The Fulton Skyhook STAR System

Used by the CIA, USAF, and USN in the Cold War for Impossible Missons

Invented by an adventurer, the Skyhook Surface to Air Recovery System was a unique answer to a very relevant problem in the Cold War.

Q: How do you airlift someone from where an airplane can't land and a helicopter is too far away?
A: You Skyhook 'em!

The Fulton Skyhook was designed by Robert Fulton, an adventurer first and inventor second, from a WWII concept to pick up operatives behind enemy lines in areas too remote for even STOL aircraft. The aircraft part of the system had two arms attached to the nose of the aircraft that engaged a 500-foot long rope held by a helium-filled weather balloon. Attached to the other end of the rope was the person (or other item) to be picked up. The four hundred pound ground package consisted of a helium tank, the balloon, the suit-harness, and the rope in a buoyant container that could be parachuted to a waiting victim below. The person on the ground would don the suit, inflate the balloon, attach one end of the line to the suit and the other to the balloon, and then plop down and wait for the pickup aircraft to return. The recovery plane would approach as low and slow as possible and catch the rope floating below the balloon between the two arms on the nose of the craft. As the craft moved forward the line would "reel" the object attached to other end of the balloon, be it a person or a package. The line would cycle through the aircraft where the person or package would be recovered through the cargo door.

In initial testing with live pigs it was found that the pigs were recovered alive but had rotated violently in flight. The final bugs were worked out by 1958 with a US marine guinea pig playing the role of Wiley E Coyote in the test pickup. The US government considered using the Skyhook to rescue the Dali Lama from Chinese occupied Tibet in 1959 but went with a yak-borne extraction instead. In 1961 a CIA flown RB-66 was fitted with the Skyhook to rescue downed Air America pilot Allen Pope from Indonesia but the mission was scrubbed. Project Coldfeet, an amazing reconnaissance of a lost Soviet drifting ice station on the polar icecap in 1962 would be the first use in a real operation. The Skyhook was fitted to a civilian registered (flown by a CIA front company) B-17 bomber for the operation due to the fact that the US Navy P-2 Neptune originally detailed did not have sufficient range.

The Skyhook was unclassified and became the subject of articles in Popular Mechanics, Time and other magazines. A set of public demonstrations took place at Ft Bragg in 1964 in which no less than 35 soldiers were carried aloft over the span of a day, including at least two generals. This led to supporting roles in the movies the Green Berets (with John Wayne) and the Bond film Thunderball. The New Batman Dark Knight movie shows the caped crusader using a Skyhook to grab a villian by surprise.

It was stated by numerous users that the ride was enjoyable and only notable part was the initial 'kick in the pants' upon lift off from the ground. The Army experimented with the contraption on the CV-2 Caribou aircraft. The US Navy tested the system on modified S-2A Tracker aircraft in the 1960s for use in pilot recovery at sea. It was used by the US Air Force on at least forty modified HC/MC-130 Combat Talon aircraft from 1965 until it was phased out in 1996. The Air Force conducted no less than 75 demonstrations of the device with live training subjects between 1966-1982 but no disclosed employments were made. While in US Air Force service it was referred to as the STAR (Surface to Air Recovery) system. It was staged in Vietnam but was never successfully used to recover downed pilots. When a practice recovery during a 1982 exercise in West Germany ended in death, a chest mounted parachute was added to the rig so that if the person was being recovered lost connection he could parachute to the ground. The system was also relegated to being used with weights in practice runs around this time period instead of actual personnel. It is not believed to have been used by any other countries.

[ ] [ Air Force Info ]