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Special Forces Berlin
by James Stejskal



Fulton Recovery System

The Fulton Recovery System was used to recover spies, Special Forces Soldiers, downed pilots, and other personnel who had to be recovered from a denied area where an aircraft could not land.

USAF HC-130H Conducting Fulton Extraction
USAF HC-130H Conducting a Fulton Extraction

The Fulton Recovery System was designed by Robert Edison Fulton, Jr. - a scientist who invented items that the military could use. The system was put into use by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and U.S. Army Special Forces in the 1950s. Other Names. The Fulton Recovery System was also informerly called "Skyhook" while the official Air Force name was "Surface to Air Recovery System or STARS".


A plane would drop a container about the size of a large duffel bag that had a small, white, dirigible-style balloon, small cannister (filled with helium), 500-foot long nylon rope, overalls (similar to a smoke jumpers), and harness. The person on the ground to be exfiltrated would put on the overalls, put on the harness, attached it to the nylon rope, and then inflate the balloon. The balloon would rise until the cable was at its fullest length. The balloon wasn't buoyent enough to lift the individual off the ground. An airplane would then return at a designated time, snag the cable below the balloon with a locking device (called a sky anchor), cut the balloon free, and reel the cable into the aircraft until the person being exfilled was inside the aircraft. The system could be used to exfiltrate one or two personnel.

Aircraft. A commonly used USAF aircraft for the Fulton Recovery System was the MC-130E Combat Talon I. The aircraft would engage the balloon line (also called the 'liftline') with a V-shaped yoke (sometimes referred to as 'whiskers'), cut away the balloon, and retrieve the person at the end of the cable via a winch. Red flags were on the line during daylight recoveries and lights would be attached to the lift lin for nightime recoveries. Fender wires ran from the nose of the aircraft to the wingtips to ward off the cable should the yoke miss the balloon rope.

Operational Use of Fulton Recovery System

Operation Coldfeet. The CIA successfully used the Fulton Recovery System in May 1961 when it infiltrated some agents to examine an abandoned Soviet "drift station" that used acoustical equipment to track U.S. submarines. Two agents parachuted in, conducted their mission, and were exfiltrated by the Fulton "Skyhook". Operation Coldfeet is reported to have produced intelligence of great value. 2. 

The system was infrequently used and was finally phased out in 1996 by the Air Force Special Operations Command. The last unit to conduct the Fulton Recovery System (using only training loads) was the 8th SOS at Hurlburt Field in 1995. 4. While it did not see much use as a tool for personnel recovery it was used by the CIA and Special Forces for special operations missions.

There was only one fatality associated with the Fulton Recovery System that occurred April 26, 1982 during a Flintlock exercise in Germany. SFC Clifford Strickland of the 10th Special Forces Group based at Fort Devens, Massachusetts died during this training event. 5. One version of the incident indicates that the liftline slipped through the sky anchor (the V device that captures the liftline) causing the individual to be lifted into the air but then released. 4.  This may have been the last live pickup.

Earlier Personnel Recovery Systems

"Man Pick-Up Kit". The U.S. Army Air Forces used this contraption to snatch up downed pilots. It was developed and in use before the Fulton Recovery System. The Army Air Forces technical manual provided some details of this system. 1.  The first live tests were conducted in 1943 during World War II. Another name for this system may have been the "All American Aviation System".

One use of the "All American Aviation System" was to be used in an unsuccessful CIA mission in 1952 in Red China. A aircraft was to use the system to exfiltrate a Chinese agent working for the CIA. Two pilots and two CIA agents flew to the location and their aircraft was shot down during the attempted recovery operation. The Chinese agent to be exfiltrated had been captured and the recovery mission was a trap. The two pilots died and the two CIA agents spent about twenty years in a Chinese prison. 3.

Videos of Fulton Recovery System

Skyhook | Top Secret Weapons Revealed,  a 3-min long video on the early Skyhook system developed by Robert Fulton. Posted on YouTube.com by American Heroes Channel, September 6, 2012.

C-130 Hercules and the Fulton Recovery System, 1-min long video posted on Facebook.com.

FULTON SKYHOOK Extraction of MI6 Operative and Femme Fatale by B-17, a two-minute clip of a James Bond spy film Thunderball showing the extraction of James and his girl by Fulton Skyhook. YouTube.com.

