On August 1, 1977, a Bell 206 news helicopter piloted by Francis Gary Powers ran out of fuel and crashed into a field near Encino, California, killing Powers and the aircraft's only passenger, cameraman George Spears.
Francis Gary Powers (August 17, 1929 – August 1, 1977) was an American pilot whose Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) U-2 spy plane was shot down while flying a reconnaissance mission in Soviet Union airspace, causing the 1960 U-2 incident.
The Bell 206 JetRanger was operating under Federal Aviation Regulation Part 91 on a noncommercial flight and departed Hollywood Burbank Airport (now Bob Hope) in Burbank on the morning of August 1, 1977, to provide aerial coverage and record video after a wildfire in Santa Barbara, 86 nautical miles (160 km; 100 mi) to the west. At approximately 12:25 pm PDT, Powers contacted KNBC and stated he had completed gathering footage, was returning to Burbank, and believed he had enough fuel for the return trip. A few minutes later, Powers radioed the control tower at Van Nuys Airport requesting clearance to land there due to low fuel; permission was granted, but the aircraft failed to arrive.
The helicopter was now at 800 feet (240 m) above ground level (AGL) and almost out of fuel. Realizing he would not make the airport, Powers began searching for a spot to land in the heavily built-up area. At 12:35 pm, Powers pointed the aircraft towards the Sepulveda Dam Recreational Area and prepared to auto-rotate down to an open area. The Bell 206 has superior autorotation characteristics, but as he descended, Powers saw a group of teenagers playing on a baseball diamond and made an abrupt maneuver to avoid them. Powers' last radio transmission was "TV four just lost -.” At approximately 50 feet (15 m) AGL, the tail rotor fell off and Powers was ejected from the helicopter. At 12:36 pm, the aircraft hit the ground about 50 yards (45 m) from where the boys were playing, gouged a trench twenty feet (6 m) long in the earth, and flipped upside-down. Powers and Spears were both killed, but nobody on the ground was hurt.
The helicopter involved in the accident was a Bell 206B JetRanger serial number 433 built in 1969.
It was powered by a single Allison model 250-C20B turboshaft engine, rated at 420 shaft horsepower. The aircraft Certificate Issue Date was September 19, 1974, and it had been modified with the addition of an externally mounted 360-degree video camera and video recording equipment. Registered as N4TV, it was commonly referred to as the "Telecopter."
The helicopter pilot was 47-year-old Francis Gary Powers, who began flying the JetRanger when he joined KNBC in November 1976. Best known for piloting and ill-fated reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union in 1960, Powers held a valid commercial pilot's license and was instrument rated with 7,193 total flight hours, including 381 in the Bell 206.
Aftermath and investigation
The half-million dollar Telecopter was completely destroyed during the crash. When firefighters arrived they removed the helicopter's smoking battery from the fuselage for safety. The wreckage was moved to the Wayne Airframe Aviation Company in Van Nuys. Found inside the helicopter was the video recorder and four video cassettes. The aircraft was not equipped with a flight data recorder (FDR) or a cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and investigators had hoped the tapes might have clues to the reason for the crash but apparently the recorder was not operating at the time of the incident.
During the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation, no evidence of failure or malfunction of the aircraft or any of its systems prior to the crash was found. Further examination of the engine found approximately five fluid ounces of jet fuel in the entire fuel system and that the engine had flamed out due to fuel starvation. The final report from the NTSB lists the probable causes as improper in-flight decisions and mismanagement of fuel by the pilot in command which led to fuel exhaustion. Also listed was improper operation of flight controls during the power-off autorotation.
According to one report, the helicopter's fuel gauge had been reported faulty by Powers. The improperly operating fuel gauge would indicate empty when the fuel tank actually contained enough fuel for 30 minutes flying time. It has been alleged the gauge was repaired to function correctly without Powers being notified. This is a possible explanation why an experienced pilot such as Powers could have run out of fuel.
"Copter crash kills Powers". Spokesman-Review. (Spokane, Washington). Associated Press. August 2, 1977. p. 1.
"Former U2 pilot may have run out of gas in fatal crash". Eugene Register-Guard. (Oregon). wire services. August 2, 1977. p. 3A.
"Ex-spy-pilot Gary Powers dies in crash". Milwaukee Sentinel. UPI. August 2, 1977. p. 1, part 1.
"The Francis Gary Powers Helo Crash". check-six.com. Check-Six. 2002. Retrieved December 27, 2015.
"Aircraft - Bell 206B-3 JetRanger". heliflightofmichigan.com. Heliflight. Retrieved December 29, 2015.
