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Spy in the Sky

Spy in the Sky

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Item Number:
60 min.
Closed Caption:
WGBH Boston Video
The extraordinary spy plane that defused a Cold War arms race and ignited the "U-2 affair."

Cold War. New weapons. The threat of World War III. In this high stakes game, how would the U.S. president play his hand?

Despite Russian claims of nuclear superiority, the question remained, ''what do they really have?'' If Russia's boasts were true, their Bison bombers put the U.S. within nuclear range for the first time. In 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower launched an espionage mission like no other -- requiring a spy plane that could fly without detection.

Here is the true story of the U-2 and how a determined team turned his vision into reality. Led by brilliant master designer Kelly Johnson, the top-secret project began at the Lockheed Skunk Works. In their own words, crew members describe building and testing the ''dirty bird,'' a spy plane that could soar to the edge of earth's atmosphere.

After grueling preparation and fatal failures, the U-2 flew its first mission in 1956. U-2 photos revealed Russia's bluff, ending fears of a ''bomber gap.'' Despite being caught on Russian radar, the U-2 continued its surveillance. But on May 1, 1960, luck ran out. U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down and captured while trying to photograph a Russian transcontinental missile base. The notorious ''U-2 affair'' that followed shattered the trust between Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Khrushchev. Although the U.S. was forced to end U-2 missions over Russia, the U-2 continued to fly, providing U.S. intelligence into the 1990s.

From the Cold War to the Gulf War, the U-2 saga is one of the greatest spy stories of all time.

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