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Mayday Mayhem - The downing of the U-2 flown by F. G. Powers PDF Print E-mail
Contributed by Krzysztof Dabrowski   
Dec 20, 2012 at 10:49 AM
The shootdown of the U-2 flown by Francis Gary Powers over the Soviet Union was one of the pivotal moments of the Cold War. Here it is recounted from the Soviet perspective, with details and facts little known in the west.

The first attempts

According to sources available, the first U 2 overflight of the Soviet Union took place on 4 July 1956. The US aircraft took off from Wiesbaden in what was then West Germany. In the days to follow the U-2 again made repeated reconnaissance flights in Soviet airspace. The unwelcomed "guest" was naturally detected by Soviet radars and an attempt to intercept it took place on the next day, July 5. In all five aircraft - two MiG-19, the same number of MiG-17s and a single Yak-25 - tried to intercept the high flying intruder but were unable to do so. The Soviets gave it another try on July 6, scrambling two MiG-19 but ground control guided them one onto the other. When finally one of the pilots reported that the "target" was in fact a friendly aircraft the real intruder was already out of reach. Yet another attempt was made on July 9. At first a single MiG-19 was put into the air in order to avoid confusion. However shortly after Capt. Pikalin, who was at the controls, ignited the afterburner, one of its engines caught fire due to a fuel leak - as it subsequently transpired. Fortunately the fire died out and the pilot managed to safely land the fighter. Not deterred by this mishap the Soviets scrambled three more MiGs but they too failed to intercept the U-2. Yet that was not all for one of the fighters ran out of fuel while on landing approach. Its pilot Capt. Kapustin attempted an emergency landing in a nearby field alas crashed into an abandoned house. He sustained serious spinal injuries while the aircraft was written off. This was the first but not the last Soviet loss suffered while trying to intercept the U-2.

Having received reports about the high altitude overflights as well as the less than successful attempts to put an end to them, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev announced that the pilot who would shoot down the intruder was to receive the Hero of the Soviet Union title, promotion and a substantial material reward. But all incentives combined could not help the fact that Soviet fighter aircraft were unable to reach the altitude at which the U-2 operated.

Let it be added that the first Soviet surface to air missile system, the S-25 Berkut (SA-1 Guild) was already operational by that time being deployed around Moscow in order to protect the USSR's capital. When the high altitude overflights were reported these SAM batteries were put on full combat alert with missiles ready to fire placed on the launchers but the U-2 never came into their range.

Getting closer

Despite a number of attempts being undertaken by Soviet fighters they did not even come close to intercepting the U-2. As a matter of fact the Soviets did not even know what type of aircraft they were dealing with for the mysterious air space violator remained an "intruder" or "target" - a blip on the radar screen which nobody ever saw. The first to actually gain visual contact with the U-2 was a pilot from one of the units assigned to the Turkestan Military District. In February 1959 a MiG-19 was scrambled to intercept a high flying intruder which entered Soviet air space from the south. Using the afterburner the MiG managed to reach an altitude of 17 500 m. The foreign aircraft was still about 3 000 m higher and thus out of reach but close enough for the Soviet pilot to see it. [1] Upon returning back to base the pilot gave a detailed account of the event and also made a sketch showing an aircraft with a slim fuselage and long wings - considering the circumstances the U-2 was depicted fairly accurately. The report was send up all the way to Moscow and generated enough interest for a special commission to come down from the Soviet capital and investigate the events at the scene. Yet the commission failed to take the matter seriously concluding that the pilot involved made the story up in order to draw attention and receive a reward.

As it frequently happened with many other secrets the U-2 was exposed by an accident. On 24 September 1959 a U-2 made an emergency landing caused by engine problems at a civilian airfield in Japan. The aircraft and pilot were quickly secured and then moved away by the Americans but the story made it to the press and appeared in Japanese newspapers the next day. Articles published described an aircraft which if to go by its layout was best suited for high altitude flying and also noted a window for cameras thus hinting that it probably had a reconnaissance role. The U-2 was now revealed but this fact did not bring the Soviets any closer to stopping its overflights.

