In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the United States had near-perfect intelligence photos of the entire Soviet Union. In the days before satellite imagery, the Air Force had to go out and get this kind of intel the old-fashioned way, using a camera and flying over the target. This was inherently dangerous, especially over a place like the Soviet Union. The only defense aerial reconnaissance pilots had in these early days was the U-2 spy plane, an aircraft that flew so high it was out of range of most surface-to-air missiles.
American U-2 Pilot Francis Gary Powers in front of one of the infamous spy planes.
The CIA tasked pilot Francis Gary Powers for its 24th and most ambitious spy plane flyover yet. Rather than enter and exit through the same flight path, Powers would fly from high above Peshawar, Pakistan and on to Norway on a flight plan that would take him over possible nuclear missile and submarine sites in Tyuratam, Sverdlovsk, Kirov, Kotlas, Severodvinsk, and Murmansk.
Along the way, Powers faced intercept attempts from MiG-19 and Su-9 fighters, but of course, the U-2 was flying much too high for just any fighter to intercept. The fighters were even ordered to ram Powers if necessary. After flying over the Chelyabinsk-65 plutonium production facility, Powers’ U-2 came under heavy fire from S-75 Dvina surface-to-air missile batteries near Kosulino in the Ural Mountains. This is where the U-2 was brought down. Historical reports agree a missile from the S-75 exploded behind Powers’ plane and took it down. But one Russian pilot disagrees.
He was there, too, he says.
Soviet Su-9 Fishpot fighters.
Soviet Air Force Captain Igor Mentyukov was flying an intercepting Su-9 “Fishpot” fighter in the skies over the Urals that day. Mentyukov says one Su-9 attempted to ram the U-2 but missed due to the differences in speed between the two aircraft. He also says the explosions from the S-75 missile battery would have completely annihilated Powers’ aircraft and that it couldn’t possibly have taken a hit at 70,000 feet and still been recreated on the ground. No, Mentyukov says it was the slipstream from his Su-9 that brought Powers down, causing the U-2 to break apart.
Powers was able to eject and, surviving the 70,000-foot fall, opted not to use the poison the CIA gave him to use in case of capture. Eventually, the U.S. was forced to acknowledge Powers and his mission. After spending nearly two years in a Soviet prison, he was traded for Soviet spy KGB Colonel William Fisher, who went by the alias Rudolf Abel.