Powers was born in Jenkins, Kentucky, with Melungeon ancestry, and raised in Pound, Virginia, on the Virginia-Kentucky border. After graduating from Milligan College in Eastern Tennessee, he was commissioned in the United States Air Force in 1950. Upon completing his training (52-H) he was assigned to the 468th Strategic Fighter Squadron at Turner Air Force Base, Georgia as an F-84 Thunderjet pilot. He was assigned to operations in the Korean War, but (according to his son) was recruited by the CIA because of his outstanding record in single engine jet aircraft, soon after recovering from an illness.  By 1960, the 31-year old Powers was already a veteran of many covert aerial reconnaissance missions.
See main article: 1960 U-2 incident. He left the Air Force with the rank of captain in 1956, to join the CIA U-2 program. U-2 pilots carried out espionage missions using a spy plane that could reach altitudes above 70,000 feet, essentially making it invulnerable to Soviet anti-aircraft weapons of the time. The U-2 was equipped with a state-of-the-art camera designed to snap high-resolution photos from the edge of the atmosphere over hostile countries that included the Soviet Union. These cameras systematically photographed military installations and other important intelligence targets.
Soviet intelligence, including the KGB, had been well aware of U-2 missions since 1956, but lacked the technology to launch counter-measures until 1960. Powers’ U-2, which departed from a military airbase in Peshawar  and may have received support from the US Air Station at Badaber, near Peshawar in Pakistan, was shot down by an S-75 Dvina (SA-2 Surface to Air) missile on May 1, 1960, over Sverdlovsk. Soviets had shadowed his plane from a lower altitude, then took him down as he crossed over Sverdlosk, which was deep in Soviet airspace. Powers was unable to activate the plane's self-destruct mechanism, as instructed, before he parachuted to the ground, right into the hands of the KGB.
When the U.S. government learned of Powers' disappearance over the Soviet Union, it issued a cover statement claiming that a "weather plane" had crashed down after its pilot had "difficulties with his oxygen equipment." What U.S. officials did not realize was that the plane crashed almost fully intact, and the Soviets recovered its photography equipment, as well as Powers, whom they interrogated extensively for months before he made a "voluntary confession"and public apology for his part in U.S. espionage. Ultimately the whole incident would set back the peace talks between Khrushchev and Eisenhower for years. On August 17, 1960, Powers was convicted of espionage against the Soviet Union. He was sentenced to a total of 10 years in prison, three years of imprisonment followed by seven years of hard labor. Powers was held in the famous "Vladimirsky Central" prison in the city of Vladimir, east of Moscow. This prison had been used to hold other high-profile prisoners, such as the son of Joseph Stalin. The prison, which is still active today, contains a small museum that includes an exhibit on Powers, who, it is said, had a good rapport with Russian prisoners during his time there. On February 10, 1962, twenty-one months after his capture, he was exchanged along with American student Frederic Pryor in a spy swap for Soviet KGB Colonel Vilyam Fisher (aka Rudolf Abel) at the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin, Germany.
Though Powers had not divulged details of the U-2 program, he received a cold reception upon his return to the United States. Initially, he was criticized for having failed to activate his aircraft’s self-destruct charge designed to destroy the camera, photographic film, and related classified parts of his aircraft before capture. In addition, others criticized him for deciding not to use an optional CIA-issued "suicide pin". After being debriefed extensively by the CIA, Lockheed, and the USAF, on March 6, 1962, he appeared before a Senate Armed Services Select Committee hearing chaired by Senator Richard Russell and including Senators Prescott Bush and Barry Goldwater, Sr. During the proceeding it was determined that Powers followed orders, did not divulge any critical information to the Soviets, and conducted himself “as a fine young man under dangerous circumstances.”
After his return, Powers worked for Lockheed as a test pilot from 1963 to 1970. In 1970, he co-wrote a book titled Operation Overflight: A Memoir of the U-2 Incident, which led to his termination from Lockheed as a result of negative publicity over the book. He then became an airborne traffic reporter for radio station KGIL in the San Fernando Valley, and was known for his unique sign off “Gary Powers, KGIL skywatch” when he finished his report. He was then hired by Los Angeles television station KNBC to pilot their new "telecopter", a helicopter equipped with externally mounted 360 degree cameras. Powers died on August 1, 1977, when, upon his return from covering brush fires in Santa Barbara county, his helicopter ran out of fuel and crashed just a few miles from Burbank Airport where he was based. KNBC cameraman George Spears was also killed in the incident. Many have wondered or speculated on how an experienced pilot such as Powers could have allowed the aircraft to run out of fuel. According to Powers' son, Powers had reported a fuel gauge error to the mechanics. When Powers fuel gauge indicator displayed "Empty", he actually had enough fuel for thirty more minutes of flight time. Apparently the aviation mechanic fixed the fuel gauge in the KNBC helicopter, but did not tell Powers of the correction. When he was returning to Burbank from the aforementioned brush fire coverage (live helicopter coverage now being common and ubiquitous throughout Southern California for brush fires and other breaking news) Powers ran out of fuel and subsequently crashed in a field in the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area. Eyewitnesses suggested that Powers attempted to autorotate the helicopter onto recreational fields at this location. However, he intentionally banked to avoid children on the fields and ultimately crashed the helicopter into an adjacent agricultural field, resulting in the aircraft rolling and the occupants' deaths. Powers was survived by his wife Sue, and two children, Dee and Francis Gary Powers Jr.. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
In 1998, information was declassified revealing that Powers’ fateful mission had actually been a joint USAF/CIA operation. In 2000, on the 40th anniversary of the U-2 Incident, his family was finally presented with his posthumously awarded Prisoner of War Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, Silver Star and National Defense Service Medal. In addition, then CIA Director George Tenet authorized Powers to posthumously receive the CIA's coveted Intelligence Star for extreme fidelity and extraordinary courage in the line of duty. 
According to his son, when asked how high he was when flying on May 1, 1960, Powers would often reply, "not high enough".