Fulton surface-to-air recovery system

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The Fulton system in use
The Fulton system in use from below

The Fulton surface-to-air recovery system (STARS) is a system used by the United States Air Force and United States Navy for retrieving persons on the ground from a MC-130E Combat Talon I aircraft. It involves using an overall-type harness and a self-inflating balloon which carries an attached lift line. An MC-130E engages the line with its V-shaped yoke and the individual 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 recoveries.

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 that was used during World War II by American and British forces. The earlier system did not use a balloon, but had a pair of poles that were set in the ground on either side of the person to be retrieved, with a line running from the top of one pole to the other. An aircraft, usually a C-47 Skytrain, would trail a grappling hook and engage the line, which was attached to the person to be retrieved.


[edit] The Skyhook system

Experiments began in 1950. Using a weather balloon, nylon line, and 10- to 15-pound weights, Fulton made numerous pickup attempts as he sought to develop a reliable procedure. Successful at last, he had his son photograph the operation. Fulton then took the film to Admiral Luis de Florez, who had become the first 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). Thanks to de Florez's interest, Fulton received 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 desert, using a Navy P2V for the pickups. 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 solved the problem. More vexing were the difficulties that were experienced with the locking device, or sky anchor, that secured the line to the aircraft. Fulton eventually resolved this problem, which he considered the most demanding part of the entire developmental process.

By 1958, the Fulton aerial retrieval system, or Skyhook, had taken its final shape. A package that easily could be dropped from an aircraft contained the necessary ground equipment for a pickup. It featured a harness, for cargo or person, that was attached to a 500-foot (150 m), high-strength, braided nylon line. A portable helium bottle inflated a dirigible-shaped balloon, raising the line to its full height.

The pickup aircraft sported two tubular steel "horns" protruding from its nose, 30 feet long and spread at a 70° angle. The aircraft would fly into the line, aiming at a bright mylar marker placed at the 425-foot (130 m) level. As the line was caught between the forks on the nose of the aircraft, the balloon was released at the same time the spring-loaded trigger mechanism (sky anchor) secured the line to the aircraft. As the line streamlined under the fuselage, it was snared by the pickup crew, using a J-hook. It was then attached to a powered winch and pulled on board. The aircraft also had cables strung from the nose to the wingtips to keep the balloon line away from the propellers, in case the catch was unsuccessful.

Fulton first used instrumented dummies as he prepared for a live pickup. He next used a pig, 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 mph (200 km/h). It arrived on board uninjured but in a disoriented state. Once it recovered, it attacked the crew.[1]

[edit] First human pickups

The CIA had secretly trained paramilitary officers to use the system for human pickups as early as 1952. The first human recovery mission authorized for operational use of the 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 during the fall 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.[1]

The first human pickup took place on 12 August 1958, when Staff Sergeant Levi W. Woods, USMC, was winched on board the P2V. 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 feet, 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 P2V picked up mail from Floating Ice Island T-3, also known as Fletcher's Ice Island, retrieved artifacts, including mastodon tusks, from an archeological 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.

[edit] Operation Coldfeet

The stage was now set for the first operational use of Skyhook. What became known as Operation Coldfeet began in May 1962, when a naval aircraft flying an aeromagnetic survey over the Arctic Ocean reported sighting an abandoned Soviet drift station. A few days later, the Soviets announced that they had been forced to leave Station NP 9 (a different station, NP-8 ended up being the target) when the ice runway used to supply it had cracked.

The prospect of examining an abandoned Soviet ice station attracted ONR's interest. The previous year, ONR had set an acoustical surveillance network on a US drift station used to monitor Soviet submarines. ONR assumed that the Soviets would have a similar system to keep track of American submarines as they transited the polar ice pack, but there was no direct evidence to support this. Also, ONR wanted to compare Soviet efforts on drift stations with US operations.

The problem was how to get to NP 9. It was far too deep into the ice pack to be reached by an icebreaker, and it was out of helicopter range. Fulton's Skyhook seemed to provide the answer. To Capt. John Cadwalader, who would command Operation Coldfeet, it looked like "a wonderful opportunity" to make use of the pickup system.

Following a recommendation by Dr. Max Britton, head of the Arctic program in the Geography Branch of ONR, RAdm. L. D. Coates, Chief of Naval Research, authorized preliminary planning for the mission while he sought final approval from the Chief of Naval Operations. The mission was scheduled for September, a time of good weather and ample daylight. NP 9 would be within 600 miles of the US Air Force base at Thule, Greenland, the planned launching point for the operation.

ONR selected two highly qualified investigators for the ground assignment. Maj. James Smith, USAF, was an experienced paratrooper and Russian linguist who had served on US Drift Stations Alpha and Charlie. Lt. Leonard A. LeSchack, USNR, a former Antarctic geophysicist, had set up the surveillance system on T-3 in 1960. Although not jump qualified, he quickly went through the course at Lakehurst Naval Air Station. During the summer, the two men trained on the Fulton retrieval system, working in Maryland with an experienced P2V crew at the Naval Air Test Center.

The following year, 1962, a converted CIA B-17 Flying Fortress dropped both men on NP-8. After 72 hours at the site, a pick-up was made of the Soviet equipment that had been gathered and of both men. This mission required the use of three separate extractions—first for the Soviet equipment, then of LeSchack and finally of Smith.[1]

[edit] Later uses

The Fulton system was used from 1965 to 1996 on several variants of the C-130 Hercules including the MC-130s and HC-130s. Despite the apparent high-risk related to the use of the system, only one fatal accident occurred in 17 years of use (in 1982). The increased availability of long-range helicopters such as MH-53 Pave Low, HH-60 Pave Hawk and MH-47 Chinook, 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.

[edit] References in popular culture

  • In Thunderball (1965) film, the sky-hook system is used at the end to pick up Bond and Domino from a life raft.
  • In Alerte atomique (“Atomic Alert”, 1965), the 34th album of the Buck Danny comic series, the skyhook system is used to extract Buck Danny from the jungle of the fictional Central American country of Mantegua.
  • In The Green Berets (1968) film, the system was used to extract a North Vietnamese general.
  • In an episode of Alias (2001) (television series) the main protagonist, secret agent Sydney Bristow, used the system to extract herself and a colleague from a motorcycle after a mission.
  • In IGI-2 Covert Strike (2003) (video game) a modified system, using a weather balloon, is used to extract the protagonist David Jones after a mission.
  • In Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004), PlayStation 2 game, the system is in the mission plan as an extraction method used for the CIA Operative from Soviet territory.
  • In E-Ring (2005), the television series, Special Forces soldiers used the system to retrieve a wounded soldier and a captured terrorist.
  • In The Unit (2006), the television series created by original Delta Force member CSM Eric L. Haney (ret.) (who himself flew inside a special ops MC-130 Combat Talon that had a Fulton Recovery System during Operation Eagle Claw), Unit operative Jonas Blane used the Fulton system to escape a group of (presumed) Al-Qaeda fighters after missing his assigned extraction rendezvous. Unfortunately for any purists who viewed the show, Jonas performed the maneuver incorrectly, keeping his arms across his chest during the entire extraction process.
  • In Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops (2006), PlayStation Portable game, the system can be used in the game's online portion to extract players from the battlefield.
  • In The Dark Knight (2008) film, the sky-hook system is used to extract Batman and mob treasurer Lau from a building in Hong Kong.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

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