"The 1962 Spy Exchange of Powers for Abel". garypowers.org. World Press. Archived from the original on May 19, 2014. Retrieved February 22, 2017.
FAA. "FAA REGISTRY". faa.gov. FAA. Retrieved December 27, 2015.
"NTSB Identification: LAX77FA060". ntsb.gov. NTSB. Retrieved December 25, 2015.
Francis Gary Powers (August 17, 1929 – August 1, 1977) was an American pilot whose Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) U-2 spy plane was shot down while flying a reconnaissance mission in Soviet Union airspace, causing the 1960 U-2 incident.
He later worked as a helicopter pilot for KNBC and died in a 1977 helicopter crash.
Early life and education
Powers was born August 17, 1929, in Jenkins, Kentucky, the son of Oliver Winfield Powers (1904–1970), a coal miner, and his wife Ida Melinda Powers (née Ford; 1905–1991). His family eventually moved to Pound, Virginia, just across the state border. He was the second born and only male of six children.
His family lived in a mining town, and because of the hardships associated with the life in such a town, his father wanted Powers to become a doctor. He hoped his son would achieve the higher earnings of such a profession and felt the life of a doctor would involve less hardship than any job in his hometown.
Education and service
Graduating with a bachelor's degree from Milligan College in Tennessee in June 1950, he enlisted in the United States Air Force in October. He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in December 1952 after completing his advanced training with USAF Pilot Training Class 52-H at Williams Air Force Base, Arizona. Powers was then assigned to the 468th Strategic Fighter Squadron at Turner Air Force Base, Georgia, as an F-84 Thunderjet pilot.
He married Barbara Gay Moore in Newnan, Georgia, on April 2, 1955.
In January 1956 he was recruited by the CIA. In May 1956 he began U-2 training at Watertown Strip, Nevada. His training was complete by August 1956 and his unit, the Second Weather Observational Squadron (Provisional) or Detachment 10-10, was deployed to Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. By 1960, Powers was already a veteran of many covert aerial reconnaissance missions.:6–9,14–15,24,50–51,55–56,95
The U-2 incident
Powers was discharged from the Air Force in 1956 with the rank of captain. He then joined the CIA's U-2 program at the civilian grade of GS-12. U-2 pilots flew espionage missions at altitudes of 70,000 feet (21 km), supposedly above the reach of Soviet air defenses. The U-2 was equipped with a state-of-the-art camera designed to take high-resolution photos from the stratosphere over hostile countries, including the Soviet Union. U-2 missions systematically photographed military installations and other important sites.:41
The primary mission of the U-2s was overflying the Soviet Union. Soviet intelligence had been aware of encroaching U-2 flights at least since 1958 if not sooner:47,59 but lacked effective countermeasures until 1960. On May 1, 1960, Powers's U-2A, 56-6693, departed from a military airbase in Peshawar, Pakistan,:53 with support from the U.S. Air Station at Badaber (Peshawar Air Station). This was to be the first attempt "to fly all the way across the Soviet Union...but it was considered worth the gamble. The planned route would take us deeper into Russia than we had ever gone, while traversing important targets never before photographed.":53–54
Powers was shot down by an S-75 Dvina (SA-2 Guideline) surface-to-air missile over Sverdlovsk. A total of 14 Dvinas were launched, one of which hit a MiG-19 jet fighter which was sent to intercept the U-2 but could not reach a high enough altitude. Its pilot, Sergei Safronov, ejected but died of his injuries. Another Soviet aircraft, a newly manufactured Su-9 on a transit flight, also attempted to intercept Powers's U-2. The unarmed Su-9 was directed to ram the U-2, but missed because of the large differences in speed (the Su-9 flew above Mach 1.1, while the U-2 flew at approximately Mach 0.6).
As Powers flew near Kosulino in the Ural Region, three S-75 Dvinas were launched at his U-2, with the first one hitting the aircraft. "What was left of the plane began spinning, only upside down, the nose pointing upward toward the sky, the tail down toward the ground." Powers was unable to activate the plane's self-destruct mechanism before he was thrown out of the plane after releasing the canopy and his seat belt. While descending under his parachute, Powers had time to scatter his escape map, and rid himself of part of his suicide device, a silver dollar coin suspended around his neck containing a poison-laced injection pin, though he kept the poison pin. "Yet I was still hopeful of escape." He hit the ground hard, was immediately captured, and taken to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow.:61–63,67–71,76 Powers did note a second chute after landing on the ground, "some distance away and very high, a lone red and white parachute.":69,148–149,274,278:159–160
When the U.S. government learned of Powers's disappearance over the Soviet Union, they issued a cover statement claiming a "weather plane" had strayed off course after its pilot had "difficulties with his oxygen equipment." What CIA officials did not realize was that the plane crashed almost fully intact, and the Soviets recovered its equipment. Powers was interrogated extensively by the KGB for months before he made a confession and a public apology for his part in espionage.