Before moving on it is important to note that, by 1960 the Soviet arsenal was augmented by a number of new weapon systems. Among them were MiG-21 fighters and Su-9 interceptors. While the former were for the most part assigned to the Frontal Aviation (V-VS) the latter strengthened PVO interceptor units. The Su-9 was a high flying and fast missile armed interceptor fitted with an onboard radar. In theory it should have been capable of shooting down a U-2. But introducing a radically new combat aircraft into service generated a number of problems. The pilots had to gain experience in both flying this aircraft as well as operating its weapon system and electronics. [2] Similarly, ground control personnel had to learn how to utilize its capabilities. In addition such a complex aircraft also presented a great challenge to the ground crews. One should also keep in mind that to reequip took considerable time and in 1960 most fighters defending the Soviet Union were still MiG and Yak fighters with only a few Su-9 interceptors assigned to some units in small numbers - seldom a squadron usually literally a couple of aircraft. In addition the SA-75 Dvina (SA-2 Guidline) surface to air missile system reached operational status with SAM sites deployed to defend Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Sverdlovsk (Ekaterinburg) and Baku. The SAMs had already proven their effectiveness against targets operating at high altitudes [3] but they were for all practical purposes immobile and an aircraft had to fly into their range in order to be engaged.

Another episode of the Cold War drama unfolded on 9 April 1960. That day a U-2 entered Soviet airspace from the south and then flew on penetrating it deeply. Its flight path took the American aircraft over the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, the Sary-Shagan missile range, the Tyra-Tam (Baykonur) rocket test site as well as other top secret location. Not surprisingly the Soviet air defense apparatus sprung into life with feverish attempts to intercept the intruder being undertaken. Since none of the locations reconnoitered were defended by SAMs a number of Su-9s and MiG-19s were scrambled. One of the Sukhois with Captain Doroshenko at the controls managed to climb high enough to report visual contact with the target. Fortunately for the Americans the Soviet pilot was unable to maintain altitude and dropped off before he could initiate an engagement (missile firing) sequence. The U-2 not only managed to escape again but the Soviets also lost a MiG-19. Its pilot Senior Lieutenant Vladimir Karchevski ejected just before his aircraft crashed but that was too low for his parachute to open and he was killed as a result.[4] The hunt for the U-2 claimed a second casualty, this time a mortal one.

When Khrushchev learned of yet another unsuccessful attempt to stop the American high altitude overflights he was furious. No heads rolled - at least not in the literal sense - but a number of officers were penalized. It was clear that the Soviet leader would not tolerate another failure.

The hunt is on

On 1 May 1960, just a few weeks after the April 9 incident, another high altitude penetration of Soviet airspace took place. The intrusion was detected as early as 5:36 a.m. By six o'clock in the morning the main air defense command post in Moscow took over the coordination of efforts aimed at intercepting the foreign aircraft while an hour later Marshal Siergiey Biryuzov arrived there to supervise its actions. Meanwhile Khrushchev learned of the incident and was indignant suspecting that a US reconnaissance mission on this very day [5] was a deliberate provocation. He ordered the intruder to be destroyed at all cost and was voicing his displeasure with the air defenses’ inability to deal with it. In response Marshal Biryuzov exclaimed that if he could, he would turn himself into a missile and down the "damned intruder".

The reason for all this commotion was a U-2 with Francis Gary Powers at the controls which took off from Peshawar in Pakistan. Previously U-2s had deeply penetrated Soviet Union's airspace flying inside it for hours but this was the first mission to reconnoiter literally the entire country - the U-2 was supposed to fly across the USSR from the South to the North and then land in Norway. On several occasions American pilots had seen the contrails of Soviet fighters attempting to intercept them. So far the Soviets were unsuccessful but on April 9 they were close with the failure being caused by lack of experience in high altitude interception techniques [6]; in addition the U-2 did not face the SAMs yet. But the Americans were still seemingly convinced that they were out of reach for their adversaries. This feeling of impunity was about to end in a dramatic fashion.

