Good Morning—today I want to again talk about the airplane that the Evergreen Museum called the “Mystery Lady.” Last week we talked about the role this airplane played in the development of the Fulton Recovery System, the James Bond movie “Thunderball,” and this week we are going to continue our discussion and talk about “Operation Coldfeet.” If you missed reading the first article CLICK HERE.
The stage was now set for the first operational use of Skyhook. What became known as Operation Coldfeet began in May 1961, when a naval aircraft flying an aeromagnetic survey over the Arctic Ocean reported sighting an abandoned Soviet drift station. A few days later, the Soviets announced that had been forced to leave Station NP 9 when the ice runway used to supply it had cracked.
The prospect of examining an abandoned Soviet ice station attracted ONR’s interest. The previous year, ONR had set an acoustical surveillance network on a US drift station used to monitor Soviet submarines. ONR assumed that the Soviets would have a similar system to keep track of American submarines as they transited the polar ice pack, but there was no direct evidence to support this. Also, ONR wanted to compare Soviet efforts on drift stations with US operations.
The problem was how to get to NP 9. It was far too deep into the ice pack to be reached by an icebreaker, and it was out of helicopter range. Fulton’s Skyhook seemed to provide the answer. To Capt. John Cadwalader, who would command Operation Coldfeet, it looked like “a wonderful opportunity” to make use of the pickup system.
Following a recommendation by Dr. Max Britton, head of the Arctic program in the Geography Branch of ONR, Radm. L. D. Coates, Chief of Naval Research, authorized preliminary planning for the mission while he sought final approval from the Chief of Naval Operations. The mission was scheduled for September, a time of good weather and ample daylight. NP 9 would be within 600 miles of the US Air Force base at Thule, Greenland, the planned launching point for the operation.
ONR selected two highly qualified investigators for the ground assignment. Maj. James Smith, USAF, was an experienced paratrooper and Russian linguist who had served on US Drift Stations Alpha and Charlie. Lt. Leonard A. LeSchack, USNR, a former Antarctic geophysicist, had set up the surveillance system on T-3 in 1960. Although not jump qualified, he quickly went through the course at Lakehurst Naval Air Station. During the summer, the two men trained on the Fulton retrieval system, working in Maryland with an experienced P2V crew at the Naval Air Test Center, Patuxent River.
Meanwhile, ONR’s scheme was running into difficulty at the Navy’s highest level, as skeptics argued that the plan would never work and likely would cost the lives of the investigators. Thanks largely to Dr. Britton’s efforts, approval eventually came through, but not until late September. This meant that the operation could not be launched until the return of well-below-freezing temperatures. When equipment was sent to Eglin Air Force Base for testing in the cold chamber, problems with the gear developed that took several weeks to correct. Also, promises for a support aircraft fell through. All the while, NP 9 kept moving farther away from Thule. “The winter dragged without solution,” Captain Cadwalader lamented.
In March 1962, the mission planners received the unexpected news that the Soviets had abandoned ice station NP 8 in haste after a pressure ridge destroyed its ice runway. A more up-to-date facility than NP 9, it also was in a more accessible position at 83°N 135°W. “With the operation finally about ready to take off,” Cadwalader reported, “the target was shifted to this new and tempting target.” After the Canadian Government readily agreed to the use of the Royal Canadian Air Force base at Resolute Bay, 600 miles from NP 8, Project Coldfeet got under way.
In mid-April, the P2V and a C-130 support aircraft from Squadron VX-6 departed Patuxent River for Resolute Bay via Fort Churchill. Captain Cadwalader, the project’s commander, had hoped that the Hydrographic Office’s monthly ice reconnaissance flight that flew between Thule and Point Barrow would provide an up-to-date position on NP 8; bad weather and a navigational error, however, prevented a sighting. Still, with the last known position only a month old and given the general dependability of the Hydrographic Office’s drift predictions, he expected no difficulty in finding the target. The C-130 carrying the drop party would locate NP 8, while the P2V would be standing by in case an immediate extraction was necessary.
The hunt for NP 8 began in perfect weather. The C-130 flew to the station’s last known position, then began a box search at 10-mile intervals. Hours went by, but nothing could be seen except ice. The next day, the C-130 started searching at five-mile intervals. It spotted the abandoned US Ice Station Charlie but not NP 8. Four more searches failed to reveal the elusive Soviet drift station. With the flight time available for the C-130 running out and the weather deteriorating, Cadwalader called off the operation.
