Reuter News Service
Published: Saturday, Oct. 12 1996 12:00 a.m. MDT
A former Soviet fighter pilot broke 36 years of silence Friday to reveal what he said was the true story of one of the hottest moments of the Cold War - the downing of U.S. agent Gary Powers' U2 spy plane. Igor Mentyukov told Trud newspaper his new Sukhoi Su-9 fighter was unarmed when he was sent over the Urals and ordered to ram the high-flying ``spy in the sky'' piloted by Powers. A former Soviet fighter pilot broke 36 years of silence Friday to reveal what he said was the true story of one of the hottest moments of the Cold War - the downing of U.S. agent Gary Powers' U2 spy plane.
Igor Mentyukov told Trud newspaper his new Sukhoi Su-9 fighter was unarmed when he was sent over the Urals and ordered to ram the high-flying "spy in the sky" piloted by Powers. He said he managed to overtake the U2 and "Powers' plane got into the slipstream of my Su-9. The airstreams whip past at 180 meters a second, plus the turning factor. It started to flip him over, his wings broke off. . . . It all happened by chance."
Mentyukov said Soviet generals, eager to satisfy Kremlin leader Nikita Khrushchev's misguided faith in Moscow's rocket defenses, covered up his extraordinary feat and insisted for three decades that the U2 was hit by a guided missile.
Worse, he said, the missile batteries actually fired at him after a mix-up over codes. They did destroy a MiG-19, which was itself hunting the Sukhoi, showing that Powers would have been killed if a rocket had hit his plane.
The downing of the U2 on the morning of May 1, 1960, provoked a sudden chill between the two superpowers.
Khrushchev used the incident, which exposed Washington's secret reconnaissance missions to the world, as the pretext for a series of angry outbursts that wrecked a Paris summit with President Dwight Eisenhower two weeks later.
U.S. commanders, who had believed that their U2s flew too fast and too high to be caught, were led to reconsider the value of manned nuclear bombers vs. intercontinental missiles.
Powers, working on contract for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, was put on public trial in Moscow in August 1960 and jailed for 10 years for espionage. He was released in February 1962 in a spy exchange.
The unassuming Powers, who died in 1977, was always unable to give a clear account of how he was brought down. He said he felt an explosion, the U2 went into a spin and he ejected to safety. "Everywhere I looked was orange," he once recalled.
Mentyukov, who said he was later rewarded with "Saturn wristwatches and an order to shut up,"said the U.S. pilot was describing the sonic boom of the Sukhoi overtaking him from above and the flare of its jet engine.
Two other Su-9s had tried and failed to reach the 20,000-meter altitude of Powers' U2, but Mentyukov said he decided to push his plane, which was still new in service and not fully tried out, to its limits.
He had stopped in the Urals while transferring his brand-new Sukhoi to a new base when he was ordered to scramble against the intruder. His plane was not armed, but that made it much faster than the MiG-19s, then the mainstay of the Soviet fighter force.
Soviet commanders were apparently so frustrated with repeated U.S. photographic missions that the commander of air defense forces, Marshal Yevgeny Savitsky, known as "The Dragon," ordered Mentyukov to ram the U2.
"Savitsky knew I had no weapons system. And there was no chance of surviving a ramming," said Mentyukov, whose wife was pregnant at the time. "They told me: `Everything will be done.' There was no time for fine words."
Ironically, Mentyukov later gave Savitsky flying lessons. "I never held anything against him," he said. "We're military men."