Most people over the age of, say, 40, will probably vaguely recognize the name "Francis Gary Powers," and will nod in recognition when reminded that he was the pilot of a secret U-2 spy plane that was shot down over the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960, sparking an international incident and causing tremendous embarrassment to the Eisenhower administration. It was announced today that he will be awarded posthumously the Silver Star for valor. You can read about it on CNN HERE.
But how many people know what happened to Powers after he was shot down?
After almost two years in captivity in the Soviet Union, in 1962 Powers was exchanged in Berlin for a very valuable Russian spy, KGB Colonel Vilyam Fisher, who had run a spy ring for years in New York as an 'illegal' calling himself Rudolf Abel. Powers received a distinctly chilly reception when he returned home. Not only had the price for his freedom been high, but he was also criticized for not having activated the secret spy plane's self-destruct charge before it crashed, and for not using the "suicide pill" that the CIA had issued him.
After his release, Powers worked for Lockheed from 1963-1970, until he was fired upon writing a memoir that brought unflattering publicity to the CIA. He then became an airborne traffic reporter for a Los Angeles radio station before taking a similar job at Los Angeles television station KNBC. In that capacity, Powers was covering brush fires in Santa Barbara in 1977 when his helicopter ran out of fuel and crashed several miles short of Burbank airport, killing him. A subsequent NTSB report blamed the crash on pilot error (poor fuel management). Francis Gary Powers was 47 years old. He had been freed from the Soviet Union only 15 years earlier.