Gary Powers entered the United States Air Force in 1950 and was assisgned to the 468th Strategic Fighter Squadron stationed at Turner Air Force Base in Georgia. His assignment was F-84 Thunderjet pilot; however, he did not become involved in the Korean War action. He was transferred to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in recognition of his skills as a pilot of single engine jets and became involved in high-altitude reconnaissance.
The U-2 could fly at more than 70,000 feet, which put it above the range of most Soviet anti-aircraft missiles at that time. The U-2
was equipped with a state-of-the-art camera designed to take high-resolution photos from the edge of the stratosphere over hostile countries
Powers was shot down while flying near Sverdlosk, located east of the Ural Mountains in what was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, on May 1, 1960. He had been enroute to Mayak, an industrial development area that included neclear weapons manufacturing facilities, southeast of Sverdlosk.
Powers was unable to activate systems to destroy the U-2 and its equipment; he was captured by the Soviets and the jet was recovered with minimal damage. The United States first tried to explain that the jet was off-course from the pilot's mission to collect weather information in the area of the Turkey-Soviet Union border, but was forced to admit the actual nature of the flight after Powers confessed and it became known that the jet had been recovered.
Powers was tried on charges of espionage in the Soviet Union, found guilty and sentenced to ten years in prison. He served approximately two years before being returned to the United States in 1962 as part of a "spy swap."
Powers was questioned extensively about the incident upon returning to the United States and was widely criticized for failing to destroy the jet and its evidence of covert activities. A report issued by the Senate Armed Services Select Committee after he appeared before that group, however, concluded
that Powers had followed orders, had not divulged any critical information to the Soviets, and had conducted himself “as a fine young man under dangerous circumstances.”
Powers was a test pilot for Lockheed 1963-1970. He then became an employee of a Los Angeles television station, using the station's helicopter to serve as an aerial reporter. He was killed when his helicopter crashed on August 1, 1977, as he was returning from covering fires in rural California.
In years since his death, Powers has been posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the National Defense Service Medal, and the Prisoner of War Medal. He has also been awarded the CIA Director's Medal.