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 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. 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 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. 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.

The Skyhook system[edit]

Experiments began in 1950 with the CIA and Air Force. 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. 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 Neptune 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 (1800 kilograms) 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, [clarification needed] 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 and at the same time the spring-loaded trigger mechanism (sky anchor) secured the line to the aircraft. As the line streamed 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.[2]

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[edit]

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.[2]

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.[3] 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 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.

Operation Coldfeet[edit]

Main article: Operation Coldfeet

The first operational use of Skyhook was Operation Coldfeet, an examination of an abandoned Soviet drift station. Two agents parachuted to station NP 8 in May 1962. After 72 hours at the site, a pick-up was made 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.[2]

Later use[edit]

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 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 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[edit]

In 1965, the CIA-operated Fulton-equipped B-17 Flying Fortress (former AAF Ser. No. 44-85531), registered as N809Z, was featured at the ending of the James Bond movie Thunderball.

On the television show "The Unit", Sergeant Major Jonas Blaine (portrayed by Dennis Haysbert) uses the Skyhook for his extraction at the end of a mission. He carried a duffel bag with an oxygen tank, mask, rope, harness and a balloon in the shape of a rocket with a red tip.[4]

Another HC-130-based version of the system was also used in the 1968 John Wayne movie The Green Berets.

The recovery system was used in the video game Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. It is briefly seen on a MC-130 Combat Talon aircraft but never actually seen in use.

In the PSP game Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, the STARS is a core gameplay mechanic. Operatives and unconscious enemy soldiers are recovered with the Fulton Recovery System, though in a slightly different fashion. In the game, the inflatable helium balloon lifts the soldier into the air and is then carried out of sight by a helicopter, rather than an MC-130E. This feature is also present in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. It is a reference to another Konami-made game Pooyan.

In the PC game I.G.I.-2: Covert Strike field operative David Jones is picked up to C-130 in the end of one mission.

In the film The Dark Knight, Batman successfully uses the Skyhook system to pick himself up from the IFC 1 in Hong Kong. The system used included an inflated balloon with an internally lit flashing light that was launched from inside the skyscraper through a broken window.

In the television series Alias, spy Sydney Bristow is picked up using the system in season 1, episode 19, "Snowman".

In the video game Dead Rising 2, Sullivan attempts to use the Skyhook system to escape from Fortune City. However, after his belt is handcuffed to the roof, he is torn in half by the force of the pickup.

In the video game Ace Combat: Assault Horizon the system is used by an AC-130 to retrieve a stranded infantry man.

In the video game Payday: The Heist the system is used in the Green Bridge map to aid in the escape of a prisoner.

In the video game Payday 2, the system is used in the GO Bank Map during Plan B to transport the stolen loot out.

In the book Golden Buddha (novel) the system is used to recover The Golden Buddha and Juan Cabrillo from a ship's deck.

In the 5th OVA of the Crying Freeman anime, Abduction of Chinatown, the main character uses this system to infiltrate rival organization.

In the video game Splinter Cell: Blacklist (2013) a variation of the system is used by Sam Fisher to rapidly be airlifted to safety by an allied helicopter. This happens twice in the game once by himself and the second time with his partner Briggs attached to him with an extra meter and a half of rope to the second harness. No balloons are used, instead the chopper snags the rope that has been fired into a solid surface.

In the video game Battlefield 4, released in 2013, the system is used to extract the player and their two squadmates after blowing up a dam to reopen the skybridge supply line.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Video: B-29s Rule Jap Skies,1944/12/18 (1944). Universal Newsreel. 1944. Retrieved 20 February 2012. 
  2. ^ a b c "Robert Fultons Skyhook and Operation Coldfeet". Center for the Study of Intelligence. Central Intelligence Agency. Retrieved 7 December 2008. 
  3. ^ "500-Foot High Jump". Popular Mechanics, April 1960, p. 111.
  4. ^ The Unit. Season 2, episode 1 "Change of Station".

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