Compromised by newspaper reports
Powers tried to limit the information he shared with the KGB to that which could be determined from the remains of his plane's wreckage. He was hampered by information appearing in the western press. A KGB major stated "there's no reason for you to withhold information. We'll find it out anyway. Your Press will give it to us." However, he limited his divulging of CIA contacts to one individual, with a pseudonym of "Collins." At the same time, he repeatedly stated the maximum altitude for the U-2 was 68,000 feet (21 km), significantly lower than its actual flight ceiling.:xii,78,91,128,135,137,139,145,165–166,256
The incident set back talks between Khrushchev and Eisenhower. Powers's interrogations ended on June 30, and his solitary confinement ended on July 9. On August 17, 1960, his trial began for espionage before the military division of the Supreme Court of the USSR. Lieutenant General Borisoglebsky, Major General Vorobyev, and Major General Zakharov presided. Roman Rudenko acted as prosecutor in his capacity of Procurator General of the Soviet Union. Mikhail I. Grinev served as Powers's defense counsel. In attendance were his parents and sister, and his wife Barbara and her mother. His father brought along his attorney Carl McAfee, while the CIA provided two additional attorneys.:110,114,119,120,142–143,148,157–158,162,188,220
On August 19, 1960, Powers was convicted of espionage, "a grave crime covered by Article 2 of the Soviet Union's law 'On Criminality Responsibility for State Crimes.'" His sentence consisted of 10 years' confinement, three of which were to be in a prison, with the remainder in a labor camp. The US Embassy "News Bulletin" stated, according to Powers, "as far as the government was concerned, I had acted in accordance with the instructions given me and would receive my full salary while imprisoned.":157–161
He was held in Vladimir Central Prison, about 150 miles (240 km) east of Moscow, in building number 2 from September 9, 1960 until February 8, 1962. His cellmate was Zigurd Kruminsh (Zigurds Krūmiņš), a Latvian political prisoner. Powers kept a diary and a journal while confined. Additionally he took up carpet weaving from his cellmate to pass the time. He could send and receive a limited number of letters from his family. The prison now contains a small museum with an exhibit on Powers, who allegedly developed a good rapport with Russian prisoners there. Some pieces of the plane and Powers's uniform are on display at the Monino Airbase museum near Moscow.
On February 10, 1962, Powers was exchanged, along with U.S. student Frederic Pryor, in a well-publicized spy swap at the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin. The exchange was for Soviet KGB Colonel William Fisher, known as "Rudolf Abel," who had been caught by the FBI and tried and jailed for espionage. Powers credited his father with the swap idea. When released, Powers's total time in captivity was 1 year, 9 months, and 10 days.:237–240
In 2010, CIA documents were released indicating that U.S. officials did not believe Powers's account of the incident at the time, because it was contradicted by a classified National Security Agency (NSA) report which alleged that the U-2 had descended from 65,000 to 34,000 feet (20 to 10 km) before changing course and disappearing from radar. However, newly released declassified CIA documents confirm the accuracy of Powers's report. The NSA report remains classified.
Powers initially received a cold reception on his return home. He was criticized for not activating his aircraft's self-destruct charge to destroy the camera, photographic film, and related classified parts. He was also criticized for not using a CIA-issued "suicide pill" to kill himself (a coin with shellfish toxin embedded in its grooves, revealed during CIA testimony to the Church Committee in 1975).
He was debriefed extensively by the CIA, Lockheed Corporation, and the Air Force, after which a statement was issued by CIA director John McCone that "Mr. Powers lived up to the terms of his employment and instructions in connection with his mission and in his obligations as an American." On March 6, 1962, he appeared before a Senate Armed Services Select Committee hearing chaired by Senator Richard Russell, Jr. which included Senators Prescott Bush, Leverett Saltonstall, Robert Byrd, Margaret Chase Smith, John Stennis, Strom Thurmond, and Barry Goldwater. During the hearing, Senator Saltonstall stated, "I commend you as a courageous, fine young American citizen who lived up to your instructions and who did the best you could under very difficult circumstances." Senator Bush declared, "I am satisfied he has conducted himself in exemplary fashion and in accordance with the highest traditions of service to one's country, and I congratulate him upon his conduct in captivity." Senator Goldwater sent him a handwritten note: "You did a good job for your country.":264,270–280
Divorce and remarriage
Powers and his wife Barbara separated in 1962 and divorced in January 1963. Powers stated that the reasons for the divorce included her infidelity and alcoholism, adding that she constantly threw tantrums and overdosed on pills shortly after his return. He started a relationship with Claudia Edwards "Sue" Downey, whom he had met while working briefly at CIA Headquarters. Downey had a child, Dee Rogers, from her previous marriage. They were married on October 26, 1963. Their son Francis Gary Powers II was born on June 5, 1965.:287,292–293,323 The marriage proved to be a very happy one, and Sue worked hard to preserve her husband's legacy after his death.
