Fulton STARS equipped Lockheed MC-130E Combat Talon. Photo: US Air Force.
The Fulton surface-to-air recovery system (STARS), also known as the Fulton Skyhook, was a method of retrieving personnel and equipment from remote locations using a modified aircraft and a skyhook. The history of STARS, dates back to the early 1950s, when inventor Robert Edison Fulton, Jr. developed it for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The system was based on a previous method that was used by American and British forces during World War II to retrieve personnel and downed assault gliders from the ground. The system had a line between two poles on the ground next to the person to be rescued. A C-47 Skytrain aircraft had a grappling hook that caught the line, which was connected to the person to be rescued or glider to be retrieved.
Fulton improved the system by using a self-inflating balloon to lift the line above the ground and a harness to secure the person or object to be retrieved. Recovery kits were designed for one and two-man retrievals. The system was tested with various aircraft, such as the MC-130E Combat Talon I and B-17 Flying Fortress, and with different loads, such as dummies, pigs and humans. The system achieved several successful recoveries in different conditions and was used by the CIA, US Air Force and US Navy for various missions until the 1990s.
The first reported operational use of STARS was Operation COLDFEET, a covert mission conducted by the CIA and the US Navy in 1962. Also known as Project Coldfeet, the objective of the operation was to investigate and collect intelligence from an abandoned Soviet Arctic drifting ice station, known as NP 8. The station had been left by the Soviets in March 1962, after the ice runway used to supply it had been destroyed by a pressure ridge. It was too deep in the ice pack to be reached by icebreaker and out of helicopter range. The US Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR) was interested in examining the station to learn about the Soviet acoustical surveillance system, drift station operations, and polar research.
The Soviet acoustical surveillance system was a network of hydrophones deployed on the ocean floor to detect and track US submarines as they transited the polar ice pack. The Soviets used the system to monitor the movements and activities of US submarines, especially those carrying nuclear missiles. The Soviet acoustical surveillance system was based on the SOFAR channel. The SOFAR channel, which stands for “sound fixing and ranging channel”, is a phenomenon of underwater acoustics that allows low frequency sound waves to travel across long distances in the ocean. The SOFAR channel can be used for various purposes, such as detecting earthquakes, locating objects, communicating with submarines, and studying marine life.
Operation COLDFEET involved two operatives, Major James Smith, USAF, and Lieutenant Leonard A. LeSchack, USNR. They parachuted from a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber on 28 28 May 1962 onto the abandoned station, Smith was an experienced paratrooper and Russian linguist who had served on US Drift Stations Alpha and Charlie, while LeSchack was a former Antarctic geophysicist who had set up an acoustical surveillance system on Fletcher’s Ice Island or T3 in 1960. At the abandoned Soviet station they gathered documents, equipment, and samples, such as ice cores, meteorological data, and biological specimens. They also planted demolition charges to destroy the station after their departure. They only planned to spend 72 hours at the station but due to fog their extraction was delayed by a day.
They were then extracted by a modified CIA B-17 (serial 44-85531, registered as N809Z) using STARS, the operation was considered a success, as it provided valuable information on Soviet activities and capabilities in the Arctic region. It also served to inspire a scene in the 2008 Batman movie The Dark Knight.
STARS would seem to have a high level of risk, but in actuality it only caused one death in its 17 years of operation. On 26 April 1982, SFC Clifford Wilson Strickland was retrieved by a Lockheed MC-130 Combat Talon of the 7th Special Operations Squadron at CFB Lahr, Germany, during Flintlock 82 exercise, using STARS, but he died when a bushing at the top of the left yoke pivot bolt failed.
STARS became less important with the advent of long-range helicopters such as the MH-53 Pave Low, HH-60 Pave Hawk, and MH-47 Chinook, and the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, all with aerial refueling capability. In September 1996, the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) stopped maintaining the ability to use this system.
STARS was featured in the Vietnam War movie The Green Berets, a 1968 war film based on Robin Moore’s novel from 1965. The movie was directed by John Wayne and Ray Kellogg and starred John Wayne, David Janssen and Jim Hutton.
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