He joined the USAF in 1951. After completing his training he was assigned to the 468th Strategic Fighter Squadron at Turner Air Force Base, Georgia. He left the Air Force in 1956 to join the CIA U-2 program.
Flying the U-2 spyplane from Adana, Turkey to Bodo, Norway he was shot down on May 1 1960, crashing near Svedlovsk. The Paris Summit between Dwight Eisenhower and Nikita Krushchev collapsed in large part because Krushchev demanded an apology over the incident. Krushchev had announced the shooting down on May 5 and American attempts to claim it was an off-course meterological flight were embarassingly destroyed when the Russians revealed they had captured the pilot. Krushchev left the talks on May 16.
Powers was convicted of espionage on August 19 and sentenced to 3 years imprisonment and 7 years of hard labor. But he only served one and three-quarter years before being exchanged for Colonel Rudolph Ivanovich Abel on February 10, 1962. The exchange occured on the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin.