May 3, 1966: Fulton Recovery System, Also Passed an Important Milestone when the First Human Ground-to-Air Recoveries

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  • Air Force Flight Test Center

The Fulton Recovery System, also known as Skyhook, passed an important milestone when the first human ground-to-air recoveries were made. An HC-130H snatched Capt Gerald T. Lyvre from the surface of the ocean offshore from Point Mugu.

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 and Boeing B-17. 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 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 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.

Experiments with the recovery system began in 1950 by the CIA and Air Force. Using a weather balloon, nylon line, and weights of 10 to 15 pounds,  Fulton made numerous pickup attempts as he sought to develop a reliable procedure. Successful at last, Fulton took photographs and sent them to Admiral Luis de Florez, who had become the 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), where he obtained 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 Colorado Desert using a Navy P2V Neptune. 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. A major problem was the design of the locking device, or sky anchor, that secured the line to the aircraft. Fulton considered the solution of this problem the most demanding part of the entire developmental process.  Further tests were conducted at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, from 1 August 1959, using RB-69A, 54-4307, a CIA P2V-7U, according to an agency document.

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