Meanwhile Soviet air defenses were placed on full combat alert and at the same time all civilian aircraft were instructed to land at the nearest airfield. With the skies cleared the Soviets were now contemplating how to deal with the intruder. The foreign aircraft was tracked by radar and it soon become obvious that it was heading for Sverdlovsk. In a way these were good news for the Soviets because the city was defended by SAM sites and fighter units were also based in the vicinity. For these reasons there was a realistic chance of finally bringing down the American reconnaissance aircraft.

Kamikaze Soviet style

Since nobody could guarantee that the U-2 will enter the engagement zone of SAMs it was decided to scramble fighters as well. Bearing in mind Khrushchev’s directive "to destroy the target at all cost" General Yevgeniy Savitskiy issued an order to “engage the intruder with all flights on alert (i.e. standing by on QRA) located in the area of the foreign aircraft’s course and to ram it if necessary.”

The dubious privilege of carrying out this order fell to Captain Igor Mientiukov. It so happened that by pure coincidence he made on 30 April 1960 an in-flight stop at Kolcovo airfield near Sverdlovsk while delivering a Su-9 from the manufacturer to an operational unit. Instead of flying onwards, the next day he was ordered to scramble tasked with intercepting and destroying a target flying at high altitude. Because the Sukhoi was being ferried from the factory it carried no AA-1 Alkali AAMs and air to air missiles were not available at Kolcovo either (the Su-9 had no gun). For these reasons it seemed that the task assigned was impossible to fulfill yet the order stood and Capt. Mientiukov took off. Once he was airborne and established radio contact with the ground control he not only received information about the target but also an order to ram it. The mission was for all practical purposes suicidal for even if the pilot survived the collision the effects of high altitude ejection could also be lethal.

PVO Su-9 depicted in the same configuration as Captain Igor Mientiukov’s mount during the U-2 interception attempt. (artwork by Tom Cooper)

Capt. Mientiukov was guided by ground control to intercept the U-2 on a rear chase course. When the distance to the target was about 25 km the pilot was ordered to jettison external fuel tanks and to ignite the afterburner. The speed of his mount rapidly rose to 1,9 - 2 Mach while he climbed to 20 000 m. Just as the distance to the U 2 decreased to 12 km the American aircraft made a turn and the Soviet pilot who had no visual contact with the target but was guided by GCI was instructed to follow it. Yet when flying with a high speed and at a high altitude the Su-9 like most other aircraft was not very maneuverable. As a result of the turn performed Capt. Mientiukov overshot the target by 8 km - considering his aircraft's speed it was not as much as it would seem at first glance - and found himself in front of the U-2. Now he was ordered to cut the afterburner and loose speed. Just as the Sukhoi's pilot complied with the order a new one followed instructing him to disengage and leave the area immediately. It turned out that in the meantime the U-2 had entered the engagement zone of SAM batteries defending Sverdlovsk. The first missile salvo was already in the air and friendly aircraft were to get out of the way.

Success at last

The first to open fire was a missile battalion [7] under the command of Captain Nikolai Sheludko. However the U-2 literally skimmed its engagement zone. Never the less Capt. Sheludko ordered a missile salvo to be launched but the American aircraft was already out of range by the time the missiles reached its altitude resulting in their self-destruction.

Meanwhile the U-2 entered the engagement zone of another SAM battalion under the command of Major Mikhail Voronov. At 8:36 a.m. [8] a 13D (V-750VN) surface to air missile from the S-75N Desna SAM system was launched on his order.[9] Shortly thereafter the SAM operators reported that on the radar screen the target "started to blink" as they put it. This meant that it was either hit and disintegrating or employing jamming. In fact the missile had detonated behind the U-2 with the blast and fragments causing crippling damage to the American aircraft. As a result the U-2 was falling from the sky breaking up on the way down. But Major Voronov and his subordinates could not see this for they observed the action on radar screens which gave a picture open to interpretation. Since it could not be taken for granted that the U-2 was shot down Major Voronov ordered more missiles to be launched and he also did not initially report the destruction of the target.

So far the events were followed from the Soviet perspective but in fact the American aircraft and its pilot F. G. Powers were centerpiece to the drama. By the time the U-2 approached Sverdlovsk it had been airborne for about four hours. While nearing the city Powers made a turn [10] in order to photograph installations to the south west of it. There seemed to be no indication of the impending disaster.

