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.
On May 1, 1960 Powers left Peshawar, Pakistan in a U-2 spyplane, on a mission to photograph ICBM development sites in and around Sverdlovsk and Plesetsk in the Soviet Union. Attempts to intercept Powers' plane by Soviet fighters failed due to the U-2's extreme altitude, but eventually one of the 14 SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missiles launched at the plane managed to get close enough. The aircraft was badly damaged, and crashed near Sverdlovsk.
The Paris Summit between Dwight Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev collapsed, in large part because Khrushchev demanded an apology over the incident. Khrushchev had announced the shooting down on May 5 and American attempts to claim it was an off-course meterological flight were embarrassingly destroyed when the Russians revealed they had captured the pilot. Khrushchev 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 occurred on the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin.