Flying at seventy thousand feet meant the sky above him was pitch-black

Tuesday, June 11th, 2024

Area 51 by Annie JacobsenWhile the US was developing its aerial reconnaissance technology, Annie Jacobsen explains (in Area 51), the Russians were developing their surface-to-air-missile technology:

It was sweltering hot in the ancient city of Peshawar, Pakistan, and Powers had spent the night on a cot in an aircraft hangar inside the CIA’s secret facility there.

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The Agency had never attempted to fly all the way across the Soviet Union before, from the southern border near Pakistan to the northern border near the Arctic Circle. From there, Powers would fly his U-2 to a secret CIA base in Norway and land. No Agency pilot had ever taken off and landed at two different bases in a U-2.

This overflight was particularly important to the CIA. Powers would gather valuable photographic information on two key sites. The first was the Tyuratam Cosmodrome, the Soviets’ busiest missile launch base. Tyuratam was Russia’s Cape Canaveral, the place from where Sputnik had been launched. For years the CIA was aware of only one launchpad at Tyuratam. Now there were rumored to be two, and a U-2 overflight in April revealed preparations for an upcoming launch—of what exactly, the CIA wanted to know. After Tyuratam, Powers would fly across Siberia and head up to a facility at Plesetsk, 186 miles south of the city of Archangelsk, in the Arctic Circle. Plesetsk was alleged to be the Soviet’s newest missile-launch facility. Powers’s flight would cover a record 3,800 miles, 2,900 of which would be inside the Soviet Union. He would spend nine nerve-racking hours over enemy territory.

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The reverse would have been unthinkable. Imagine a Russian spy plane flying unmolested over the entire United States, from the East Coast to the West, snapping photographs that could provide details at two-and-a-half-foot increments from seventy thousand feet up.

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Mother Nature always had the final say. For Powers, a slight wind change meant the schedule for his mission flight that morning was disrupted yet again. Not enough to cancel the mission, but enough so that his navigational maps had to be quickly corrected. The waiting was agonizing. It was also necessary. If his photographic targets were covered in clouds, images from the U-2’s camera would be useless. The navigators needed to calculate when and if the weather would clear.

As Powers sat waiting it out, his commanding officer, Colonel Shelton, crossed the cement floor and indicated he wanted to speak with him.

Colonel Shelton extended his hand and opened his palm. At the center was a large silver coin. “Do you want the silver dollar?” the colonel asked Powers. What Shelton was offering was no ordinary American coin. It was a CIA suicide gadget, designed to conceal a tiny poison pin hidden inside. The pin, which the pilot could find in his pocket by rubbing a finger gently around the coin’s edge, was coated with a sticky brown substance called curare, the paralytic poison found in lethal Amazonian blowpipes. One prick of the poison pin and a pilot would be dead in seconds.

Gary Powers was one of the Agency’s most accomplished U-2 pilots. He had flown a total of twenty-seven missions, including ones over China. He had once suffered a potentially fatal flameout over the Soviet Union and managed to survive. On many occasions he had been offered the suicide pill, and on each previous mission he had said no. But on May 1, 1960, Powers unexpectedly accepted the pin from Colonel Shelton, then slid it into the pocket of his flight suit. Later, Powers would wonder if he’d had a premonition of what was to come.

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Pilots knew never to use their radio while flying over denied territory, but they listened carefully for click codes being sent to them. A single click meant proceed. Three clicks meant turn around and head back to base.

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Powers settled in for what was supposed to be a total of thirteen hours of flying time.

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In Moscow, two thousand miles away to the west, it was still dark outside when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev sat upright in bed, awakened by a ringing telephone. Defense minister Marshal Malinovsky was on the line. A high-flying aircraft had crossed the border over Afghanistan and was headed toward central Russia, Malinovsky said. Khrushchev became enraged. Today of all days. May 1 was Russia’s national holiday. The streets were festooned with banners and ribbons for the May Day parade. This could mean only one thing, Khrushchev later told his son, Sergei. Eisenhower was ridiculing him again. The Soviet premier’s Achilles’ heel was his lack of formal education; he’d dropped out of school to work in the coal mines after the fourth grade. With his poor reading and writing skills, Khrushchev hated feeling that a more educated world leader was trying to make him appear the fool.

The Americans were especially duplicitous regarding holidays, Khrushchev believed. Four years earlier, on the Fourth of July, the Americans had double-crossed him with their first overflight of the U-2. If that overflight was a kick in the ribs, today’s overflight was a sharp poke in the eye.

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“In other words, at a time when a major parade aimed at demonstrating Soviet military prowess was about to begin, a not-yet-identified foreign aircraft was flying over the heart of the country and Soviet air defenses appeared unable to shoot it down.”

Not if Khrushchev had his way. “Shoot down the plane by whatever means,” he shouted back at his defense minister. All across the country, the Soviet Air Force went on alert. Generals scrambled their fighter jets to go after Powers. In Siberia, officers from Soviet Air Defense Forces were summoned to their command posts with orders to shoot down the American spy. It was a matter of national pride. The orders came from Nikita Khrushchev himself.

