The Skyhook Aerial Retrieval System
In the 1950s, the CIA needed a capability to extract officers out of hostile situations without ever setting foot (or wheels) on the ground. The aerial retrieval system used by the Agency was called Skyhook.
The Skyhook system used two main elements:
1. a plane equipped with steel wire-catching horns, an electric-powered winch—a mechanical device used to pull in or let out cables—and a 50-foot steel cable; and
2. a separate package of gear—delivered by air-drop—to allow officers on the ground to “catch” the Skyhook.
The First Operational Use of Skyhook
In May 1962, the Skyhook proved critical in extracting CIA officers and materials from an abandoned Soviet ice station that was suspected to have monitored American submarines. This was the first operational use of Skyhook, and it yielded valuable intelligence on the USSR’s Arctic activities.
The Skyhook System
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, 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-degree angle. The aircraft would fly into the line, aiming at a bright mylar marker placed at the 425-foot 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.
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. It arrived on board undamaged but in a disoriented state. Once it recovered, it attacked the crew.
The first human pickup took place on 12 August 1958, when S. Sgt. 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 the oscillation that plagued the pig, 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, 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.