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Bridge of Spies: An Opportunity to Bust Myths about the U-2 and the Capture of Gary Powers

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I recently attended a screening of Bridge of Spies, a new movie directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks. Purportedly, Bridge of Spies was inspired by events surrounding the 1962 exchange of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers and graduate student Frederick Pryor for Soviet spy Rudolph Abel. The movie event was sponsored by Virginia’s Cold War Museum which was co-founded by Francis Gary Powers, Jr., who was also in attendance and served on a Q&A panel after the film.

The U-2 was designed in 1954 by Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, who led Lockheed’s Skunk Works design team. Its radical design was based on the fuselage of the F-104 Starfighter, but incorporated a high-aspect-ratio sailplane wing, making it basically a glider with a jet engine. Image: U.S. Air Force

I didn’t expect a documentary, but as someone who is a stickler for historical accuracy and someone especially familiar with this story, the movie was a disappointment. A quick survey of the missteps taken in the production of this film—its “dramatic license” or “artistic liberties” taken, if you will—point to a larger difficulty in promoting accurate historical narratives in public consciousness. While this movie is billed as a docudrama and the words “inspired by true events” roll with the opening credits, many movie-goers will leave the theater believing that the narrative they just watched was an accurate historical representation. This is in large part due to the use of the real names of historical figures, and quasi-accurate imaginings of actual circumstances.

I am not here to bash the film, nor do I need to point out every inaccuracy therein. Instead, I’d like to take this opportunity to correct a few misconceptions about the U-2 and the Gary Powers incident that I encounter with stunning frequency, and which were further propagated in Bridge of Spies.

MYTH #1: “YOU CANNOT BE CAPTURED”

No one in the U-2 program was told to commit suicide. Yes, at the beginning of the program, the CIA dispensed cyanide pills to U-2 pilots. These were intended for use only if the pilot were so gravely injured that he favored euthanasia. In one scene from the movie, an instructor explains to his pilots the use of a needle that you can scratch yourself with to cause death (via shellfish toxin). Indeed one of these pins was created, but only one, because if the occasion ever came where a pilot would want to use such a device, the U-2 Soviet overflight program would be concluded. I understand that the idea of military-mandated suicide adds to dramatic intrigue, which is probably why it’s the most persistent myth I’ve encountered with regard to the U-2 program, but it’s simply not true.

MYTH #2: THE U-2 WAS STEALTHY.

In the later 1960s, some U-2s were outfitted with ineffective antiradar attachments and nicknamed “dirty birds,” but the U-2 was not initially envisioned as a stealthy aircraft. From the very first overflight, the Soviet Union could track the U-2 on radar. The asset of the U-2 was not stealthiness, but its high-altitude capability. In fact, its large wingspan surface area made it rather easy to detect. The Soviets just didn’t want to loudly admit that there was a plane flying in Soviet airspace that they couldn’t hit with a surface-to-air missile (SAM) and that flew above the range of interception by contemporary MiG aircraft. Further, the CIA director at the time, Allen Dulles, and others affiliated with the U-2 program knew that it was only a matter of time before a MiG could fly high enough to intercept (or collide with) a U-2 or a SAM attack would bring one down. So while the USSR did call for an end to overflights, their primary strategy was to wait until they had developed their own air defense systems which could shoot down the U-2. Which they did. Kinda. Which leads to our next myth.

Just because the U-2 is often shown covered in a layer of black paint does not mean that it’s a stealthy aircraft. Image: NASA 340043main_E-5442

MYTH #3: POWERS’ PLANE WAS HIT, AND ON HIS FIRST FLIGHT, NO LESS.

A SAM exploded somewhere to rear of Powers’ U-2; it did not make contact. Now, if a SAM explodes within 200 feet of most aircraft, the amount of proximate explosive residue will serve just about as effectively as a direct hit. But in fact, it is more likely that a nearby Soviet MiG-19 was what drew the SAM fire, as that plane was hit directly and its pilot killed. The U-2, to reiterate, was not hit. Yet this myth persists and has led to the propagation of yet another myth. The film makes a particularly egregious error in asserting that Powers was shot down during his first flight, insinuating that his fall was due to pilot error. Nothing could be further from the truth; they never would have let a rookie pilot fly this mission. Francis Gary Powers was selected because he was the most experienced U-2 pilot in the program; he had flown 27 missions, including over the USSR and China, and had logged more than 500 flight hours in the U-2. He was shot down completing Operation Grand Slam, what would have been the first full traversal of the Soviet mainland, charting a path from Pakistan to Norway. This was an incredibly risky mission because during such a long flight, improved Soviet air defenses would have more time to track and shoot down a plane. The date of the flight, May 1, 1961, May Day, was also unfortunate. Soviet air operations were largely suspended in favor of celebration and any aberrant aircraft would be easily detected on radar.

