Fuel exhaustion brought down Cold War pilot

Francis Gary Powers (right) with U-2 designer Kelly Johnson in 1966. Powers was a USAF fighter pilot recruited by the CIA in 1956 to fly civilian U-2 missions deep into Russia. Powers and other USAF Reserve pilots resigned their commissions to become civilians. (U.S. Air Force photo)

It’s 40 years exactly since the death of a minor, but celebrated, cast member in the drama of the Cold War. Gary Powers survived being shot down from 70,000 feet over the Soviet Union, but 17 years later, fuel exhaustion killed him as a civilian pilot.

On 1 August 1977, a TV news helicopter in Los Angeles, which had been filming bushfires north of the city, requested clearance to land at Van Nuys airport due to low fuel. The helicopter didn’t make it to the airport but autorotated when its fuel ran out, coming to earth in a recreational area near the junction of two freeways. Reports say Powers attempted to modify the autorotation when he saw children playing on baseball fields at the landing site. The aircraft’s tail rotor was severed about 50 feet AGL, and Powers was ejected from the cabin. A camera operator, George Spears, was also killed.

The US National Transportation Safety Board’s docket on the crash makes harsh, simple judgements of improper in-flight decisions or planning, and mismanagement of fuel. The website of Powers’ son, Francis Gary Powers Jr, says the Bell Jetranger involved in the crash had a faulty fuel gauge, which under-read by up to 20 minutes flying time, and that this had been corrected without his father’s knowledge before the crash.

Whatever the underlying cause, the crash is a sobering reminder of the importance of fuel management, which Flight Safety Australia has written about in 2016 and 2012.

Powers was the pilot of a Lockheed U2 spy aircraft that the US Central Intelligence Agency used for high-altitude photographic reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The U2’s operating altitude was thought to be too high for detection and interception, but on 1 May 1963 the U2 Powers was flying was shot down by a SA-2 Guideline missile near Sverdlovsk, in present day Russia. A Soviet pilot was also killed by friendly fire during the interception.

Powers survived and was put on trial, accused of espionage. He was sentenced to ten years in a Soviet prison but was exchanged for Rudolf Abel, a Russian spy captured by the US in 1957. The episode was recently dramatised in the film Bridge of Spies.