U.S. Navy SEALS conducting HALO training. U.S. Navy photo (Released).

The 1960s marked a significant era in the history of military operations, with the formal development and widespread adoption of a revolutionary technique known as High Altitude-Low Opening (HALO). This method transformed the way personnel, equipment, and supplies were delivered into combat zones, opening new possibilities for covert operations and strategic infiltration. It is designed for stealthy and rapid insertion, minimizing the time parachutes can be spotted by the enemy.

Origins in the CIA

The HALO technique can trace its origins back to 1951 during the Korean War. John K. Singlaub, who was serving as Deputy Commander and Chief of Staff fpr the CIA’s Joint Advisory Commission, Korea (JACK), utilized an Air Force B-26 from a Forward Operating Base on Yeongheungdo Island and modified the bomb bay to serve as a jump platform. Following a number of preliminary jumps to validate the concept, he executed a sequence of experimental jumps using an Air Force L-19 Bird Dog aircraft above the Han River.

The establishment of JACK represented the first time the CIA formed a clandestine services field mission. JACK was involved in various operations, including the recovery of downed pilots and the replication of aspects of the OSS missions during World War II.

U.S. Army Bird Dog in flight. U.S. Army photo.

Singlub was instrumental in demonstrating high-altitude military parachuting and was a pioneer in using bomber aircraft for agent drops in CIA covert-action operations. As the years passed, the HALO technique underwent numerous refinements and adaptations to suit a variety of military needs.

Singlaub was a highly decorated officer in the former Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II.  Serving as a member of JEDBURGH Team JAMES, he parachuted into France on August 11, 1944, with the mission to equip and guide the French resistance. Later, he was dispatched to China as the leader of the PIGEON Mission. On August 27, 1945, he made a daring jump onto Hainan Island to liberate Dutch and Australian prisoners of war. As a select few retained in the Special Operations Branch of the Strategic Services Unit (the organization that succeeded the OSS), Singlaub remained in China to provide insights on the unfolding Civil War.

John K. Singlaub during World War II during his OSS service.

From 1966 to 1968, Singlaub commanded the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Studies and Observation Group (MACV-SOG). MACV-SOG was a covert U.S. special operations unit active during the Vietnam War. Established in 1964, it conducted strategic reconnaissance missions and covert operations in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. It participated in major Vietnam War campaigns and was restructured in 1972 as part of the Vietnamization effort. The unit comprised personnel from various U.S. military and intelligence services, including the CIA. Singlaub retired from the in the United States Army as a major general in 1973. He passed away on January 29, 2022, at the age of 100.

Further Evolution

The HALO technique further evolved in the 1960s when the U.S. Air Force initiated tests to assess the survival rates of pilots ejecting at high altitudes. This research built upon the foundational work done by Colonel John Stapp in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Stapp’s research laid the groundwork for understanding how acceleration and deceleration forces affect the human body.

First Combat HALO Jump

The first time the HALO technique was used in combat occurred during the Vietnam War in Laos. It was carried out by the MACV-SOG Recon Team Florida. It was led by Sergeant Major William “Billy Waugh”, who was in charge of the combat HALO effort for MACV-SOG Command and Control North. His leadership and expertise were instrumental in the successful execution of this groundbreaking operation. Along with Waugh, team leader Sgt. 1st Class Melvin Hill, Staff Sgt. Sammy Hernandez, an ARVN officer and two Montagnards were also part of this historic jump. They all traveled through two cloud layers and light rain before pulling their ripcords at 1,500 feet. They then floated under canopy and landed in rugged terrain. This marked a significant milestone in military history.

While MACV-SOG personnel were never officially given a crest or patch, they took the initiative to create and adopt this insignia of their own design.

Waugh’s contributions to the development of HALO did not end with the first combat jump. He also led the last combat special reconnaissance parachute insertion into territory occupied by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops on June 22, 1971. This operation further demonstrated the effectiveness of the HALO technique in combat situations.

Billy Waugh joined the CIA in 1977, after his military service. He worked on clandestine operations throughout the Middle East and North Africa. His work included surveillance operations and intelligence gathering on terrorist leaders such as Illich Ramirez Sanchez, also known as Carlos the Jackal, and Osama Bin Laden. His career with the CIA spanned several decades, and he made significant contributions to the agency’s operations. He passed away on April 4, 2023, at the age of 93.

Billy Waugh during his U.S. Army Special Forces service

A Game Changer

The HALO technique involves a parachutist free-falling from a transport aircraft at a high altitude and opening their parachute at a low altitude. This method allows for stealthy insertion into enemy territory, as the long free-fall period reduces the risk of detection by enemy forces.

This technique, along with its counterpart, High Altitude-High Opening (HAHO), falls under the umbrella of Military Free Fall (MFF). These methods have revolutionized the way military operations are conducted, offering a strategic advantage in covert operations.

The development of HALO has had a profound impact on military operations. It has opened new avenues for strategic infiltration and has become an integral part of modern warfare. The legacy of this innovation continues to influence military strategies and tactics to this day.

U.S. Navy SEALs exiting aircraft during HALO training. US. Navy photo (Released).

HALO is currently employed to deliver personnel, equipment, and supplies from a transport aircraft at a high-altitude using free-fall parachute insertion. Typically, troops jump from altitudes ranging between 15,000 and 35,000 feet (4,600 and 10,700 m), achieving a terminal velocity of 126 mph (203 km/h), The exact altitude can vary based on specific mission requirements and conditions.

In recent times, HALO parachuting has found broader applications beyond the military, including in recreational skydiving. This is largely due to the unique experience it offers, such as a longer freefall time and the thrill of jumping from a higher altitude. Some skydiving centers even offer special tandem HALO-style skydives, allowing those without prior jump experience to enjoy this exhilarating activity. This progression of the HALO technique underscores its adaptability and the continuous innovation in military tactics and technology.

Alan Eustace, who was an executive at Google® and an avid skydiver, currently holds the record for the highest HALO jump ever recorded. He ascended to an impressive altitude of 135,908 feet (41,425 m) before making his jump, thereby exceeding the previous record held by Felix Baumgartner. Baumgartner’s record-breaking jump is shown in the video below.  It is important to note that these records are dynamic and may be broken as new jumps are undertaken.


Central Intelligence Agency

*The views and opinions expressed on this website are solely those of the original authors and contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Spotter Up Magazine, the administrative staff, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

By Eugene Nielsen

Eugene Nielsen provides intelligence and security consulting services. He has a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of California. His byline has appeared in numerous national and international journals and magazines.

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