MYTH #4: THE U-2 COULD SELF-DESTRUCT.

If a U-2 fell, its debris would be found. There was a small mechanism onboard which could destroy the camera, but to carry a device that would blow up the entire plane in the event of a bailout would have added excessive weight to the craft and would have limited its altitude. Every measure was taken to limit the weight of the aircraft so that it could climb higher. For example, all of the U-2s were initially unpainted so as to avoid weight that would sacrifice altitude, although by the time of Powers’ flight the U-2 was painted black on top and blue on bottom. This being the case, the potential recovery of plane wreckage was a foregone conclusion since the very beginning of the program. And this is important because it underscores the falsity of a final myth.

A rug stiched by Powers, his diary, and other personal effects are on display in the Looking at Earth exhibition in Washington, DC. Attention has tended to center on this particular failed flight, rather than on the scores of successful U-2 missions completed during the last 50 years. Images: National Air and Space Museum

MYTH #5: POWERS WAS TORTURED FOR HIS SECRETS or POWERS HAD SECRETS.

In the film, aboard the flight returning him to the United States, Powers asserts, “I gave ‘em nothing. I gave ‘em nothing.” Well, that was because he didn’t have anything to give. This is why there wasn’t any suicide doctrine; if a plane were recovered, it’d tell far more than the pilot ever knew about its construction or missions. Powers’ plane was found largely intact and his belongings were also recovered, including his identification and “survival kit” goods such as gold watches to barter if downed in enemy territory. Powers, according to testimony provided in the diary he kept while imprisoned, was treated very well by Soviet guards and spent most of his days cross stitching rugs, his primary concern being speculations that his wife back home was having an affair. Powers probably suffered more greatly when treated as persona non grata back in the United States, despite official acceptance of his debriefing.

I’ll stop here with the myth-busting. My final thought, however, is that the exceptional service record of the U-2, one that has lasted more than 50 years, is far more interesting than any one incident. We should move away from depictions of this aircraft that focus on a narrow time period within the U-2’s already brief stint with the CIA. Our U-2C, for example, was operated by the CIA from a number of bases, but also went on loan to the Air Force and served in Vietnam and, later under Air Force ownership, operated from British bases in the Middle East, during which time it acquired its camouflage paint scheme. The Gary Powers artifacts that are currently on display below our U-2C only tell one story. The long, distinguished, varied career of this unique bird has even more stories to tell.

Layne Karafantis is a curator in the Aeronautics Department at the National Air and Space Museum

 

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20 thoughts on “Bridge of Spies: An Opportunity to Bust Myths about the U-2 and the Capture of Gary Powers

  1. If a rocket didn’t hit the plane or explode near the rear of the U-2, which I believe is what you’re saying, can you explain what the likely explanations are for how the plane was brought down?
    Thanks
    Gerru

  2. Hi Gerry, Our curator points out that a SAM did explode near the rear of the U-2. While it was not a direct hit, it was enough to bring the plane down. I hope this answers your question!

  3. Saw the “Bridge of Spies” and appreciate this article about the U-2, a plane I’ve always admired. I also welcomed the reality check on another Hollywood attempt. Any one out there knew the CIA agents involved in the exchange? Were they really as impersonal and uncaring (not to mention rude) as the movie portrays? Any how, I wrote an article about the U-2 and would like to share.

    http://osintdaily.blogspot.com/2013/12/foxyform-functiond-t-var-g-d.html

  4. 1. It was confirmed that the SAM exploded close enough behind the U2 to knock off its tail section.
    2. The ECM black-box installed in the tail acted as a homing beam for the new SAMs developed to target U2s. Homing on the black-box ECM frequency 3 out of 4 U2s were hit over China. The 4th U2 pilot had forgotten to turn on his ECM transmitter, and his plane was not hit.
    3. After his release Powers worked for 8 years as a test flight engineer for Skunk Works.
    4. The Air Force awarded Powers the highest AF medal, a Distinguished Flying Cross.
    5. Powers is an American Hero.