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Flying at seventy thousand feet meant the sky above him was pitch-black. Under normal circumstances he would have used the stars to determine where on the globe he was, but today his celestial navigation computations were unreliable—they’d been laid out for a 6:00 a.m. departure, not a 6:26 a.m. one. And so, with only a compass and sextant to keep him on track, Powers flew on. Spotting a break in the clouds, he determined his location to be just southeast of the Aral Sea, high above present-day Uzbekistan. Thirty miles to the north lay Powers’s first target: the Tyuratam Cosmodrome.

Realizing he was slightly off course, Powers was correcting back when suddenly he spotted the condensation trail of a jet aircraft below him. “It was moving fast, at supersonic speed, paralleling my course, though in the opposite direction,” Powers explained in his memoir Operation Overflight, published in 1970. Five minutes passed and now he knew at least one MiG was on his tail. Then he spotted another aircraft flying in the same direction as he was. “I was sure now they were tracking me on radar, vectoring in and relaying my headings to the aircraft” below him. But the MiG was so far below his U-2, it did not pose a real threat. Protected by height, Powers flew on. He felt confident he was out of harm’s way.

First he passed over the Ural Mountains, once considered the natural boundary between the East and the West. He headed on toward Sverdlovsk, which was situated thirteen hundred miles inside Russia. Before the Communists took over, Sverdlovsk was called Yekaterinburg. It was there in 1918 that Czar Nicholas II and his family were lined up against a kitchen wall and shot. To the Communists, the city of Sverdlovsk played an important role in the Soviet military-industrial complex, a place where tanks and rockets were built. It was also home to the Soviets’ secret bioweapons program, which on the date of Powers’s flight was not yet known to the CIA.

Nearing Sverdlovsk, Powers made a ninety-degree turn. He headed toward what appeared to be an airfield not marked on his map. Suddenly, large thunderclouds appeared, obscuring his view. He switched his cameras on. Powers had no idea that he was about to photograph a secret facility called Kyshtym 40, which produced nuclear material and also assembled weapons. Kyshtym 40 was as valuable to Russia as Los Alamos and Sandia combined were to the Americans.

On the ground, a surface-to-air missile battalion tasked with guarding Kyshtym 40 had been tracking Powers’s flight. At exactly 8:53 local time, the air defense battalion commander there gave the official word. “Destroy target,” the commander said. A missile from an SA-2 fired into the air at Mach 3. Inside his airplane, Gary Powers was making notes for the official record—altitude, time, instrument readings—when he suddenly felt a dull thump. All around him, his plane became engulfed in a bright orange flash of light. “A violent movement shook the plane, flinging me all over the cockpit,” Powers later wrote. “I assumed both wings had come off. What was left of the plane began spinning, only upside down, the nose pointing upward toward the sky.” As the U-2 spun out of control, Powers’s pressure suit inflated, wedging him into the nose of the airplane. The U-2 was crashing. He needed to get out. Thrown forward as he was, if he pushed the button to engage the ejection seat, both of his legs would be severed. Powers struggled, impossibly, against g-forces. He needed to get out of the airplane and he needed to hit the button that would trigger an explosion to destroy the airplane once he was gone, but he was acutely aware that he couldn’t get out of the airplane without cutting off his own legs. For a man who rarely felt fear, Gary Powers was on the edge of panic.

Suddenly, out of the chaos, three words came to him: Stop and think. An old pilot friend had once said that if he ever got in a jam, all he had to remember was to “stop and think.” His thoughts traveled back to his old training days at Area 51, back when the U-2 didn’t have an ejection seat. Back when escaping from the U-2 was the pilot’s job, not a mechanical one. Reaching up, Powers unlocked the airplane canopy. It flew off and sailed into the darkness. Instantly, the centrifugal force of the spinning airplane sucked him out into the atmosphere. He was free at last; all he needed to do was deploy his parachute. Then, to his horror, he realized that he was still attached to the airplane by his oxygen hoses. Powers tried to think through his options, but the g-forces were too great. There was nothing he could do anymore. His fate was out of his hands. He blacked out.

Nearly two thousand miles away, at a National Security Agency listening post in Turkey, NSA operators eavesdropped on Soviet radar operators at Kyshtym 40 as operators there tried to shoot Gary Powers’s U-2 out of the sky. The NSA had participated in many U-2 missions before. It was their job to equip CIA planes with listening systems, special recorders that gathered electronic intelligence, or ELINT. The NSA operators knew something was wrong the moment they heard a Soviet MiG pilot, the one who was chasing Powers from below, talking to the missile operators at Kyshtym 40. “He’s turning left,” the MiG pilot said, helping the missile operator to target Powers’s exact location. Just a few moments later, NSA operators heard Kyshtym 40 say that Powers’s U-2 had disappeared from their radar screens.

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“Bill Bailey did not come home” was how Richard Bissell learned of the incident, in code.

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As Powers floated down toward Earth, he noticed a small car driving down a dirt road alongside him, as if following his course. Finally, he made contact with the ground. The car stopped and men were helping him. One assisted with his chute. Another man helped him to his feet. A third man reached over to Powers’s survival pack and took his pistol. A crowd of approximately fifty people had gathered around. The men motioned for Powers to follow them. They loaded him into the front seat of a truck and began driving.