Extraction Method, John Wayne exfiltrates an enemy North Vietnamese senior officer via Fulton Extraction in the movie The Green Berets. Posted on YouTube.com on February 11, 2011.

Lockheed MC-130 Fulton Surface-to-Air Recovery System, 1 min, posted on YouTube.com Dec 9, 2008.

Fulton Recovery System / Skyhook / Project 46, Delta Force, posted on YouTube.com, June 2, 2014, 17 minutes long. Video footage shot in the late 1980's at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Lockheed MC-130 Fulton Surface-to-Air Recovery System, posted to YouTube.com on August 22, 2008. Depicts an overwater pickup of an individual from a rubber raft.

The Debrief: Behind the Artifact - Skyhook, Central Intelligence Agency, April 16, 2021, CIA YouTube, 3 minutes. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZY4Uq-xgXf4&t=18s

Photos of the Fulton Recovery System

Lockheed HC-130H Hercules Rigged for Fulton Extraction. Airliners.net

Photo of Fulton Surface to Air Recovery System Balloon. Wikimedia Commons.

MC-130E - Fulton Sky Hook. American Special Ops.

CIA Skyhook Extraction Instructions

(Source, CIA Online Museum)

CIA Skyhook Extraction Instructions

CIA Skyhook Extraction Instructions

Webpages & Pubs About Fulton Recovery System

Fulton Surface-to-Air Recovery System by WikipediA

Thigpen, Jerry L., Colonel, USAF, Retired, The Praetorian STARShip: The Untold Story of the Combat Talon, Air University Press, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, December 2001. This is probably the most complete history of surface-to-air recovery systems starting from the early mail pickup systems invented during the 1920s until 1996 when the Fulton STAR system was shelved.

See Appendix A - Live Fulton STARS Made by Combat Talon Aircraft, page 467-472 and Figures 2-5.

Fulton Surface-to-Air Recovery System. National Museum of the USAF. Posted on Internet Archive Wayback Machine.

"Any experience with the Fulton Recovery System?", SOCNET.com.

Eremenko, A., How Fulton's surface-to-air recovery system works, February 12, 2015, Department of Mathmatics, Purdue University. A student provides the 'math' on how the system functions.

The Fulton Skyhook STAR System, 9websites.

Skyhook Extraction Mechanism Instructions, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Online Museum

"Robert Fulton's Skyhook and Operation Coldfeet", Center for the Study of Intelligence, Vol 38, No. 5, Central Intelligence Agency, PDF, pages 99 - 109.

News Reports & Articles about Fulton Recovery System

October 11,2015. "Fact vs. Fiction of the Fulton Recovery System", by Mark Hamilton, Cool Down Timer. The use of a system similar to the Fulton Recovery System in a video game has prompted some to investigate the real thing.

September 14,2015. "How the Fulton surface-to-air recovery system became Metal Gear Solid's secret weapon", The Guardian.

September 4, 2015. "The True Story of 'Metal Gear Solid's' Fulton Recovery System", by Matthew Gault, War is Boring.

October 16, 2012. "James Bond 'Skyhook' was a real device used by CIA", Daily Mail.

December 17, 2006. "The Skyhook", by Jason Bellows, Damn Interesting.




1. The U.S. Army Air Forces Booklet entitled Man Pickup, Technical Order No. 03-1-57 provides more details on the 'Man Pickup' system. www.scribd.com/doc/287902565/U-S-Army-Air-Force-Man-Pickup-Manual. See also "Before the Fulton Recovery System, There Was the Man Pick-Up Kit", by Joseph Trevithick, War is Boring, October 30, 2015.

2. CIA, Robert Fulton's Skyhook and Operation Coldfeet, Historical Document posted April 14, 2007, Central Intelligence Agency Library.

3. For more on the "All American System" read Two CIA Prisoners in China, 1952-73, by Nicholas Dujmovic, Central Intelligence Agency Library, Historical Document, posted April 5, 2007.

4. See Comments for the video posted on Facebook at this link.

5. Info from The Praetorian STARShip: The Untold Story of the Combat Talon, by Jerry L. Thigpen, Colonel, USAF, Retired, Air University Press, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, December 2001. See Appenix A. www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/au/thigpen.pdf. See also a Wikipedia entry for "1982" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portal:Aviation/Anniversaries/April_26.



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