Evergreen's B-17, James Bond, and the Fulton Recovery System -September 22, 2017

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Evergreen’s B-17, The CIA, and Operation Coldfeet – September 29, 2017
September 30, 2017
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Evergreen’s B-17, James Bond, and the Fulton Recovery System -September 22, 2017

Robert Novells’ Third Dimension Blog

September 22, 2017

Good Morning,

Today I want to talk about an airplane that has a unique history which includes, one of the airplanes used in the development of the Fulton Recovery System, the airplane used in Operation Coldfeet, and also the airplane used in the Tibetan operation when Tibet was overrun by the Chinese; however, this week I want to introduce you to the background on the Fulton Recovery System, as provided by the CIA website, an article written by Stewart Bailey, former curator at the Evergreen Museum, and then a personal story from a friend who knows the crew who flew this airplane in the James Bond movie, “Thunderball.” Next week we will move forward with another part of the airplane’s history


Evergreen’s Mystery Lady

July 28, 2011 marks the “birthday” of one of the most iconic aircraft in history, and one of the stars of the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum collection; the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress.  On that day, in 1936 the Boeing Model 299, the prototype of what was to become the B-17 first took to the air at Boeing Field in Washington with Boeing chief test pilot, Leslie Tower at the controls.

Out of the 12,731 B-17s built by Boeing, Lockheed-Vega, and Douglas, today only 58 aircraft remain in museums or private collections around the world.  Of those, one of the most unique and mysterious belongs to the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum.  Although marked with the serial number 44-83785, there is some question as to whether that is its true serial or not, and many aviation historians believe the aircraft is really serial number 44-85531.  Why the confusion?  That’s what makes her story mysterious.

Evergreen’s B-17 was a G-model built by either Lockheed-Vega or Douglas in early 1945 and never made it into combat, but rather it served in various utility roles until the mid-1950s.  At that point, her story gets interesting as she was selected for “secret duties” and removed from the Air Force’s inventory. One of a group of five black-painted Flying Fortresses used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), it operated out of Taiwan, where it was used to drop agents into China or support guerilla operations.

Because the serial numbers painted on the tails were changed regularly to confuse the casual observer, her real one has been lost to history.  However, in September 1960, she gained the civilian registration number N809Z when she was sold to Atlantic-General Enterprises; a CIA front company.  From there she went to work for Intermountain Airways in Marana, Arizona in 1962.

Intermountain (also with CIA ties) was well known for modifying aircraft for use in specialized operations and the B-17G was no different.  Outfitted with a special rig on the nose called a Fulton Skyhook and a special hatch in the tail, theFortress was actually able to pick up people from the ground without landing!  The user on the ground would release a helium balloon trailing a long cable that was attached to a special harness he wore.  The aircraft would then catch the line using long, whisker-like poles on the nose, and snatch the person off the ground where they would be winched up and into the plane.  In 1962, the Skyhook equipped Fortress was called upon to fly a mission deep into the arctic to grab vital information out from under the noses of the Soviet Union.

After her work with the Fulton Skyhook, N809Z was converted into a flying tanker used by Intermountain Airways to fight forest fires in the western US. She was acquired by Evergreen Helicopters in 1975, and given a new registration; N207EV, which she wears to this day.  After 10 years of fighting fires, work began in 1985 to restore the venerable Flying Fortresswas back to the war-time configuration with all of the gun turrets and a working bomb bay.  (The story is told that her rare nose turret was found as a decoration in a bar, but the owner was unwilling to sell it, so Evergreen bought the bar, removed the turret, and then re-sold the bar.)  The proudly restored B-17 took to the air again in 1990 and flew in numerous air shows until 2001 when concerns about the wing spar attachment points grounded her.

Today, the Evergreen B-17G Flying Fortress shares a place of honor in the museum, wearing the markings of the 490thBomb Group, operating out of Eye air base in England during World War II.  As such, she is a fitting tribute to the men in women who built, maintained and flew the majestic Flying Fortress.

Stewart Bailey, Curator Evergreen Museum

Now, we have the history, as presented by Stewart Bailey, so let’s see what the CIA has to say:

Robert Fulton’s Skyhook and Operation Coldfeet

A Good Pick-Me-Up

The infiltration of agents behind enemy lines during World War II could be accomplished without undue technical difficulty, thanks to the use of parachutes. Thousands of individuals descended upon occupied Europe through “Joe holes” in Royal Air Force Halifaxes and Army Air Force B-24s, or out the side doors of C-47s. Extraction of personnel, however, proved a far more challenging task. Usually, individuals had to exfiltrate enemy territory by hazardous land routes. Sometimes they could be flown out by light aircraft, like the British Lysander, that landed at night on makeshift airstrips.

All American System

An innovative extraction method, reportedly used by the British toward the end of the war, involved the use of a modified version of a mail pickup system that had been invented by Lytle S. Brown during the 1920s and perfected before Pearl Harbor by All American Aviation. The All American system used two steel poles, set 54 feet apart, with a transfer line strung between them. An aircraft approached the ground station in a gentle glide of 90 mph, while a flight mechanic paid out a 50-foot steel cable. As the aircraft pulled up, a four-finger grapple at the end of the cable engaged the transfer rope, shock absorbers cushioned the impact, and then the flight mechanic winched the mail pouch on board.

In July 1943, the need to rescue airmen from difficult terrain led to tests of this system by the Army Air Forces. Initial results, using instrumented containers, were not promising. The instruments recorded accelerations in excess of 17 g’s following the pickup, a force far in excess of what the human body could tolerate. Changes in the transfer line and modifications in the parachute harness, however, brought this down to a more acceptable 7 g’s. The first live test, with a sheep, failed when the harness twisted and strangled the animal. On subsequent tests other sheep fared better.