Suddenly the U-2 lurched violently, Powers tried to control the aircraft but it was to no avail. In a moment the right wing broke off and the aircraft began to spin. Caused by the weight of the engine the U-2 was falling down tail first. Under the circumstances Powers could do nothing more than save himself. This was not easy for in order to eject the pilot had to move the seat back so as to get his legs from underneath the instrument panel. However for some reason the seat would not move and Powers could not eject but had to bail out instead. He jettisoned the canopy, unfastened his seat harness and soon found himself clear of the cockpit.[11]

A needless death

Since there was no report stating the foreign aircraft's destruction than the seemingly logical conclusion was that it still had to be shot down. Therefore when unidentified aircraft entered the engagement zone of the SAM battalion under the command of Major Shugayev he ordered fire to be opened. It turned out the aircraft engaged was a MiG-19 with Senior Lieutenant Sergey Safronov in the cockpit. Once again the SAMs proved their effectiveness but unfortunately against a friendly aircraft - not only was the MiG shot down but its pilot lost his life as well.

It has to be explained at this point, that aside the Su-9 with Capt. Mientiukov at the controls a pair of MiG-19 fighters flown by Captain Boris Aivazian and Senior Lieutenant Sergey Safronov (leader and wingman respectively) were also ordered to take off. Previous experience clearly demonstrated, that the MiGs were unable to intercept a U-2. However one could always hope for a lucky chance - the American aircraft might lose altitude because of a malfunction or for some other reason.

Once in the air the MiGs were guided by ground control to the area were the American reconnaissance aircraft operated and their pilots soon sighted debris falling from the sky. These were the remains of the shot down U-2 but unfortunately nobody realized it at that time. All of a sudden an explosion enveloped the MiG flown by Senior Lieutenant Safronov. The pilot ejected but was mortally wounded and died under the parachute before he reached the ground. Capt. Aivazian, who flew the other MiG, had more luck for when the disaster struck, as he instinctively dove and brought himself out of danger.

Soviet MiG-19P interceptor; this is how Safronov’s mount looked like – except for the serial, which is unknown. (artwork by Tom Cooper)

A subsequent analysis revealed that aside Major Voronov's hesitations the main reason for this incident was poor coordination between various air defense assets. In addition it was claimed that the IFF transponders of the MiGs did not work. As a result the fighters showed on the radar screens of Major Shugayev's unit as "unidentified" instead of "friendly". This finding was contested by Capt. Aivazian who stated, that an IFF check was performed before take-off. Regardless of whose claim represents the truth and who was to blame one thing stood clear: the dramatic demise of the MiG was a spectacular and embarrassing case of fratricide. For this reason Senior Lieutenant Safronov's death was kept secret for many years. [12]

The aftermath

All together the SAM units involved fired no less but 14 surface to air missiles. When Major Voronov finally came to the conclusion that the foreign aircraft was shot down he reported the target's destruction and ordered one of the battalion's officers, Capt. Kazantsev, to organize an armed search party in order to apprehend its pilot. It soon turned out that the latter measure was not necessary.

The American pilot's parachute automatically opened at a preset altitude and Powers safely floated down to earth. Since he was literally in the middle of the Soviet Union hiding or offering resistance was futile. For this reason the American pilot let the locals take him into a car and drive to a kolkhoz (state owned farm). There he was kept in the office till the authorities arrived and picked him up. Powers was first flown by helicopter to the local airfield where he was briefly shown to Soviet pilots who attempted to intercept him (they had meanwhile landed) in order to give them a symbolic reward for their efforts and then taken aboard an airplane destined for Moscow.

