MOSCOW – MOSCOW (AP) — Fifty years ago Saturday, U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down while flying a U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union, a dramatic episode of the Cold War that pushed the rival superpowers closer to confrontation.
Now his son has come to Moscow on a mission of his own: By telling his late father's story, he hopes to help preserve Cold War history and prevent future generations of Russians and Americans from ever again facing the threat of nuclear war.
On May 1, 1960, Powers was in the cockpit of the world's highest-flying plane, concentrated on keeping his course steady to film Soviet military bases far below, when he saw an orange flash all around him. His plane had been hit by a Soviet surface-to-air missile. He parachuted to safety but was quickly captured.
In the months before Powers' plane was downed, Moscow and Washington had been moving cautiously toward a thaw. The U-2 incident shattered these efforts.
It also humiliated U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had to admit that an initial claim by his administration that the plane was on a weather mission was a lie.
"In order to understand the world today you must understand how we got here and we got here through the Cold War," the pilot's 44-year-old son, Francis Gary Powers Jr., said Friday.
"And then we have to understand how this period of time developed and expanded and how close we came to nuclear war, but through diplomacy and some luck we were able to avert it during the Cuban Missile Crisis" of 1962.
The younger Powers joined Russian military historians in speaking to soldiers and cadets at the Central Armed Forces Museum in Moscow, where the charred wreckage of his father's U-2 spy plane is on display. He had traveled to Russia twice in the 1990s, but this was his first time speaking publicly.
His visit comes as Washington and Moscow try to push the reset button to improve ties, recently signing a deal on reducing their nuclear arsenals.
Powers Jr. has dedicated his professional life to preserving Cold War history. His own museum, affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution and essentially a traveling exhibit since he founded it in 1996, has just found its first permanent home on a former Army communications base outside Washington. He also runs spy tours of the U.S. capital.
His father's fateful mission was the 24th overflight of the Soviet Union in a highly secretive CIA program that was considered vital for national security at a time before spy satellites.
Among many other Soviet secrets, the previous flights had revealed that Soviet long-range bomber and intercontinental nuclear missile programs were not as advanced as feared, allowing the U.S. to avoid an immediate costly buildup of its own forces.
After nearly four years of unsuccessful Soviet attempts to intercept the U-2s flying at about 70,000 feet (over 21,000 meters), the CIA grew confident of the plane's immunity to Soviet defenses. But the Soviets worked desperately to develop higher-flying fighter jets and a powerful new air defense missile.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev received reports about another U.S. spy plane intrusion as he was preparing to attend a Red Square parade on May Day, one of the main Soviet holidays. His son, Sergei, then a young missile designer, told the Associated Press that he discussed this with his father that morning.
"I asked him: Will they shoot it down this time?" the younger Khrushchev recalled. "And he said: What kind of question is that? They will if they don't let the chance slip by."
Khrushchev was standing on Lenin's mausoleum with other Soviet officials watching the parade when the Soviet air defense chief, Marshal Sergei Biryuzov, walked purposefully along the stands, climbed up the stairs and whispered the news about downing the plane into his ear.
When Powers' plane went missing over the Soviet Union and no statements came immediately from the Kremlin, the CIA assumed that neither the pilot nor the spying equipment had survived. On May 3, the U.S. claimed that a high-altitude weather plane had gone missing on a flight over Turkey.
Khrushchev kept a poker face, announcing first that a U.S. spy plane had been downed without saying a word about its pilot. The U.S. stubbornly stuck to its cover story until the Soviet leader announced May 7 that the pilot had been caught and had confessed to spying.
"The Americans, the U.S., for the first time were caught red-handed in espionage activities," Powers Jr. said.
For Khrushchev, the incident provided a long-sought opportunity to punish the United States.
"My father perceived the U-2 flights as not only damaging national security, but even more important as a sign of condescension, a demonstration by the Americans that they could do whatever they want and fly where they liked without consequences," Sergei Khrushchev said in a recent telephone interview. "He decided to take revenge and said: Let's wait a bit and see what the Americans will do."
The scandal led to the collapse of a peace summit in Paris scheduled for mid-May and also ruined hopes for a quick agreement on a nuclear test ban.
"The hawks won, and tensions heightened," said Sergei Khrushchev, now a senior fellow at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies.
After months of KGB interrogation, Powers was sentenced to 10 years in prison in August 1960. But he was exchanged for KGB spy Col. Rudolph Abel on Feb. 10, 1962.
Back from Soviet captivity, Powers went through debriefings by CIA officers unwilling to believe that his plane had been shot down by a Soviet missile. Some thought Powers had inadvertently descended to a lower altitude, allowing the Soviets to intercept him.
"The American military, the American government just couldn't bring themselves to believe that the Soviets were more advanced than they may have thought," the younger Powers said.
Powers was eventually exonerated. He worked as a test pilot for Lockheed until 1970, then flew a light plane as a traffic reporter and later worked as a pilot for a Los Angeles television station. He died when his helicopter crashed on Aug. 1, 1977.
After the Soviet collapse, Soviet military veterans unveiled previously hidden details of the incident.
It became known that the Soviets accidentally shot down one of their own fighter planes that had been scrambled to intercept Powers' aircraft. Its pilot was killed.
When Powers' plane was still in the air, another Soviet fighter pilot was ordered to intercept the U-2 in a factory-fresh Su-9 fighter carrying no weapons. The pilot was told to ram the American plane at the cost of his own life, but he couldn't locate Powers and landed safely.
Powers Jr. remembered bugging his father with questions on how high he was flying on May 1, 1960: "He got so tired of me asking this question that he finally looked at me one day and said: Gary, I wasn't flying high enough."
On the Web: Francis Gary Powers Jr.'s Cold War Museum: www.coldwar.org