Lt. Alex Doster, a paratrooper, volunteered for the first human pickup, made on 5 September 1943. After a Stinson engaged the transfer rope at 125 mph, Doster was first yanked vertically off the ground, then soared off behind the aircraft. It took less than three minutes to retrieve him.

The Air Force continued to improve the system, even developing a package containing telescoping poles, transfer line, and harness that could be dropped by air. The first operational use of the system came in February 1944, when a C-47 snagged a glider in a remote location in Burma and returned it to India. Although the Air Force never used it to pick up individuals, the British apparently did use it to retrieve agents.

The Air Force continued to improve the system, even developing a package containing telescoping poles, transfer line, and harness that could be dropped by air. The first operational use of the system came in February 1944, when a C-47 snagged a glider in a remote location in Burma and returned it to India. Although the Air Force never used it to pick up individuals, the British apparently did use it to retrieve agents.

CIA Involvement

During the Korean war, CIA became interested in the All American system. In the spring and summer of 1952, CIA tried to establish a resistance network in Manchuria. Civil Air Transport (CAT), its air proprietary, dropped agents and supplies into Kirin Province as part of a project known to the pilots as Operation Tropic. The All American system seemed to answer the problem of how to bring people out of Manchuria.

In the fall of 1952, CAT pilots in Japan made a number of static pickups, then successfully retrieved mechanic Ronald E. Lewis. On the evening of 29 November 1952, a CAT C-47 with CIA officers John T. Downey and Richard G. Fecteau departed Seoul for Kirin Province, intending to pick up members of a team that had been inserted the previous July.

But a double agent had betrayed the team, and the Chinese shot down the C-47 as it came in for the pickup, killing the pilots and capturing the CIA officers. Fecteau was not released until December 1971; Downey was freed in March 1973.

A Remarkable Inventor

Robert Edison Fulton, Jr., a talented inventor, had observed a demonstration of the All American system in London after World War II. He believed that he could do better, although at the time he was busy formulating plans for a flying automobile.

Fulton may have been a collateral descendant of the steamboat inventor, but he never bothered to check the genealogical connection. Moreover, Edison had been a family name long before it became associated with the famous inventor. Nonetheless, with Fulton and Edison as part of his name, he seemed destined for a career as an inventor.

Born in 1909, Fulton grew up in affluent circumstances in the New York area, where his father was president of the Mack Truck Company. He attended Choate and Harvard, then studied architecture in Vienna. In 1932, he embarked on a 17-month motorcycle adventure, visiting 32 countries and traveling 40,000 miles. Interested in photography, he worked for Pan American Airways in the mid-1930s, taking pictures of the development of the trans-Pacific air route.

Following the outbreak of World War II in Europe in 1939, Fulton began work on an aerial gunnery trainer. He developed a static device that used films to simulate aerial combat.

Fulton demonstrated his trainer in May 1942 to Cdr. Luis de Florez, who was in the process of establishing a Special Devices Division for the Navy. De Florez endorsed Fulton’s trainer and provided developmental funds. Eventually, the Navy ordered 500 trainers at a cost of $6 million. Together with a gunnery manual written by Fulton, the trainer became the Navy’s primary simulator for teaching air-to-air marksmanship.

The Airphibian

After the war, Fulton bought 15 acres of land adjoining the airport at Danbury, Connecticut, where he built a house and workshop. He devoted most of his time and remaining funds to the development of a flying automobile.

Fulton built and tested eight versions of the “airphibian” and was about 90-percent finished when he ran out of money. He sold control of his company in order to raise funds to complete the lengthy government certification process, but the new owners decided not to continue the project.

A New Challenge

While flight-testing the airphibian, Fulton often had wondered what might happen if he had been forced down in inaccessible terrain. A helicopter had only limited range. The All American system, he believed, was not the answer. Following the disappointment of the airphibian venture, he decided to try to create a more viable pickup system.

Experiments began in 1950. Using a weather balloon, nylon line, and 10- to 15-pound weights, Fulton made numerous pickup attempts as he sought to develop a reliable procedure. Successful at last, he had his son photograph the operation. Fulton then took the film to Admiral de Florez, who had become the first 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). Thanks to de Florez’s interest, Fulton received 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 desert, using a Navy P2V for the pickups. 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. More vexing were the difficulties that were experienced with the locking device, or sky anchor, that secured the line to the aircraft. Fulton eventually resolved this problem, which he considered the most demanding part of the entire developmental process.

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.

Human Pickups

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.

Source Document

Next week we will talk about operation “Coldfeet,” or Part Four of “The Goose, but for now take a look at the video below and then I will close with the rest of the story on the crew who was flying the airplane for the movie, and I am told that the airplane is no longer in Oregon but has purchased by  “Fortress and Fighters LLC” and moved to Massachusetts.

Now, the most interesting part of this article is that the crew who flew the airplane were employed by Intermountain Aviation, out of Marana, Arizona, and was flying out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. This scene was shot off the coast of Florida, while the life raft scene was actually shot in a pool, and after getting the footage required for the film, the crew was not able to get both of the blow up dummies through the rear hatch, which was actually the rear gunners position. So, they landed with two sets of legs extending from the rear of the airplane. I was told that there were a few phone calls made to the police about people hanging from the rear of the airplane, as well as they had a welcome committee waiting for them on the ramp.

That is it for this week. Have a good weekend, keep family and friends close, and fly safe/be safe.

Robert Novell

September 22, 2017