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Gary Powers
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Gary Powers

Francis Gary Powers (August 17, 1929 - August 1, 1977) was an American USAF and CIA pilot during the Cold War.

After graduating from Milligan College in Eastern Tennessee, he enlisted in the USAF in 1950. Upon completing his training (52-G) he was assigned to the 468th Strategic Fighter Squadron at Turner Air Force Base, Georgia as an F-84 Thunderjet pilot. He was assigned to operations in the Korean War, but (according to his son) was recruited by the CIA because of his outstanding record in single engine jet aircraft, soon after recovering from an illness. He left the Air Force with the rank of Captain in 1956, to join the CIA U-2 program.

U-2 pilots carried out espionage missions over hostile countries including the Soviet Union, systematically photographing military installations, the major railroads, and other important intelligence targets such as the Baikonur Cosmodrome. In 1960 Powers was the pilot involved in the U-2 Incident; after being shot down on 1 May 1960 over Sverdlovsk, he was convicted of espionage against the Soviet Union and sentenced to 3 years' imprisonment and 7 years of hard labor. However, twenty-one months after his capture, on 10 February 1962 he was exchanged in a spy swap for Soviet KGB Colonel Vilyam Fisher (aka Rudolf Abel) at the Glienicke Bridge in Potsdam, Germany.

On his return to the US Powers was criticised 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 capture. In addition, others criticised him for deciding not to use an optional CIA issued suicide pin. This pin, which was concealed in a hollowed out silver dollar, could be used to avoid pain and suffering in case of torture. After being debriefed extensively by the CIA, Lockheed, and the USAF, on 6 March 1962 he appeared before a Senate Armed Services Select Committee hearing Chaired by Senator Russell and including Senator Prescott Bush and Barry Goldwater, Sr. During the proceeding it was determined that Powers followed orders, did not divulge any critical information to the Soviets, and conducted himself "as a fine young man under dangerous circumstances".

After his return, Powers worked for Lockheed as a test pilot from 1963-1970. In 1970, he co-wrote a book about the Incident, called Operation Overflight: A Memoir of the U-2 Incident. He died in a helicopter crash in Los Angeles on August 1, 1977, while working as a radio traffic reporter for KNBC. The crash of his helicopter was apparently caused by a malfunctioning fuel gauge which had been repaired without informing him. Survived by his wife Sue, and two children Dee and Francis Gary Jr., he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

In 1998, information was declassified revealing that Powers' fateful mission had actually been a joint USAF/CIA operation. In 2000, on the 40th anniversary of Powers being shot down, his family was finally presented with his posthumously awarded Prisoner of War Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross and National Defense Service Medal.

When asked how high he was flying on 1 May 1960, he would often reply, "not high enough".