The Skyhook: Plucking Humans from the Ground by an Airplane Since 1958

October 10, 2018

The fulton skyhook system illustration
Cvdr/Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0

The Fulton surface-to-air recovery system, also known as Skyhook, is a system used by the CIA, United States Navy, and United States Air Force to pick people up from the ground using an airplane. The system uses a line attached to a balloon which is attached to a person. An aircraft intercepts the line connecting the person and the balloon and is lifted in the air from the ground. The person is then pulled into the aircraft.

Pick Me Up

The history of this type of retrieval system can be traced back to the last few years of World War II. The British began using an extraction method that was based on a mail retrieval system invented during the 1920s and used by an early airline company called All American Aviation (which would become US Airways). This particular system used a line between two poles that would be snagged by an approaching airplane. The line was connected to a mail sack which would then be winched into the plane.

The Army Air Force was also interested in a way to rescue airmen from difficult locations and began tests of their own. The tests at first were a failure because of the increased g-forces, and one test proved to be an even bigger failure for one unfortunate sheep. The Army Air Force was able to make changes, however, and the first volunteer was successfully extracted by an aircraft from the ground on September 5, 1943. The Army Air Force was even able to retrieve a glider from the ground in Burma in 1944, its first operational success.

An Even Better System

Robert Fulton was an inventor who had come up with an aerial gunnery trainer that was eventually used by the Navy in 1942. After World War II, Fulton began working on an airplane that could be converted to an automobile, but he ran out of money. He than began to work on making the system previously used by All American Aviation better. He began his experiments in 1950 and developed it using a weather balloon and nylon line. The Navy became interested in his modifications, and Fulton began testing it in El Centro, California. He even came up with a way for the aircraft to anchor the line when it was caught by the aircraft.

By 1958, the Skyhook system was almost complete. The way it worked was that a package could be dropped from an aircraft that had the necessary supplies for a person on the ground. The package would contain a harness that was attached to a 500-foot nylon line and a portable helium bottle that would be used to inflate a balloon.

The aircraft was outfitted with steel tubes that were spread at a 70-degree angle on the nose. A marker was placed at the 425-foot level of the line, giving the aircraft spot to aim. When the aircraft made contact with the line, the balloon would be released and the line would be secured to the aircraft by what was called a sky anchor. The line would then run under the aircraft where it would be retrieved by the crew and winched in, bringing the person, or cargo traveling at 125 mph, into the aircraft.

At first, the tests used dummies, but as things progressed, a live creature was needed to test the affects of the system so a pig was used. The test didn’t go quite as planned. The pig was lifted off the ground and into the air, but it began to spin. The crew was able to get the pig on board safely, but the animal was disoriented. The pig obviously wasn’t too happy about being used as a test subject, because after it recovered from its ordeal, it attacked the crew.

The First Pickup

The first human to be picked up by the skyhook was Staff Sergeant Levi Woods of the U.S. Marine Corps on August 12, 1958. Woods was successfully reeled into the aircraft and was able to avoid the spin that had made the pig in the earlier test disoriented and eventually angry by extending his arms and the legs while in the air. Skyhook proved successful and was next used in Alaska in 1960 to pick up archaeological artifacts and geological samples from remote areas.

Operation Coldfeet

The Skyhook got its first operational use in 1961 in what became known as Operation Coldfeet. A naval aircraft on a survey mission had spotted an abandoned Soviet drift station In the Arctic. Drift stations drifted with the ice, and the Americans believed the Soviets were using submarine surveillance systems on them just as the U.S. was doing on theirs. The Soviets a few days later confirmed they had abandoned the station when the ice runway to it had become inaccessible.

The U.S. felt this was an opportunity to examine a Soviet drift station to compare and confirm what they were actually doing on it. But the problem was how would someone get there. It was out of helicopter range and an icebreaker couldn’t get to it. The Skyhook system became the answer. Two men began to train on the Skyhook system, Major James Smith from the Air Force, and Lieutenant Leonard LeSchack from the Navy.

Approval for the operation took time because of the fear of losing both men and the argument that the plan wouldn’t work. During this time, the drift station was moving farther away from the U.S. airbase in Greenland. In March 1962, the operation got a lift when it was announced that the Russians had abandoned another drift station that was in a better position.

The flight to the station took finally took place in mid-April 1962, but it wasn’t until May 4, 1962, that the Russian station was found. But another problem had occurred with the lapse in time. The funding for Coldfeet had run out. It was then thought that the CIA might want to be in on the operation. Fulton had been working with the CIA since 1961, and a CIA front company in Arizona called Intermountain Aviation had pilots that been training with the Skyhook system since that time. Additional funding was acquired, and arrangements were made for the CIA to supply the aircraft.

Smith and LeSchack dropped to the station on May 28, 1962. They were allocated three days to study the station.  The first attempt to pick up the men on May 30 failed because of fog. Another try was done again on June 1, but the station couldn’t be located. The pickup crew tried again the next day and were finally able to locate the station.

The conditions were far from ideal for a pickup since visibility was marginal and the wind was blowing strong, but the airplane crew was able to retrieve the first planned load, a cargo that consisted of 150 pounds of documents, samples, and exposed film. LeSchack was retrieved next even though he had been blown across the ice because of the wind blowing the balloon. Smith had the same problem but was successfully extracted from the ice and into the aircraft. The intelligence they gathered from the station was considered very valuable and confirmed that the Soviets had surveillance systems in place aboard the station.

Skyhook was believed to have been used in other clandestine military and intelligence operations since Operation Coldfeet, but its role today is a well-guarded secret. We do know, however, that James Bond used it after defeating the bad guy in Thunderball.

Sources: NY Times, Daily Mail, CIA (1), CIA (2), Popular Mechanics, Wikipedia

About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of great trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium. I hope you find things here to annoy those around you with your new found knowledge.

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  • While a Communications tech at the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards AFB in 1966-67, I worked on the JC-130 aircraft and the HC-130 and one JHC-130 used for these pickups and for snatching film capsules from orbiting Corona spy satellites in mid-air.

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