Fulton surface-to-air recovery system

The Fulton surface-to-air recovery system (STARS) is a system used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), United States Air Force and United States Navy for retrieving persons on the ground using aircraft such as the MC-130E Combat Talon I and Boeing B-17. It involves using an overall-type harness and a self-inflating balloon with an attached lift line. An MC-130E engages the line with its V-shaped yoke and the person is reeled on board. Red flags on the lift line guide the pilot during daylight recoveries; lights on the lift line are used for night recoveries. Recovery kits were designed for one and two-man retrievals.

This system was developed by inventor Robert Edison Fulton, Jr., for the Central Intelligence Agency in the early 1950s. It was an evolution from a similar system[1] that was used during World War II by American and British forces to retrieve both personnel and downed assault gliders following airborne operations. The earlier system did not use a balloon, but a line stretched between a pair of poles set in the ground on either side of the person to be retrieved. An aircraft, usually a C-47 Skytrain, trailed a grappling hook that engaged the line, which was attached to the person to be retrieved.

Fulton system1
The Fulton system in use
Fulton system2
The Fulton system in use from below

Development of the recovery system

Experiments with the recovery system began in 1950 by the CIA and Air Force. Using a weather balloon, nylon line, and weights of 10 to 15 pounds (4.5 to 6.8 kg), Fulton made numerous pickup attempts as he sought to develop a reliable procedure. Successful at last, Fulton took photographs made by his son to Admiral Luis de Florez, who had become the director of technical research at the CIA. Believing that the program could best be handled by the military, de Florez put Fulton in touch with the Office of Naval Research (ONR), where he obtained a development contract from ONR's Air Programs Division.

Over the next few years, Fulton refined the air and ground equipment for the pickup system. Based at El Centro, California, he conducted numerous flights over the Colorado Desert using a Navy P2V Neptune. He gradually increased the weight of the pickup until the line began to break. A braided nylon line with a test strength of 4,000 pounds (1,800 kg) solved the problem. A major problem was the design of the locking device, or sky anchor, that secured the line to the aircraft. Fulton considered the solution of this problem the most demanding part of the entire developmental process.

Further tests were conducted at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, from 1 August 1959, using RB-69A, 54-4307, a CIA P2V-7U, according to an agency document.[2]

After experiments with instrumented dummies, Fulton continued to experiment with live pigs, as pigs have nervous systems close to humans. Lifted off the ground, the pig began to spin as it flew through the air at 125 miles per hour (200 km/h). It arrived on board uninjured but in a disoriented state.[3]

By 1958, the Fulton aerial retrieval system, or "Skyhook", was finished. The ground system could be dropped from an aircraft and contained the necessary equipment for a pickup, including a harness—for cargo or a person—attached to a 500 feet (150 m) high-strength, braided nylon line and a dirigible-shaped balloon inflated by a helium bottle.

Illustration of Fulton surface-to-air recovery system (STARS)
Illustration of operating principle of the Fulton recovery system

The pickup aircraft was equipped with two tubular steel "horns"--30 feet (9 m) long and spread at a 70° angle from its nose. The aircraft flew into the line, aiming at a bright mylar marker placed at the 425 feet (130 m) level. As the line was caught between the forks on the nose of the aircraft, the balloon was released and a spring-loaded trigger mechanism (sky anchor) secured the line to the aircraft. After the initial pickup, the line was snared by the pickup crew using a J-hook and attached to a powered winch and the person or cargo pulled on board. To prevent the pickup line from interfering with the aircraft's propellers in the case of an unsuccessful catch, the aircraft had deflector cables strung from the nose to the wingtips.

Later the US Navy tested the Fulton system fitted to modified S-2 Tracker carrier-based antisubmarine patrol aircraft for use in rescuing downed pilots. It is unknown whether a Fulton equipped S-2 was ever used on a combat mission.

First human pickups

Fulton Surface to Air Recovery System - balloon
The Fulton balloon

The CIA had secretly trained Special Activities Division paramilitary officers to use a predecessor system for human pickups as early as 1952. The first human recovery mission authorized for operational use of this "all American system" took place in Manchuria on 29 November 1952. CIA C-47 pilots Norman Schwartz and Robert Snoddy were trained in the aerial pickup technique towards the end of 1952. CIA paramilitary officers John T. Downey and Richard G. Fecteau, themselves hurriedly trained in the procedure during the week of 24 November, were to recover a courier who was in contact with anti-communist sympathizers in the area. The mission failed when Chinese forces downed the aircraft with small arms fire, capturing survivors Downey and Fecteau. The British allegedly also used the American system for personnel.[3]

The first human pickup using Fulton's STARS took place on 12 August 1958, when Staff Sergeant Levi W. Woods of the U.S. Marine Corps was winched on board the Neptune.[4] Because of the geometry involved, the person being picked up experienced less of a shock than during a parachute opening. After the initial contact, which was described by one individual as similar to "a kick in the pants", the person rose vertically at a slow rate to about 100 ft (30 m), then began to streamline behind the aircraft. Extension of arms and legs prevented spinning as the individual was winched on board. The process took about six minutes.

In August 1960, Capt. Edward A. Rodgers, commander of the Naval Air Development Unit, flew a Skyhook-equipped P2V to Point Barrow, Alaska, to conduct pickup tests under the direction of Dr. Max Brewer, head of the Navy's Arctic Research Laboratory. With Fulton on board to monitor the equipment, the Neptune picked up mail from Floating Ice Island T-3, also known as Fletcher's Ice Island, retrieved artifacts, including mastodon tusks, from an archaeological party on the tundra, and secured geological samples from Peters Lake Camp. The high point of the trials came when the P2V dropped a rescue package near the icebreaker USS Burton Island. Retrieved by a ship's boat, the package was brought on deck, the balloon inflated, and the pickup accomplished.

Project Coldfeet

The first operational use of Skyhook was Project COLDFEET, an examination of the Soviet drift station NP-8, abandoned in March 19, 1962. Two agents parachuted to station NP 8 in May 28, 1962. After 72 hours at the site, a pick-up was made in June 1, 1962 of the Soviet equipment that had been gathered and of both men. The mission yielded information on the Soviet Union's Arctic research activities, including evidence of advanced research on acoustical systems to detect under-ice submarines and efforts to develop Arctic anti-submarine warfare techniques.[3]

Later use

The Fulton system was used from 1965 to 1996 on several variants of the C-130 Hercules including the MC-130s and HC-130s. It was also used on the C-123 Provider.[5] Despite the apparent high-risk nature of the system, only one fatal accident occurred in 17 years of use (in 1982). The increased availability of long-range helicopters such as the MH-53 Pave Low, HH-60 Pave Hawk and MH-47 Chinook, and the MV-22 Osprey and CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, all with aerial refueling capability, caused this system to be used less often. In September 1996, the Air Force Special Operations Command ceased maintaining the capability to deploy this system.

In popular culture

The Skyhook has been featured in a number of films. It was seen in the 1965 James Bond film Thunderball, where James Bond and his companion Domino Derval are rescued at sea by a modified Boeing B-17 equipped with the Fulton system.[6] A few years later, it was also seen in the John Wayne movie The Green Berets to spirit a VC officer to South Vietnam.[7] The Skyhook system was also featured in the 2008 film The Dark Knight. First mentioned by Lucius Fox as a means of re-boarding an aircraft without it landing,[8] the system is attached to a Lockheed L-100 Hercules. It is used by Batman to kidnap the corrupt Chinese accountant Lau and escape the Hong Kong police, so that Batman could bring him back to Gotham City.[9][10][11] The Skyhook is also featured as a core gameplay mechanic in the video game Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, however it functions differently from its real-life counterpart.[12]

See also


  1. ^ Video: B-29s Rule Jap Skies,1944/12/18 (1944). Universal Newsreel. 1944. Retrieved 20 February 2012.
  2. ^ https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP61-00763A000100110122-7.pdf
  3. ^ a b c "Robert Fultons Skyhook and Operation Coldfeet". Center for the Study of Intelligence. Central Intelligence Agency. Retrieved 7 December 2008.
  4. ^ "500-Foot High Jump". Popular Mechanics, April 1960, p. 111.
  5. ^ Friddell, Phillip (18 December 2010). "Replica in Scale: 'Tis the Season---It's Our Christmas Special Edition Which Contains Some Tasty Transports, Some Colorful Jet Fighters, Odd Neptunes, Jugs, A Bird That Barely Flew, and a Blast From the Past". Replica in Scale.
  6. ^ "Not just a flight of fancy: 'Skyhook' that rescued James Bond from the ocean at the end of Thunderball was designed to recover real-life CIA agents from behind enemy lines". Mail Online. Retrieved 12 January 2016.
  7. ^ "Fulton Recovery System".
  8. ^ Nolan, Christopher (2008). The Dark Knight (Motion Picture). 28 minutes in. ASIN B001GZ6QC4. OCLC 259231584. Bruce Wayne: "And what about getting back into the plane?" Lucius Fox: "I'd recommend a good travel agent." Bruce Wayne: "Without it landing." Lucius Fox: "Now that's more like it. The CIA had a program back in the '60s for getting their people out of hotspots called Skyhook. We could look into that."
  9. ^ Nolan, Christopher (2008). The Dark Night (Motion Picture). 37 minutes in. ASIN B001GZ6QC4. OCLC 259231584.
  10. ^ Pulver, Andrew. "Top 10 films set in Hong Kong". theguardian.com. The Guardian. Retrieved 27 October 2015.
  11. ^ Hall, Peter. "Did You Know the Plane Extraction Scene from 'The Dark Knight' Used Real CIA Technology?". movies.com. Retrieved 27 October 2015.
  12. ^ "The True Story of 'Metal Gear Solid's' Fulton Recovery System".