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With the U-2 spy plane and the SA-2 missile system, the Americans and the Soviets had been playing a game of cat and mouse: constant pursuit, near captures, and repeated escapes. Now that game was over. Powers, like the mouse, had been caught. But there was a second, even greater catastrophe in the works. When the White House staff learned Powers’s U-2 had been shot down, they assumed he was dead. This was an assumption based on CIA “facts.” Richard Bissell had personally assured the president that in the unlikely event that an SA-2 missile was able to reach a U-2 and shoot it down, the pilot would not survive. “We believed that if a U-2 was shot down over Soviet territory, all the Russians would have was the wreckage of an aircraft,” Bissell later explained. And so, believing Gary Powers was dead, the White House denied that the airplane was on any kind of espionage mission, in opposition to Khrushchev’s very public accusation. For five days, the White House claimed that Gary Powers had been gathering high-altitude weather data for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA.

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The United States has been making a fool of Mother Russia, Khrushchev declared. The Americans had been sending spy planes over the Soviet Union for nearly four years. To underscore the significance of what had happened, Khrushchev gave a bold analogy. “Just imagine what would have happened had a Soviet aircraft appeared over New York, Chicago or Detroit? That would mean the outbreak of war!” Amid gasps of horror, Khrushchev explained how the Soviet Union had first used diplomatic channels to protest the spy flights. That he had called upon the U.N. Security Council to take action, but nothing was done. Just four days earlier, Khrushchev explained, on May 1, yet another illegal espionage mission had occurred. Only this time the Soviets had succeeded in shooting down the spy plane. The audience broke into wild cheers. Then came the heart of the matter in the form of a question. It was also Khrushchev’s bait. “Who sent this aircraft across the Soviet frontier?” he asked. “Was it the American Commander-in-Chief who, as everyone knows, is the president? Or was this aggressive act performed by Pentagon militarists without the president’s knowledge? If American military men can take such action on their own, the world should be greatly concerned.” By now, Khrushchev’s audience members were stomping their feet.

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Khrushchev had laid a dangerous trap, one in which President Eisenhower got caught. The White House sent its press officer Walter Bonney to the press room to greet journalists and to tell the nation a lie. Gary Powers’s weather-sampling airplane was supposed to be flying over Turkey. Instead, it had gone astray. Two days later, on May 7, Khrushchev sprung his trap. “Comrades,” he told the parliament, who’d been gathered for a second revelatory speech. “I must let you in on a secret.” He smiled. “When I made my report two days ago I deliberately refrained from mentioning that we have the remains of the plane and we also have the pilot who is quite alive and kicking,” Khrushchev said. For the United States, it was a diplomatic disaster of the worst order.

The president was trapped. Were he to deny knowing what his “militarists” were up to, he would appear uninformed by his own military. Were he to admit that he had in fact personally authorized Powers’s flight, it would become clear he’d lied earlier when he claimed the downed airplane had been conducting weather research, not espionage. So despondent was the commander in chief about his untenable position that when he walked into the Oval Office two days later, he told his secretary Ann Whitman, “I would like to resign.” Spying on Russia and defying Soviet airspace was one thing; lying about it after being caught red-handed made the president look like a liar in the eyes of the world. In 1960, American presidents were expected to be truth tellers; there was no public precedent for lying.

Khrushchev demanded an apology from his nemesis. Eisenhower wouldn’t bow. Apologizing would only open Pandora’s box. There were too many overflights to make them transparent. There had been at least twenty-four U-2 flights over Russia and hundreds more bomber overflights by General LeMay. To reveal the dangerous game of cat and mouse that had been going on in secret—at a time when thermonuclear weapons on both sides were ready to fly—would likely shock and frighten people more than having a president who lied. A national poll revealed that more than half of adult Americans believed they were more likely to die in a thermonuclear war with the Russians than of old age. So Eisenhower made the decision to keep the focus on Gary Powers’s flight only and admit that he personally had authorized it. This was “the first time any nation had publicly admitted it was engaged in espionage,” noted Eisenhower’s lead U-2 photo interpreter at the time, Dino Brugioni.

Khrushchev could play the game too. And he did so by making a dangerous, offensive move. By the summer of 1960, he had authorized a Soviet military base to be set up in Cuba. The island, just ninety miles off the coast of Florida, was in America’s backyard. Khrushchev’s plan was to put nuclear warheads in striking distance of Washington, DC. In this way, Soviet missiles could be launched from Havana and obliterate the nation’s capital in just twenty-five minutes’ time. Khrushchev was showing Eisenhower that he could play cat and mouse too.

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Powers was sentenced to ten years in prison. President Eisenhower was judged to be a “follower of Hitler,” the lowest insult in the Russian lexicon. Hitler had double-crossed Khrushchev’s predecessor, Joseph Stalin, in 1941, and the result of that double cross was twenty million Russians dead. In comparing Eisenhower to Hitler, Khrushchev was sending a clear message: diplomacy was off the table. The upcoming east-west summit in Paris was canceled.

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