulle collapsed, in large part because Eisenhower refused to accede to Khrushchev's demands that he apologize for the incident. Khrushchev left the talks on May 16.

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