Iconic Photos

Famous, Infamous and Iconic Photos

American spy plane downed in hostile territory (1960)

with 2 comments

Downing on an American unmanned drone over Iran recalls a bitter Cold War episode, writes IP.  

On May Day 1960, a U2 flight left the US base in Pakistan to photograph ICBM sites inside the Soviet Union; the flight was supposed to take advantage of the Soviet holiday, but all units of the Soviet Air Defence Forces were on red alert and the plane was subsequently shot down.

As the rumors spread that Moscow shot down an American spy plane, the US government believed that the plane was fully destroyed and its pilot dead, and declared that it was a research vessel. On May 7, however, Soviet Premier Khrushchev angrily revealed that the pilot was alive and had the wreckage of the plane exhibited in the Chess Pavilion in Moscow’s Gorky Park Moscow — where captured German military equipment was put on display during the war.

To the invited diplomats and journalists, Khrushchev told that he does not intend to bring up the plane incident at the impending summit meeting with President Eisenhower, but his glee was palpable. Life photographer Carl Mydans, who took the picture above, was soon hustled out of the building by two Soviet officers who thought he was a spy because he was “taking pictures too systematically.” However, they did not confiscate his film.

Although Mydans was not employed by the U.S. government, it didn’t stop the Pentagon from using his photos. The designers of U-2 spy plane was able to learn what happened and what sort of missile hit the plane based on their analysis of Mydans’ photographs of the wreckage. How the plane was brought down was never fully explained, but his pictures and the intactness of the wreckage casts doubt on Khurschev’s claims that a SAM2 missile downed the plane at high attitude.

The U-2 incident marked the birthpangs of another era of Soviet-American confrontations after a few years of calm following Stalin’s death. Coming just over two weeks before the scheduled opening of an East–West summit in Paris, it poisoned the atmosphere around the meeting. An invitation for the President to visit the Soviet Union was abruptly withdrawn, and Eisenhower left office without fulfilling his dreams of ending the Cold War.

Ironically, for all the trouble it caused, the U2 was already outdated by the time the Soviets shot it down. Three months later, it was quietly replaced by the Discoverer spy satellite; The doomed flight was in fact the last U2 flight over Soviet territory.

(See the wreakage here)

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

December 8, 2011 at 11:26 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Robert A. Heinlein was in the Soviet Union at the time this happened. He has an interesting essay in, IIRC, his book “Expanded Universe”.


    December 9, 2011 at 7:57 pm

  2. Oportuno!


    December 13, 2011 at 10:25 pm

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