First high-tech Cold War spy to be honored

The Air Force on May 1 plans to award the Prisoner of War Medal posthumously to Air Force pilot Francis Gary Powers, who was shot down in 1960 while flying the U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.

Powers' wife, son and daughter will accept the medal at a ceremony honoring the 40th anniversary of Powers' capture. He died in 1977.

In an interview with FCW, Gary Powers Jr. called the U-2 program "a milestone of aviation history and intelligence history." Powers Jr., a business development manager for, has been one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the Cold War Museum ( to honor his father and other service members.

Powers flew the last joint CIA/Air Force-sponsored U-2 mission on Sunday May 1, 1960, when he was downed by a Soviet surface-to-air missile near the town of Sverdlosk. Known as Operation Grand Slam, Powers' mission was the 24th deep-penetration surveillance flight into the Soviet Union in search of new information about developments in the nation's nuclear missile program.

The U-2 that Powers flew was equipped with then-state-of-the-art intelligence cameras and processing equipment and sophisticated electronic eavesdropping systems. However, intelligence officials had failed to detect an anti-aircraft battery directly in the path that Powers was flying. An SA-2 missile detonated close to the aircraft while it was at an altitude of 70,000 feet, sending it spiraling toward the ground. Powers ejected and parachuted to the ground, and then was captured, tried and convicted of espionage.

Intelligence officials and scholars have called the U-2 program one of the most important technological advances of the Cold War and a revolutionary advance in intelligence collection.

U-2 aircraft continue to fly missions, most recently in Bosnia and Kosovo. Modern versions include a wide array of sensors — including electro-optical, infrared and synthetic aperture radar — and can take advantage of enhanced communications links for near-real-time imagery transmissions.


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