External links

Air Force Historical Research Agency

The Air Force Historical Research Agency is the repository for United States Air Force historical documents. The Agency's collection, begun during World War II in Washington, D.C. and moved in 1949 to Maxwell Air Force Base, the site of Air University, to provide research facilities for professional military education students, the faculty, visiting scholars, and the general public.The U.S Air Force History Office in Bolling Air Force Base

Building 5681 in Washington, D.C. houses microfilm copies of archival materials in the United States Air Force Historical Research Center at Maxwell Air Force Base.Published guides of the collection include the Air Force Historical Archives Document Classification Guide (1971), Personal Papers in the USAF Historical Research Center compiled.by Richard E. Morse and Thomas C. Lobenstein (1980), U.S. Air Force Oral History Catalog (1982), and the United States Air Force History: A Guide to Documentary Sources.

All American Aviation

All American Aviation Inc (Pittsburgh) was an airline company founded by Dr. Lytle Schooler Adams in 1937. It evolved over the decades to become Allegheny Airlines, then USAir and subsequently US Airways, with the latter's merger with American Airlines in 2013 creating the largest airline in the world.

Allison Brooks

Allison C. Brooks (June 26, 1917 – December 9, 2006) was a United States Air Force aviator who piloted both the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and North American P-51 Mustang aircraft in combat missions over Nazi Germany during World War II. In the Vietnam War, he flew Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft in combat support missions. In addition to earning numerous military decorations, he was ultimately promoted to the rank of major general and served in active duty until 1971.

Body of Secrets

Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency is a book by James Bamford about the NSA and its operations. It also covers the history of espionage in the United States from uses of the Fulton surface-to-air recovery system to retrieve personnel on Arctic Ocean drift stations to Operation Northwoods, a declassified US military plan that Bamford describes as a "secret and bloody war of terrorism against their own country in order to trick the American public into supporting an ill-conceived war they intended to launch against Cuba."For the book, NSA director Michael Hayden gave him unprecedented access. In contrast, his previous book, The Puzzle Palace, was almost blocked from publication by the agency.

Drift station

A drift station is a temporary or semi-permanent facility built on an ice floe. During the Cold War the Soviet Union and the United States maintained a number of stations in the Arctic Ocean on floes such as Fletcher's Ice Island for research and espionage, the latter of which were often little more than quickly constructed shacks. Extracting personnel from these stations proved difficult and in the case of the United States, employed early versions of the Fulton surface-to-air recovery system.


E-Ring is an American television military drama, created by Ken Robinson and David McKenna and executive produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, that premiered on NBC on September 21, 2005, and aired through February 1, 2006.

Ice Station Zebra

Ice Station Zebra is a 1968 Metrocolor Cold War era suspense and espionage film directed by John Sturges, starring Rock Hudson, Patrick McGoohan, Ernest Borgnine, and Jim Brown. The screenplay by Alistair MacLean, Douglas Heyes, Harry Julian Fink, and W. R. Burnett is loosely based upon MacLean's 1963 novel of the same name. Both have parallels to real-life events that took place in 1959. The film was photographed in Super Panavision 70 by Daniel L. Fapp, and presented in 70 mm Cinerama in premiere engagements. The original music score is by Michel Legrand.

Intermountain Aviation

Intermountain Airlines, also known as Intermountain Aviation and Intermountain Airways, was a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) airline front company. Intermountain performed covert operations for the CIA in Southeast Asia and elsewhere during the Vietnam War era.