During a speech in March 1964, former CIA Director Allen Dulles said of Powers, "He performed his duty in a very dangerous mission and he performed it well, and I think I know more about that than some of his detractors and critics know, and I am glad to say that to him tonight.":295–296
Powers worked for Lockheed as a test pilot from 1962 to 1970, though the CIA paid his salary. In 1970, he wrote the book Operation Overflight with co-author Curt Gentry.  Lockheed fired him, because "the book's publication had ruffled some feathers at Langley." Powers became a helicopter traffic pilot reporter for KNBC News Channel 4.
Powers was piloting a helicopter for KNBC Channel 4 over West Los Angeles on August 1, 1977 when the aircraft crashed, killing him and his cameraman George Spears.:251,289–290,324 They had been recording video tape following brush fires in Santa Barbara County in the KNBC helicopter and were heading back from them.
His Bell 206 JetRanger helicopter ran out of fuel and crashed at the Sepulveda Dam recreational area in Encino, California, several miles short of its intended landing site at Burbank Airport. The National Transportation Safety Board report attributed the probable cause of the crash to pilot error. According to Powers's son, an aviation mechanic had repaired a faulty fuel gauge without informing Powers, who subsequently misread it.
At the last moment, he noticed children playing in the area and directed the helicopter elsewhere to avoid landing on them. He might have landed safely if not for the last-second deviation, which compromised his autorotative descent.
Powers was survived by his wife, children Claudia Dee and Francis Gary Powers Jr., and five sisters. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery as an Air Force veteran.
USAF Senior Pilot Badge
Distinguished Flying Cross
Prisoner of War Medal
Army Good Conduct Medal
National Defense Service Medal
w/ 1 bronze service star
Korean Service Medal
Air Force Longevity Service Award
w/ two bronze oak leaf clusters
United Nations Service Medal for Korea
Powers received the CIA's Intelligence Star in 1965 after his return from the Soviet Union. Powers was originally scheduled to receive it in 1963 along with other pilots involved in the CIA's U-2 program, but the award was postponed for political reasons. In 1970, Powers published his first—and only—book review, on a work about aerial reconnaissance, Unarmed and Unafraid by Glenn Infield, in the monthly magazine Business and Commercial Aviation. "The subject has great interest to me," he said, in submitting his review.
In 1998, newly declassified information revealed that Powers's mission had been a joint USAF/CIA operation. In 2000, on the 40th anniversary of the U-2 Incident, his family was presented with his posthumously awarded Prisoner of War Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, and National Defense Service Medal. In addition, CIA Director George Tenet authorized Powers to posthumously receive the CIA's coveted Director's Medal for extreme fidelity and extraordinary courage in the line of duty.
On June 15, 2012, Powers was posthumously awarded the Silver Star medal for "demonstrating 'exceptional loyalty' while enduring harsh interrogation in the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow for almost two years." Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz presented the decoration to Powers's grandchildren, Trey Powers, 9, and Lindsey Berry, 29, in a Pentagon ceremony.
Powers's son, Francis Gary Powers Jr., founded the Cold War Museum in 1996. Affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, it was essentially a traveling exhibit until it found a permanent home in 2011 on a former Army communications base outside Washington, D.C.
In popular culture
In the 1976 telemovie Francis Gary Powers: The True Story of the U-2 Spy Incident, Powers was played by Lee Majors.
In 1999, the History Channel aired Mystery of the U2, hosted by Arthur Kent as part of their History Undercover series. The program was produced by Indigo Films.
In the 2015 movie Bridge of Spies, dramatizing the negotiations to repatriate Powers, he is portrayed by Austin Stowell, with Tom Hanks starring as negotiator James Donovan.
In April 2018, The Aviationist featured an article about the song "Powers Down," a tribute to Francis Gary Powers.
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