As soon as there were no doubts about the downing of the intruder the news was reported to Khrushchev. A special commission was swiftly dispatched from the Soviet capital and arrived at the scene within hours. Its task was to investigate the events which took place as well as to gather material evidence especially the remains of the American aircraft. Despite being scattered on the ground over an area of several square kilometers [13] the wreckage of the U-2 was quickly located and collected. [14] Among the items recovered of particular interest to the Soviets was the photographic equipment and the rolls of film it contained. They were subsequently used as evidence in the trial of F. G. Powers. The Soviets extracted the maximum propaganda effect from the incident, getting among other things the Americans caught up in contradictory claims as to the nature of the aircraft's mission. In addition the event also had considerable impact on international relations effectively wrecking an East - West summit conference agreed on before. As for Powers he was charged with espionage, tried and sentenced to ten years imprisonment but was exchanged on 10 February 1962 for the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. [15]

Last but not least the whole affair caused important changes in the way the United States conducted its intelligence gathering operations. Manned reconnaissance flights involving deep penetration of Soviet airspace were halted while the deployment of reconnaissance satellites was speeded up. Novel – at that time of course – technology gave the ability to obtain virtually risk free information on activities within the Cold War adversary’s heartland. Having said this it should be kept in mind, that certain kinds of data could not be obtained by a space based system alone. For this reason US and allied aircraft continued to skirt the fringes of the “red empire”, sometimes even crossing the border which resulted in a number of incidents.


[1] Unfortunately available sources neither give the incident's exact date nor the name of the pilot involved.

[2] Just to illustrate this point it is sufficient to say that many Su-9 pilots did not fire even a single live air to air missile in training.

[3] The first instance of a successful surface to air missiles use in combat took place October 7, 1959 in China (for more details see The First SAM Kill article), but this was not known even to most Soviet military personnel. The first Soviet SAM kill occurred when an aerostat (either a spy blimp or a high altitude research balloon) floating at an altitude of 28 000 m was destroyed over the USSR in the vicinity of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) by a SA-75 on 16 November 1959.

[4] To the author's knowledge the cause of the crash was never sufficiently determined with various reasons being given ranging from fuel starvation to pilot error.

[5] May 1 is the International Workers' Day. In the Soviet Union it was a public holiday annually celebrated, among other things, with a massive parade in Moscow's Red Square.

[6] It appears the Americans were oblivious to the fact, that on 9 April the U-2 escaped only because the Soviet pilot flying the Su-9 interceptor which was pursuing it lacked experience in handling his aircraft at a high altitude.

[7] As a matter of fact the unit was officially termed a divizion but it should be pointed out that in Eastern military terminology an artillery (including rockets as well as missiles) "divizion" is in fact an artillery battalion. It is therefore appropriate to designate the units involved as battalions rather than "divizions". Let it be added that an artillery units of higher order than a brigade were also sometimes designated as artillery division. For this reason if an artillery battalion or a division is meant in a given situation should be derived from the context.

[8] The time was also given as 8:53 a.m. but it appears that this was when Major Voronov reported the target’s destruction and not when it was actually engaged.

[9] Initially only a single missile was fired because a safety lock prevented the launching of a salvo but soon more missiles were send skywards.

[10] Obviously it was the maneuver which spoiled Capt. Mientiukov's ramming attack and at the same time saved his life.

[11] Had Powers ejected a self-destruct mechanism (there were 3 lbs. of cyclonite) would have been activated automatically but since the American pilot bailed out it had to be switched manually. Powers failed to do that because he could not reach the switch and as a result the U-2 wreckage came down relatively intact.

[12] It was officially acknowledged only in the late 1980s or early 90s but the author could not established when exactly. What matters is that at the time when the U-2 incident took place it was not admitted by the Soviets. For example in the official announcement citing 21 servicemen who were decorated for their deeds in connection with the shooting down of the American aircraft Senior Lieutenant Safronov was listed without the word "posthumously" being added next to his name.

[13] The U-2 broke up in the air with not only the right wing but also the tail unit as well as other parts separating from the aircraft's main body as it was going down.

[14] The remains of the U-2 are on display at the Central Armed Forces Museum in Moscow. It is interesting to note, that once the USSR was no more Russia handed over some small fragments of the aircraft to the United States which can be seen at the National Cryptologic Museum in Fort George G. Meade, Maryland.

[15] Unfortunately Powers' story had no happy ending for he was killed in a helicopter crash on 1 August 1977 while flying for a Los Angeles TV station. Francis Gary Powers was buried with honors in the Arlington National Cemetery and was later posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

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