Airspace violations – Episode 5

“Dragon Lady 360 missing”

On May 1, 1960, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union, near the city of Sverdlovsk. This episode is remembered as the most famous aerial incident of Cold War, since it created a large debate all over the world and a great embarrassment for the United States and Eisenhower’s Presidency. At first Washington Government denied the episode but was forced to admit both its responsibility and the purpose of the mission when the Soviet Government showed the remains of the wreckage and the survivor, pilot Francis Gary Powers.

The Plane

The involved plane was a Lockheed U-2, a single engine reconnaissance aircraft mainly used during Cold War for night and day high-altitude reconnaissance missions. It could fly at 70,000 feet since it had been built with the specific purpose of flying well above any fighter or missile. However, the aircraft could be reached by SAM (Surface-to-Air Missiles) as the episode described in this article shows, and even by interceptors: in 1984, during a NATO exercise, Flight Lieutenant Mike Hale of the RAF (Royal Air Force), flying with a Lightning F3 intercepted a U-2 flying at 66,000 feet. Anyway, the aircraft was more or less safe at stratospheric altitudes and it allowed CIA and US Air Force to perform flights over a country’s airspace to take aerial photographs with fewer risks than any other asset. The unique design, similar to a glider, brought it to be nicknamed “Dragon Lady” but on the other hand its remarkable performance also made it a difficult aircraft to fly with. For its purposes, it also carried a variety of sensors on the nose, Q-bay (behind the cockpit, also known as the camera bay), or wing pods. The U-2 was simultaneously able to collect signals, imagery intelligence and air samples. Imagery intelligence sensors included either wet film photo, electro-optic or radar imagery – the latter from the ASARS-2 system.

The Incident

During the late 50s, with the approval of Pakistani Government, the US President D. Eisenhower established a secret intelligence facility in Badaber (Peshawar Airbase), equipped with a runway that allowed U-2 spy planes to perform secret missions over the majority of the Soviet airspace.

On May 1st, 1960, fifteen days before the scheduled opening of an East-West summit conference in Paris, pilot Francis Gary Powers left the US base in Badaber on board its “Dragon Lady” Item 360 for a mission over the Soviet Union, photographing ICBM (Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles) sites in and around Sverdlovsk and Plesetsk and then, as by schedule, landing onto Bodo, Norway.

The flight was expected, since Soviet defenses were pre-alerted by the U-2 unit “10-10” piloted by Bob Ericson: some weeks before he had overflown some of the top secret military installations such as the Semipalatinsk Test Site, the  SAM test site, the Tyuratam missile range and the Dolon airbase with its Tu-95 strategic bombers.

According to some Russian sources, just after the U-2 was detected, Lieutenant General of the Air Force Yevgeniy Savitskiy ordered all the air unit commanders on duty “to attack the violator by all alert flights located in the area of foreign plane’s course, and to ram if necessary (see for details: – Russian language only).

Some fighters took off immediately but like the previous alerts all the attempts to intercept the foreign plane failed. Eventually the U-2 was hit and shot down by the first of three S-75 Divna surface to air missiles fired by a defense battery.

According to Russian sources, it is interesting to know how Pilot Gary Powers, after successfully bailing out from the plane, was soon captured by the Russians and was found with a modified silver coin which contained a lethal saxitoxin- tipped needle…to be used in case of being captured!

After the event, the whole Soviet air defense system was obviously in red code but the lack of coordination brought to a curious incident often hidden by the ordinary tale of facts. The SAM command center was unaware that the foreign plane had been destroyed for more than half so that at least 13 further anti-aircraft missiles were fired, one of them shooting down a Mig-19 and killing his pilot, Sergei Safronov.

The episode became of an outstanding relevance among the international community and represented one of the higher peaks of the face off between the two nuclear superpowers.


On a juridical basis, the incident became notorious for the arising problem related to the limits permitted by the international law to the use of the high altitude flights in foreign airspace.

At the time of facts, US were bounded by the Chicago Convention, therefore the whole chart contents were applicable, particularly article 3 stating that: “No State aircraft of a contracting State shall fly over the territory of another State or land thereon without authorization by special agreement or otherwise, and in accordance with the terms thereof.”

Obviously the U-2 involved had to be considered as a State aircraft, although not having a military code it was operated by US intelligence agency and armed forces for secret military flights (the US never doubted the nature of the aircraft and admitted the activity was part of a long term activity started four years before).

Another relevant debate was related to the altitude the U-2 was flying and the applicability or not of the principle of the sovereignty above the air space. In other terms, where the point of separation between the national airspace and the outer space is located? (since the latter is out of the State’s sovereignty)

This problem arose since the U-2 was flying at around 27,000 metres and according to many analysts all the flight activities at this altitude were to be considered as space operations, where sovereignty of the States is null. The debate is still open and no written charts resolve the doubt, even if the practice adopted by the States in the course of history seems to confirm that flights conducted by common aircraft within the atmosphere limit has to be considered as a fly that, when operated without permission, commits a violation of foreign airspace.

The Pilot

And which were the consequences for Gary Powers? He was pleaded guilty and therefore convicted of espionage and convicted to 3 years prison and 7 years hard labour. One year after being sentenced, in February 1962, he was exchanged for Rudolf Abel.

Living U-2s

If you are a buff for this aircraft, a number of retired U-2s are currently on display all around US and United Kingdom (Laughlin AFB TX, Davis-Monthan AFB Arizona, Imperial War Museum Duxford UK, just to mention some).

At the “Museo de l’Aire” in Havana (Cuba) you can also make a real visit of the wreckage of Major Rudolf Anderson Jr’s U-2, shot down and killed during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Also relics from Cold War can be found at Central Armed Forces Museum in Moscow where the wreckages of Gary Powers’U-2 are displayed.

However, many are still flying after 55 years since its first flight within Area 51. The aircraft was used to provide aerial imagery following the Haiti earthquake. U-2s belonging to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing (RW), based in Beale AFB, Ca, are common visitors of RAF Fairford, in UK. A derivative of the U-2 known as the ER-2 (Earth Resources -2) is based at the Dryden Flight Research Center and is used by NASA for high-altitude civilian research including Earth resources, celestial observations, atmospheric chemistry, etc. Before, during and after the war in Serbia and Kosovo, in 1999, U-2 detachments were also based in Aviano airbase, Italy, and Istres, France.

© David Cenciotti & Simone Bovi

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.