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Campus News

September 18th, 2023

U-2 pilot's son recounts Cold War shootdown

Research by Francis Gary Powers, Jr. helped clear father's reputation

Francis Gary Powers, Jr.

Francis Gary Powers, Jr.

It's not every day you discover Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks are teaming up to tell your father's story. That, however, is exactly what happened to Francis Gary Powers, Jr. in 2014.

"When I first found out about Spielberg and Hanks, I was like, 'Why would they do this?' " said Powers, who recounted this story last Wednesday night as September's featured speaker in Garrett College's Joan Crawford Lecture Series. "How do you get in touch with Steven Spielberg? It's not like you can just pick up the phone and give him a call."

Powers did manage to get connected with Mark Platt, who was set to produce Bridge of Spies. The movie used the Cold War as the backdrop to tell the story of how U-2 pilot Gary Powers, Sr. – shot down over the Soviet Union in May 1960 – was eventually exchanged for Soviet spy Colonel Rudolf Abel.

Powers Jr. was eventually hired as a consultant to the film. He said Bridge of Spies was historically accurate within the confines of a Hollywood production.

"The big picture – it was historically accurate," said Powers. "It described the tension between the Soviets and the Americans, and the great fear of nuclear war.

"But you have to remember – this is Hollywood," added Powers. "The movie took eight years of time and condensed it into two hours and 15 minutes. As a result, there are some inaccuracies in the movie. Accurate for the time period, but not totally historically accurate."

Powers said one of the movie's weaknesses was that, as a period film, it couldn't take advantage of reams of documents declassified decades later. It was research conducted by Powers Jr. using declassified documents that helped him take "Dad's reputation from infamy to Cold War hero," with his late father being awarded both the POW Medal (2000) and the Silver Star (2012).

Powers indicated his father was originally blamed for the incident that arose after a Soviet SA-2 missile brought down his U-2 reconnaissance flight over the Soviet Union.

"It was easier to blame the pilot than to admit we were behind the Soviets in missile technology," observed Powers.

Powers also used declassified information to write his critically acclaimed 2019 book Spy Pilot: Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 Incident, and a Controversial Cold War legacy.

Powers emphasized that his father did not give out any classified information and protected his fellow pilots during his 21 months in captivity through the use of disinformation, misinformation, and partial information.

"He told the full truth when he knew they could verify it in the press – and lied when he knew they couldn't," said Powers, using the maximum height at which U-2 planes could fly as an example.

"He claimed the maximum height U-2 planes could fly at was 68,000 feet," said Powers. "That was close enough to be believable – but far enough away from the actual figure of 70,000 to 75,000 feet. That created a 2,000-to-7,000-foot buffer to keep other pilots out of harm's way."

Powers also wrote Letters from a Soviet Prison as a primary source for Powers' letters to and from prison as well as Enemy Territory: The Story of the American CIA U-2 Pilot Francis Gary Powers, which is a graphic novel.

Powers is a past board member of the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum and an honorary board member of the International Spy Museum. He founded the Cold War Museum 45 miles west of Washington, DC at Vint Hill, VA, currently serving on its advisory board.

More information is available online at and