Intermountain's main base of operations was Marana Army Air Field near Tucson, Arizona. In 1975 it was acquired by Evergreen International Aviation, a company that has acknowledged connections with the CIA. Other CIA "proprietary" airlines such as Air America and Air Asia also operated out of Marana during the Vietnam War years.

One of Intermountain's covert missions was Project Coldfeet in which intelligence operatives were dropped in the Arctic to reconnoiter an abandoned Soviet drift station and then recovered using a Fulton Skyhook recovery system mounted on an Intermountain B-17 Flying Fortress. The modified B-17G, N809Z (now N207EV) and until August, 2017 could be seen at the Evergreen Aviation Museum in Oregon), had previously operated out of Clark Air Base, the Philippines, in an all-black scheme for the CIA for agent insertions and other unspecified covert operations in Southeast Asia.

Intermountain is alleged to have been involved in the delivery of a number of A-26 Invader bombers to be flown by Cuban exile pilots supporting the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

During its years in operation, Intermountain used several types of aircraft including the Curtiss C-46 Commando, the Lockheed L-188 Electra, the de Havilland Canada DHC-4 Caribou and DHC-6 Twin Otter, and a B-17 Flying Fortress which was outfitted with a Fulton surface-to-air recovery system, performed Arctic operations, and appeared at the end of the James Bond film Thunderball.

Joint Combined Exchange Training

Joint Combined Exchange Training or JCET programs are exercises designed to provide training opportunities for American Special Forces by holding the training exercises in countries that the forces may one day have to operate in, as well as providing training opportunities for the armed forces of the host countries. Typically, each JCET program involved 10–40 American special forces personnel, though can sometimes involved up to 100. The United States Congress permitted the use of funds from the military budget to be used in overseas training such as JCETs in 1991, providing that the Secretary of Defense submits to Congress annually a report on overseas training activities.

Begun in the 1970s, JCET programs were expanded in 1988 to Belgium, Denmark, West Germany and Italy. A Pentagon report from 1997, the year of a JCET in Equatorial Guinea, stated that a JCET program "involves small deployments of special operations personnel—sometimes fewer than a dozen troops—that conduct exercises jointly with foreign security forces to train the participants in a variety of areas that 'sharpen critical SOF mission essential task list... skills and enhance host-nation skills." In 1997, there were 101 JCET programs operating worldwide, with 95 operating in 1998.From 30 May to 30 June 2006, a JCET program was conducted by the U.S. military involving Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia. The course involved classes on "leadership and planning, rifle marksmanship and drilling techniques, close quarter battle and military operations in urban environments, small unit tactics, basic individual troop-leading procedures, and collective war fighting skills", with over 100 American personnel taking part.

KH-7 Gambit

Codenamed Gambit, the KH-7 (Air Force Program 206) was a reconnaissance satellite used by the United States from July 1963 to June 1967. Like the older Corona system, it acquired imagery intelligence by taking photographs and returning the undeveloped film to earth. It achieved a typical ground-resolution of 2 ft (0.61 m) to 3 ft (0.91 m). Though most of the imagery from the KH-7 satellites was declassified in 2002, details of the satellite program (and the satellite's construction) remained classified until 2011.In its summary report following the conclusion of the program, the National Reconnaissance Office concluded that the Gambit project was considered highly successful in that it produced the first high resolution satellite photography, 69.4% of the images having a resolution under 3 ft. (0.91 m); its record of successful launches, orbits, and recoveries far surpassed the records of earlier systems; and it advanced the state of the art to the point where follow-on larger systems could be developed and flown successfully. The report also stated that Gambit had provided the intelligence community with the first high resolution satellite photography of denied areas, the intelligence value of which was considered "extremely high". In particular, its overall success stood in sharp contrast to the two first-generation photoreconnaissance programs, Corona, which suffered far too many malfunctions to achieve any consistent success, and Samos, which was essentially a complete failure with all satellites either being lost in launch mishaps or returning no usable imagery.

Gambit emerged in 1962 as an alternative to the less-than-successful Corona and the completely failed Samos, although Corona was not cancelled and in fact continued operating alongside the newer program into the early 1970s. While Corona used the Thor-Agena launch vehicle family, Gambit would be launched on Atlas-Agena, the booster used for Samos. After the improved KH-8 satellite was developed during 1965, operations shifted to the larger Titan IIIB launch vehicle.

Lockheed HC-130

The Lockheed HC-130 is an extended-range, search and rescue (SAR)/combat search and rescue (CSAR) version of the C-130 Hercules military transport aircraft, with two different versions operated by two separate services in the U.S. armed forces.