  5. The self-important criticisms of the film Bridge of Spies are likely interesting to nerds, but not to general audiences Steven Spielberg seeks with his films.

    The problem was his focus on Jim Donovan, the attorney coerced into defending Rudolph Abel, the Soviet spy the US traded for the return of Francis Gary Powers – and an American graduate student (who pops up un-introduced in the last quarter of the film).

    To Spielberg, the dramatic U-2 story is only an opportunity to show off cinematic skills and special effects. Naturally, the details of the capture of Powers and the U-2 were secondary to the story of the human interest heart strings pulled by lawyer Donovan’s conflict over defending a spy.

    His plea to set aside the death penalty, after Abel’s conviction, with the fanciful plot twist that Donovan successfully convincied the judge in the case, you never know when we might want to trade Abel sometime in the future, (The saving dialogue of this contrivance by Spielberg, and the Coen brothers, screen writers for the film, was Donovan stating outright: after all we executed the Rosenbergs for espionage – a statement the Hollywood leftists think of as treacherous betrayal to the myth of their innocence – finally dislodged by the Venona Files, declassified in 1995 proving their guilt.

    This is hard to say since I admire the CIA and they approve of my Raleigh Spy Conference, but the film mysteriously omitted the mistake that CIA’s Richard Bissell made convincing President Eisenhower that one more flyover before the upcoming super power summit to ease Cold War tensions would not be affected,

    Bissell told Ike a U-2 pilot could not be shot down at altitude (70 60 75 thousand feet) and should the impossible happen, the pilots were patriotic and could be trusted to do their duty – i.e., take the suicide poison supplied them. To cover up the humiliation of the incident, the CIA blamed Powers, resulting in taking measures to stain his – as it turned out when his file was made public well after his death – spotless demeanor.

    That’s a story…..

  6. Some additional clarification is needed. My father’s U-2 plane was shot down by a near miss of one of eight Soviet SA-2 missile that was fired at his plane. he was at his assigned altitude of 70,500 feet over the city of Sverdlovsk when he was shot down. There was no flame out, there was no sabotage, there was no pilot error. The SA-2 explode below and to the right of the tail section which caused structural failure.

  7. Please note under Myth#3 the date should be May 1, 1960. Later that week Kruschev declined to meet in a summit with Eisenhower over the downing and capture of Gary Powers.

    Also note that Mr. Powers worked as a helicopter traffic reporter for a Los Angeles station and died in a crash while reporting.

  8. During my time (1955- 58) in the Air Force flying B-47’s, we aborted to Plattsburg AFB one time after missing our refueling with KC-97’s. We were met by security ‘folks’ after landing at Plattsburgh AFB…taken to a ’shack’ while our aircraft was being refueled…. then taken back to our B-47 to continue our flight to Fairford, England…to ’stand’ SAC Alert during the ‘Reflex’ program. As we were climbing back in our aircraft at Plattsberg we saw a ‘black bird’ take-off dropping the ‘outrigger stuff’ after take-off. Later we found out that the aircraft taking off was a U-2.

  9. Allow me to say as both an historian who strives to get things as close to exactly right as I can in my aviation history books, and someone who spent 25 years as a screenwriter in Hollywood that Thou Dost Protest Too Much on all points but one. Yes, it would have been good to portray Powers as an experienced pilot and provide a more accurate view of how he was treated by the Soviets.

    The rest of that stuff, while it fascinates Aspergian “little perfessers” like we here (I include me and you on that list), would simply take too long to explain (and if you don’t explain it to the audience they won’t get it, I assure you), and would have wrecked the movie.

    The movie isn’t about shooting down the U-2. It’s about the relationship of Rudolf Abel and James Donovan, about Donovan’s commitment (something to be applauded) to the rule of law and having America live up to being what we claim to be about. It’s about the feelings of that time. I don’t know if you were around then; I was, and they catch “the spirit of the times” as I recall them very well indeed.

