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October 8, 2023

CIA Used the Skyhook to Extract Their Personnel in a Fast and Safe Way From the Ground

The Fulton surface-to-air recovery system (STARS), also known as Skyhook, is a system used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), United States Air Force, and United States Navy for retrieving individuals on the ground using aircraft such as the MC-130E Combat Talon I and B-17 Flying Fortress. 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 CIA in the early 1950s. It was an evolution from a similar system 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 began work in El Centro, California, in 1950. Utilizing a Navy PV-2 Neptune, he flew over the Colorado Desert to further experiment with his new system. Development was slow and difficult. Fulton identified two issues; the composition of the line to prevent breakage and anchoring the cord to avoid dangerous movement by the captured object. Testing showed that braided nylon with high tensile strength was the optimal material to use. The sky anchor design would funnel the line to a central point, after which it would be locked into place. The line would run under the aircraft following successful anchoring, and the crew would secure and reel in the load. According to Fulton, the design of the sky anchor was the most challenging part of the systems development.

Testing initially began with dummies. When these proved successful, tests began using live subjects. The first of these was a pig. Unfortunately for this pig, it began to spin wildly upon capture as the aircrew reeled it into the aircraft. While still safe, this development disoriented the load substantially. The first human trials in 1958 would solve this problem. USMC Staff Sergeant Levi Woods successfully recovered using Skyhook. He avoided disorientation by spreading out his arms and legs while reeling in. Following this, testing moved to Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, on August 1, 1959. Here the project was finalized and named after its creator.

1 comment:

  1. I'm betting that the guy being hauled into the navy plane was Richard 'Demo Dick' Marcinko future founder of the USN Seal Team 6 anti terrorist unit. In his autobiography he mentions being the 'test dummy' in the USN's evaluation of the FRS. One time the winch hauling him in got stuck so he was being pulled along with nothing better to do. So...he put his arms arms out and back and forth to the horror of the crew. He had a blast!




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