The HC-130H Hercules and HC-130J Hercules versions are operated by the United States Coast Guard in a SAR and maritime reconnaissance role.

The HC-130P Combat King and HC-130J Combat King II variants are operated by the United States Air Force for long-range SAR and CSAR. The USAF variants also execute on scene CSAR command and control, airdrop pararescue forces and equipment, and are also capable of providing aerial refueling to appropriately equipped USAF, US Army, USN, USMC, and NATO/Allied helicopters in flight. In this latter role, they are primarily used to extend the range and endurance of combat search and rescue helicopters.

In July 2015, it was announced that the U.S. Forest Service will be receiving some of the U.S. Coast Guard's HC-130H aircraft to use as aerial fire retardant drop tankers as the Coast Guard replaces the HC-130H with additional HC-130J and HC-27J Spartan aircraft, the latter being received from the Air National Guard as part of a USAF-directed divestment of the C-27.

Luis de Florez

Luis de Florez (March 4, 1889 − November, 1962) was a naval aviator and a Rear Admiral in the United States Navy that was actively involved in experimental aerospace development projects for the United States Government. As both an active duty and a retired U.S. Navy admiral, de Florez was influential in the development of early flight simulators, and was a pioneer in the use of "virtual reality" to simulate flight and combat situations in World War II.

McGuire rig

The McGuire rig was used to extract soldiers from the jungles of Vietnam. It would be suspended from a helicopter and used to extract soldiers from areas without a suitable pick-up zone. It was simple, inexpensive, and effective. Although less comfortable than the STABO (Short Tactical Air Borne Operations) harness, it did not require the soldier to carry any special equipment. It was designed by Sergeant Major Charles T. McGuire, a member of Project DELTA, a Special Forces reconnaissance project.

The McGuire Rig was fashioned from a 2-inch (51 mm) wide, 15-foot (4.6 m) long A7A nylon cargo tie-down strap with a quick-fit buckle on one end. This was typically cut down to an 8-foot (2.4 m) length and a 18-inch (460 mm) web loop (wrist strap) attached near the top end. This was used to form a sling loop and attached to an over 100-foot (30 m) length of 5/8-inch nylon rope. Three ropes with McGuire Rigs attached could be dropped from a UH-1 "Huey" helicopter, all on the same side. A deployment pack containing a sandbag carried each rope to the ground. A soldier attached his rucksack with a snap link, stepped into the loop, adjusted it, inserted his left hand in the wrist loop, and on signal the helicopter lifted off. The three men would lock arms to prevent oscillation and prevent falls if a rope were shot through; a wounded or unconscious man could fall from the harness unless secured. The system did not allow the extracted soldiers to be hoisted into the helicopter. They were flown out of the danger area and then set down in a clearing in order to board the helicopter. On a long flight the harness proved to be extremely uncomfortable.From the pilot's standpoint, performing an extraction using a McGuire Rig required intense concentration. Once the soldiers were in the rig, the pilot would attempt to gain altitude by rising straight up, but with the nearest ground reference over 100 feet away, it was difficult to discern when the chopper was moving. There was the distinct possibility, therefore, that the soldier(s) would be dragged through tree limbs during the extraction.CPT John W. "Jack" Green, III, flying a UH-1B for the 145th Airlift Platoon in support of Project Delta, was the first pilot to utilize the McGuire Rig in an emergency extraction. In mid-1966, 145th was blended into the 281st AHC, which then assumed the mission of supporting Project Delta. Due to intense training with the MACV Recondo School and on-the-job training with Project Delta, the 281st AHC became highly proficient in usage of the McGuire Rig.


Project COLDFEET was a 1962 Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operation to extract intelligence from an abandoned Soviet Arctic drifting ice station. Due to the nature of its abandonment as the result of unstable ice, the retrieval of the operatives used the Fulton surface-to-air recovery system.

Robert Edison Fulton Jr.

Robert Edison Fulton Jr. (April 15, 1909 – May 7, 2004) was an American inventor and adventurer. He is known for having traveled around the world on a motorcycle and for several aviation-related inventions, among his 70 patents. Fulton was also a professional photographer.

Surface to air

Surface-to-air can refer to:

Surface to Air, fashion apparel

Surface to Air Studio, creative agency

Surface-to-air missile or Surface-to-air artillery

Fulton surface-to-air recovery system

Surface to Air, a 2006 rock album by Zombi

Surface to Air (film), 1997 film


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