    Yeah, I would have liked all that stuff, but I would have been the only person in the theater at any showing the whole weekend who would have known and appreciated all that. For the rest of the popcorn eaters to have “gotten it” would have required explanation, and as a screenwriter I will tell you that you do not have 20 seconds to waste on “explanations” in a movie and if you succumb to that you have wrecked the movie. We book writers can put a whole chapter in there if we want about that and the readers will likely appreciate it. They’re two different mediums.

    No put-down, but this reminds me very much of the friend who hated “The Memphis Belle” when it came out in 1990 because there was a rubber shortage in England during the war and thus there would have been no balloons to drop from the ceiling of the hangar at the end of the “party scene.” I’m sorry, but I laughed in his face at that.

    But please do keep up your excellent work about educating the public about aviation and history. It’s an uphill slog and we need all the participants we can find.

    Best regards —

  10. After FGP was released by the russians and retired from active duty, he flew a Cessna 172 as a skywatch pilot for a radio station in the Los Angeles area. I was fortunate as a teenager to get to fly with him on one sortie one afternoon: He handled all forms of ATC [approach, departure & towers] deftly as he made his traffic reports [“Traffic is backed up on the 405 from El Toro to Granada Hills.”]. As we were coming back to Van Nuys airport, he looked over at me and with a grin said “Kid, if anyone asks you, we were doing a steep turn.” He did the most elegant aileron roll all at one positive ‘G’. A few years later I became a pilot and have flown – and taught – air combat and aerobatics; but I’ll always remember my first aileron roll with a true aviator. RIP.

  11. About 10 years ago in Moscow I visited the Armed Forces Museum. While walking through I noticed what looked like a large pile of junk in the corner of one of the rooms. On closer inspection I read the sign, in English, over the “junk” which noted that it was the remains of FGP’s U-2. I assume is still there.

    Three years ago I visited the Military Museum in Beijing, which is located on T Square. Sadly, the museum was closed, but outside was a large collection of military hardware of all kinds that one could inspect. Many items were of US origin, some very old (pre-Korean War). One item was a “reconstructed,” composite of a U-2, which the sign said was made up from 4 that were shot down over China, flown by pilots from Taiwan. I had read that the Taiwanese flew a number of spy flights over China for the CIA (using various aircraft), and a number were lost/shot down. I have wondered if these “Taiwanese” U-2s were shot down before that of FGP?? Does anyone know?

  12. I guess the producers and Steven Spielberg wanted a more exciting story of Gary Powers so they deleted the knitting and gave the public what the public wanted!

  13. One more myth to bust…that rug is cross-stitched, not knitted 😉

    Knitting doesn’t use thread to make x’s on existing fabric, cross-stitching does.

  14. Thank you for your note! We’ve updated this blog post to reflect your comment.

  15. I was a platoon leader with the 3rd Battle Group 6th Infantry stationed in Berlin at the time of this exchange. My platoon was assigned a position at the American Sector end of the bridge in West Berlin just to the right side of the bridge’s entrance. The exchange took place approx 9 a.m. Saturday morning and it was not dark like the movie portrays. Also I was not aware of any snipers which if they did exist would have been most likely provided by my platoon. I realize this occurred in February, however, I do not remember it being that snowy or cold, however, I was a young buck at the time. Overall the movie was interesting.

  16. Gentle readers,

    Thank you for all of your comments! This was by no means an attempt to tell the life story of Gary Powers or share every detail of the overflight, nor was I suggesting that a different movie should have been made. As an educator, I used this opportunity to correct a few common misconceptions about the U-2 that were depicted in the movie, ones which many people hold true. No more, no less.

    You’ve done a nice job adding additional information! Thanks again for your attention and interest.

  17. Another myth worth mentioning:

    The end titles say that the Soviets never acknowledged Abel as a spy. On the contrary, Abel’s figure was frequently used as an example of a very successful spy, being able to stay undetected for 8 years in the United States and maintain his silence after being captured. Western journalists were invited to attend Abel’s funeral. His gravestone is marked with the KGB crest. Abel’s also frequently gave public speeches about the importance of intelligence work. Finally, Abel is portrayed on a series of Soviet stamps dedicated to “Soviet Intelligence officers” together with other well known agents such as Kim Philby and K.T. Molody.

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