Friday, March 03, 2023

Spy Pilot: Gary Powers' Datejust 1601


"So, how are you doing?" I was on the phone with Gary Powers Jr., the son of the famous U-2 pilot shot down at 70,000 feet over the Soviet Union during the Cold War. We were just a couple of hours before his dad's Rolex was being auctioned in Geneva. "I'm a nervous wreck," he tells me. I laughed, then I told him I'd call back and check on him after the auction.

I have known a few former U-2 pilots. The Dragon Lady, the nickname for the spy plane, is still in service, one of the few military jets that has been in service for more than half a century. 

My friends, who now fly for the same major airline as I do, tell me about the long missions in the small cockpit, but especially how hard it is to land the U-2. "You have to stall the wings just a few feet above the runway or you'll overshoot the runway," one told me. "You are literally falling out of the skies every time you come back from a mission."

Above, U-2 designer Kelly Johnson with Gary Powers. The jet was born under secrecy in what would become Area 51, when Eisenhower was growing nervous over Soviet technological advances. For me, Gary Powers is a true hero. He resigned his commission from the U.S. Air Force to join the CIA program and fly deep into the USSR. He was immortalized in the blockbuster Steven Spielberg film, “Bridge of Spies.” He was also portrayed by actor Lee Majors. 

Gary Powers was awarded the Prisoner of War Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the National Defense Service Medal, the CIA's coveted Director's Medal for extreme fidelity and extraordinary courage in the line of duty. He was also awarded the Silver Star medal for "demonstrating exceptional loyalty while enduring harsh interrogation in the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow for almost two years." 

Most of his medals were awarded posthumously, unfortunately. Few know that he accomplished one last heroic act before he died in a helicopter crash in California in 1977, when he worked for a TV station.

When power is lost to an engine, helicopter pilots are trained to autorotate, meaning to use upward flow of air through the rotor to land without crashing the helo. As Gary Powers used aerodynamic forces to slow the fall, he noticed children playing in the area, and he directed the helo elsewhere to avoid landing on them. Experts believe he might have landed safely if not for the last-second deviation, which compromised his autorotative descent.

The world didn't know about his Rolex, pictured above, until his son decided to put it up for auction, six decades after he was shot down over the Soviet skies. 

After two years in prison camp in the Soviet Union, Gary Powers, who had been sentenced for 10 years, is traded on a foggy morning on a bridge in Germany. A few months after he comes back to the U.S., in 1962, he uses the money the CIA paid him and buys himself a Rolex Datejust. Powers had found a new appreciation for life and freedom. 

"He owned other watches but the Rolex is the one he preferred and wore as daily use," Gary Powers Jr. tells me. 

The Datejust is a reference 1601, 14-kt gold in 36mm, with jubilee bracelet. "My wrist is a little bit bigger than my dad's, so it was too tight," he said. "So for me, it was an easy decision to let it go after all these years." The Rolex comes with original box and papers.

Gary Powers Jr. co-founded in 1996 the Cold War Museum in Warrenton, Virginia, which spans the end of World War II to the disbandment of the Soviet Union, including the time his dad was taking photos of military installations from the sky. The Americans believed that the U-2 was nearly invincible against the Soviets, since it traveled at high altitudes. What they didn’t know is that the USSR had developed a new surface-to-air missile capable of reaching the U-2's heights. 

Above, Aurel Bacs of Phillips is about to award Powers' Rolex to a British bidder. When I call Gary back, after the auction, he said he is happy for the person who will own the watch. "It's been sitting in a closet for the last 40 years, gathering dust," he tells me. "I was very comfortable putting it up for auctions and letting the new owner enjoy it."

The auction closed at 38,000 CHF, or $40,000—not bad for a 36-mm Datejust. When I finally asked Gary Powers Jr. if he owned a Rolex, he responded no. He has owned some pilot watches, he said. But only Russian ones. He is pictured as a kid sitting with his dad below.