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coming.
In this, he was perceptive. Soviet radar had begun tracking the plane
before it ever reached the border. Immediately, an alert was telephoned
to command headquarters and air defense staff officers were summoned
to their posts.
In still-darkened Moscow, gaily decorated for the grand May Day
celebration, a telephone rang next to Party Chairman Khrushchev's bed.
"Minister of Defense Marshal Malinovsky reporting," said the voice on the
other end. Malinovsky told his boss that a U-2 had crossed the border
from Afghanistan and was flying in the direction of Sverdlovsk, in central
Russia. "Shoot down the plane by whatever means," barked the Soviet
leader. "If our antiaircraft units can just keep their eyes open and stop
yawning long enough," he added, "I'm sure we'll knock the plane down."
The days of protest were over. "We were sick and tired of these
unpleasant surprises”sick and tired of being subjected to these
indignities," Khrushchev later wrote. "They were making these flights to
show up our impotence. Well, we weren't impotent any longer."
But Powers was in luck. A missile battalion more than a dozen miles
below was not on alert duty that day. A missile launch was considered
but then rejected as unfeasible. Instead, fighter aircraft were scrambled
in an attempt to shoot down the plane. "An uncomfortable situation was
shaping up," recalled former Soviet Air Force colonel Alexander Orlov,
who was involved in air defense at the time. "The May Day parade was
scheduled to get underway at mid-morning, and leaders of the party, the
government, and the Armed Forces were to be present as usual. In other
words, at a time when a major parade aimed at demonstrating Soviet
military prowess was about to begin, a not-yet-identified foreign aircraft
was flying over the heart of the country and Soviet air defenses appeared
unable to shoot it down."
"Shame!" Khrushchev screamed at Marshal S. S. Biryuzov, the chief of
the Air Defense Forces. "The country was giving air defense everything it
needs, and still you cannot shoot down a subsonic aircraft!" Biryuzov
had no excuses. "If I could become a missile," he fumed, "I myself would
fly and down this damned intruder." The tension was palpable. "Nerves of
military people at airfields," said Orlov, "missile positions, command-and-
control facilities, the Air Force, and the Air Defense Forces were badly
frayed. . . . Khrushchev demanded that the intruding aircraft be shot
down at all costs. The Soviet leader and his lieutenants clearly viewed the
violation of their nation's skies by a foreign reconnaissance aircraft on
the day of a Soviet national holiday, and just two weeks before a summit
conference in Paris, as a political provocation."



41
Russian radar continued to follow the U-2 across the Central Asian
republics. By the time Powers reached the Tashkent area, as many as
thirteen MiGs had been scrambled in an unsuccessful attempt to shoot
him down. Far below, Powers could see the condensation trail of a single-
engine jet moving fast in the opposite direction. Five to ten minutes later
he saw another contrail, this time moving in the same direction,
paralleling his course. "I was sure now they were tracking me on radar,"
he later recalled, "vectoring in and relaying my heading to the aircraft."
But Powers knew that at his altitude there was no way for the pilots
even to see him, let alone attack him. "If this was the best they could do,"
he thought, "I had nothing to worry about." He then wondered how the
Russians felt, knowing he was up there but unable to do anything about
it. Had he known of a top secret CIA study the previous summer he
might not have been so cocky, but the pilots were never informed of its
findings. The study gave the U-2 a very limited life because of
improvements in Soviet ground-to-air missiles. It recommended that the
overflights be terminated and replaced by border surveillance flights: "In
view of the improving Soviet air defense effort, we believe that the
utilization of the aircraft may soon be limited to peripheral operations."
By now, 4½ hours into the mission, Powers was approaching his first
important target, the Tyuratam Missile Test Range. This was the Soviet
Union's most important space launch site. Three days earlier, CIA
Director Dulles reported to the president and the National Security
Council that Russia had recently attempted to launch two space vehicles,
probably lunar probes. "Evidence indicates that both attempts failed," he
said. "The vehicle launched on April 15 did not attain a velocity sufficient
to send it to the moon. . . . The second Soviet space vehicle lifted from
the launching pad but failed immediately." The short interval between
the two attempts, he concluded, "probably indicates that the USSR has a
second launching pad at Tyuratam." Up to then, the United States had
known of only one.
This information, produced by NSA listening posts and ferret
missions, was considered so secret that Dulles took the unusual
precaution of reminding the council and even the president of how
closely it was held. "Intelligence concerning Soviet failures in the
launching of missiles or space vehicles," he warned, "was very sensitive
information."
In addition to photographing the missile site, Powers had a second
key mission”this one for NSA: to eavesdrop on the radar systems
surrounding the base. On board were special recorders that could
capture the signals. After landing, the tapes would be flown back to Fort
Meade for analysis.
Large thunderclouds obscured Powers's view of the test site, but he



42
nevertheless switched on the cameras, which might capture proof of the
second launch pad. At the same moment, he entered the engagement
zone of a surface-to-air-missile battalion. "Destroy target," the officer in
charge of the unit shouted. Immediately an SA-2 missile was fired. This
time the missilemen's eyes were wide open”and the Soviets were lucky.
A fireball exploded behind Powers, damaging the U-2's tail and wings but
leaving the cockpit unharmed. At the air defense facility below, the small
dot on the radar began to blink. The plane was breaking up.
"My God, I've had it now!" Powers gasped. He felt a dull thump and a
tremendous orange flash filled the cockpit. As his plane began to dip
toward the ground from 70,500 feet, on the very edge of space, Powers
fought for control. The orange glow, he thought, seemed to last for
minutes. "Instinctively I grasped the throttle with my left hand," he
recalled, "and keeping my right hand on the wheel, checked
instruments."
All of a sudden a violent force sent him bouncing within the cockpit
and he knew both wings had come off. He was now in a tailless, wingless
missile heading rapidly toward earth. "What was left of the plane began
spinning. . . . All I could see was blue sky, spinning, spinning."
With pressurization lost, Powers's space suit had inflated and was
squeezing him tighter and tighter. At the same time, the g-forces were
pushing him toward the nose of the plane. "I reached for the destruct
switches [to blow up the plane]," he said, "opening the safety covers, had
my hand over them, then changed my mind, deciding I had better see if I
could get into position to use the ejection seat first." Forced forward in
his seat, he was afraid that when he ejected his legs would be sliced off.
"I didn't want to cut them off, but if it was the only way to get out. . ."
Instead of ejecting, Powers began to climb out of the cockpit. He
unlocked the canopy and it jetted into space. "The plane was still
spinning," said Powers. "I glanced at the altimeter. It had passed thirty-
four thousand feet and was unwinding very fast." The centrifugal force
threw him halfway out of the aircraft, smashing his head against the
rearview mirror and snapping the mirror off. "I saw it fly away," Powers
recalled. "That was the last thing I saw, because almost immediately my
face plate frosted over."
Half in and half out of the disintegrating spy plane, Powers was still
trapped. He suddenly realized that he had forgotten to unfasten his
oxygen hoses and now they were turning into a noose. After minutes that
seemed like hours of struggle, the hoses broke and suddenly,
unbelievably, he was free. "It was a pleasant, exhilarating feeling," he
thought. "Even better than floating in a swimming pool." Later he said, "I
must have been in shock."
At an NSA listening post in Turkey, intercept operators began picking


43
up some worrisome signals. For more than four hours they had been
eavesdropping on Soviet radar installations as the Russians tracked
Powers's U-2 flight.
It had long been one of NSA's neatest tricks. Because radar signals
travel in a straight line and the earth is curved, it was impossible for
American radar stations outside Russia to detect air activity deep within
the country. However, Soviet radar installations throughout the country
communicated with each other over high-frequency circuits. Because
high-frequency signals bounce between the earth and the ionosphere, the
right equipment can pick them up thousands of miles away. Thus, by
eavesdropping on Soviet radar networks as they transmitted signals
between their bases over these channels, NSA could, in effect, watch
Russian radar screens far inside the country.
For years American intercept operators in Turkey had eavesdropped
on Soviet radar installations as they tracked the occasional U-2
overflight. But because the spy planes flew far too high for either Russian
MiGs or their SA-2 surface-to-air missiles, they were out of harm's way.
It was like throwing a rock at a passing jetliner. This time, however,
something was different; something was very wrong. "He's turning left!"
the Americans heard a Soviet pilot shout. A few moments later the
intercept operators watched the U-2 suddenly disappear from Russian
radar screens near Sverdlovsk.
A CRITIC message was sent to NSA, the White House, and other
locations in Washington. The information reached the CIA's Operations
Center at 3:30 A.M.


They flew in low and swift, arriving with the dawn. The rhythmic
thwap, thwap, thwap of the long blades competed briefly with the sounds
of electric shavers and percolating coffee in town houses in northwest
Washington and in split-levels in the nearby Maryland and Virginia
suburbs. Almost simultaneously, they began landing on dirt fields,
creating miniature dust storms, and in vacant lots, where commuters
were briefly startled to see large, dark helicopters in their favorite parking
spaces.
At the White House the sun was just starting to peek from behind the
Washington Monument, casting an early-morning shadow across the
neatly landscaped Ellipse and illuminating the few remaining cherry
blossoms along the Tidal Basin. President Eisenhower had been
awakened by the phone call only minutes earlier and now he was being
rushed out through the curved diplomatic entrance to his waiting
chopper, ducking his head to avoid the slice of the still-spinning blades.
A few miles to the east, the wife of Secretary of Defense Thomas
Gates, still in her nightgown, negotiated through traffic as her husband


44
read out lefts and rights to a secret landing spot within NSA's heavily
protected naval headquarters on Nebraska Avenue. The secretary was in
for trouble, however: his pass was still sitting back home on his dresser.
When the White House switchboard reached the president's science
adviser he was standing under the hot spray of his shower. There was no
time to dry off, he was told as he quickly jotted down instructions.
In Georgetown, CIA Director Allen Dulles managed to get a ride from
another senior official when his car picked this of all mornings to stall.
It was Thursday, the fifth of May. Within half an hour of the
emergency calls, part of this long-planned "Doomsday" practice exercise,
helicopters carrying the nearly two dozen senior national security
officials were flying south over the thick green canopy that covers the
Virginia countryside. Their destination was a secret command center dug
deep into Mount Weather in the Blue Ridge Mountains and built on a
series of giant nuclear-shock-absorbing steel springs. Its code name was
High Point, but members of the president's inner circle also called it
simply "the hideout."
In Moscow at that very moment, a bald, rotund ex-miner in a tent-like
business suit stood before the Supreme Soviet and punched the air with
his fist like a bare-knuckles boxer. "Shame to the aggressor!" he
bellowed, "Shame to the aggressor!" Standing on the stage of the white-
chambered Great Kremlin Palace, Chairman Nikita S. Khrushchev had
just brought some news to the thirteen hundred members of the Soviet
parliament. "I must report to you on aggressive actions against the Soviet
Union in the past few weeks by the United States of America," he said,
his voice rising to a shout. "The United States has been sending aircraft
that have been crossing our state frontiers and intruding upon the
airspace of the Soviet Union. We protested to the United States against
several previous aggressive acts of this kind and brought them to the
attention of the United Nations Security Council. But as a rule, the
United States offered formalistic excuses and tried in every way to deny
the facts of aggression”even when the proof was irrefutable."
Then the surprise. Five days before, on May Day, "early in the
morning, at 5:36 Moscow time, an American plane crossed our frontier
and continued its flight deep into Soviet territory. . . . The plane was shot
down." The packed auditorium broke into pandemonium, shaking with
applause and wild cheers, stamping their feet. "Just imagine what would
have happened had a Soviet aircraft appeared over New York, Chicago or
Detroit," he added, "How would the United States have reacted? . . . That
would mean the outbreak of war!"
Pointing to the west and stabbing the air once again, Khrushchev
yelled, "The question then arises: who sent this aircraft across the Soviet
frontier? Was it the American Commander-in-Chief who, as everyone


45
knows, is the president? Or was this aggressive act performed by
Pentagon militarists without the president's knowledge? If American
military men can take such action on their own," he concluded, "the
world should be greatly concerned." More earsplitting applause.
The timing of the long-planned Doomsday rehearsal seemed almost
uncanny to the casually dressed officials in the cement bunker beneath
Mount Weather. Five days earlier the U-2 spy plane carrying Francis
Gary Powers had gone down over Central Russia”and then, not a peep.
All concluded that the aircraft had crashed, killing the pilot. A standard
cover story had been issued the next day. Approved by Eisenhower in
1956, at the beginning of the overflight program, this cover story had it
that the missing plane belonged to the National Aeronautics and Space
Administration (NASA) and had been on a routine air sampling mission
in Turkey. "Following cover plan to be implemented immediately," said
the CIA's top secret message to its field stations. "U-2 aircraft was on
weather mission originating Adana, Turkey. Purpose was study of clear
air turbulence. During flight in Southeast Turkey, pilot reported he had
oxygen difficulties. ..."
Deep in the hideout, Eisenhower's astonishment grew as each new
page of Khrushchev's speech was handed to him. It had flashed across
the wires shortly after the U.S. officials were airborne. The Soviets were
not only taking credit for blasting the spy plane out of the sky with a
missile, they were pointing the finger of responsibility directly at the
president. The American press was also beginning to raise similar
questions. Eisenhower could see the darkening clouds of an enormous
election-year scandal forming.
At 10:32 A.M. Russia's imaginary nuclear strike ended. But
Eisenhower was now left to respond to Khrushchev's verbal bombshell,
and against that the High Point bunker could offer no protection. As the
rest of the senior national security team headed back to Washington, the
president huddled with his closest advisers. Gathered on sofas and
overstuffed chairs in the bunker's small informal lounge, most agreed
with Douglas Dillon that a new statement should be issued, replacing the
NASA cover story, to counter Khrushchev's explosive charges. A former
Wall Street banker and owner of a French winery, Dillon was filling in for
Secretary of State Christian Herter, who was out of the country.
But Eisenhower would have none of it. All Khrushchev had was a
dead pilot and a stack of scrap metal. As weak and as full of holes as the
NASA cover story was, they would stick with it. Allen Dulles agreed. He

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