The U-2 Mission and the Cold War
The U-2 spy plane was designed as a high altitude, single-pilot, single-engine aircraft. It was lightweight, but able to carry a variety of equipment such as multi-sensor cameras, and electro-optic, infrared and radar imagery machines.
Although the plane’s design broke ground in many ways, its main drawback was sluggish flight control due to its landing gear requirements. In case of an emergency ejection, the pilot seat was equipped with a hunting knife, a .22 caliber pistol, a parachute, and a survival pack. An explosive mechanism was installed that would blow up the plane after the pilot ejected.
On May 1, 1960, Captain Francis Gary Powers’ CIA mission was to perform secret aerial reconnaissance by flying over the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact territory. While in flight, a missile hit his plane and Powers was unable to follow the self-destruct protocols. The Soviet Union quickly recovered the wreckage and captured the pilot.
President Eisenhower learned of the missing U-2 plane on May 2. Believing that there was no possibility that Powers could survive a high-altitude missile strike, President Eisenhower gave the order to proceed with releasing a cover story.
-from the Eisenhower Library
For thirteen days in October 1962 the world was on the brink of nuclear war - The Cuban Missile Crisis
At 8:45 AM on October 16, 1962, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy alerted President Kennedy that a major international crisis was at hand. Two days earlier a United States military surveillance aircraft had taken hundreds of aerial photographs of Cuba. CIA analysts, working around the clock, had deciphered in the pictures conclusive evidence that a Soviet missile base was under construction near San Cristobal, Cuba; just 90 miles from the coast of Florida. The most dangerous encounter in the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union had begun.
Day 2, October 17
American military units begin moving to bases in the Southeastern U.S. as intelligence photos from another U-2 flight show additional sites; and 16 to 32 missiles. To avoid arousing public concern, the president maintains his official schedule, meeting periodically with advisors to discuss the status of events in Cuba and possible strategies.
President Kennedy attends a brief service at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in observance of the National Day of Prayer. After, he has lunch with Crown Prince Hasan of Libya, and then makes a political visit to Connecticut in support of Democratic congressional candidates.
Above: Map of the western hemisphere showing the full range of the nuclear missiles under construction in Cuba, used during the secret meetings on the Cuban crisis.
Below: Photo secretly taken by a U2 spy plane of a nuclear missile launch site in Cuba.
-from the JFK Library