The expedition had no sooner returned to the US when the monthly ice reconnaissance flight on 4 May spotted NP 8 well to the east of its predicted position. ONR remained convinced that Coldfeet could work, but its funding for the project had run out. Perhaps the Intelligence Community, which had displayed interest in the scheme, might be persuaded to support the operation.
As it happened, Fulton had been working with CIA on the development of Skyhook since the fall of 1961. Intermountain Aviation, an Agency proprietary at Marana, Arizona, that specialized in aerial delivery techniques, had equipped a B-17 with the Fulton gear in October. Over the next six months, Intermountain’s veteran CIA-contract pilots Connie W. Seigrist and Douglas Price flew numerous practice missions to perfect the equipment needed to infiltrate and extract agents. (They later conducted demonstrations for the Forest Service and Air Force while training for a covert operation to extract fellow CIA-contract pilot Allen L. Pope from an Indonesian prison.)
Fulton then approached Intermountain about participating in Coldfeet. Garfield M. Thorsrud, head of the proprietary, liked the idea. After $30,000 was made available by the Defense Intelligence Agency, Coldfeet was ready to resume, with Intermountain furnishing the Skyhook-equipped B-17 and a C-46 support aircraft for the project.
On 26 May, the B-17 and C-46 reached Point Barrow, which was selected to replace Resolute Bay in order to avoid the delay in obtaining the necessary diplomatic clearance from the Canadian Government. Carrying William Jordan, an experienced Pan American Airways polar navigator who had been hired by Intermountain, the B-17 began the search for NP 8 the next day.
Seigrist and Price flew a northerly heading at 8,000 feet for almost four hours until they reached the ice station’s predicted position. They then descended to 1,500 feet and initiated a square search pattern. The visibility was poor–“a forbidding dusky grey,” Siegrist recalled. “It was the most desolate, inhospitable looking and uninviting place I had ever seen.” NP 8 never appeared, and the B-17 returned to Point Barrow after more than 13 hours in the air.
On 28 May, assisted by a P2V from Patrol Squadron One at Kodiak, the B-17 located NP 8. Seigrist circled the station while Major Smith and pickup coordinator John D. Wall selected a drop point. Drift streamers determined the wind, then Smith left the aircraft through a “Joe hole,” followed by LeSchack. After dropping supplies to the men and receiving a favorable report from Smith over his UHF hand-held radio, the B-17 departed.
The plan called for Smith and LeSchack to have 72 hours to explore the Soviet base. While they conducted their explorations, Intermountain mechanics Leo Turk and Carson Gerken installed the pickup booms on the nose of the B-17. Seigrist and Price tested the equipment on 30 May by making a practice pickup in front of the Arctic Research Laboratory at Point Barrow.
The next day the mission to retrieve Smith and LeSchack got under way. In addition to pilots Seigrist and Price, the B-17 carried navigator Jordan, coordinator Wall, jumpmaster Miles L. Johnson, winch operator Jerrold B. Daniels, nose-trigger operator Randolph Scott, and tail-position operator Robert H. Nicol. Cadwalader, Fulton, and Thorsrud also climbed aboard to observe the operation.
The weather, Seigrist and Price soon learned, had deteriorated since their last trip over the frozen sea. Warmer temperatures had heated the ice mass, causing dense fog to form. The target eluded the B-17, and it returned to Point Barrow.
After a second fruitless search on 1 June, Thorsrud asked Cadwalader to call out the P2V. The next morning, the P2V took off from Point Barrow two hours and 30 minutes before the B-17. Using its more sophisticated navigational equipment, it quickly located NP 8, then guided the trailing aircraft by UHF/DF steers to the location.
Conditions for the pickup were marginal at best. The ice had a grey hue, and it was difficult to make out an horizon. The surface wind was blowing at 30 knots, nearing the limits of Skyhook’s capability. After inflating the balloon attached to 150 pounds of exposed film, documents, and equipment samples, Smith and LeSchack had to keep a tight hold on the canvas bag containing the cargo lest it be blown away.
As Seigrist lined up for the pickup, the horizon disappeared. “I was instantly in a situation,” he recalled, “what could be imagined as flying in a void.” The pickup line and its bright orange mylar marker, however, provided sufficient visual clues to enable Seigrist to keep his wings level. He flew into the line, made a good contact, then immediately went over to instrument flying to avoid vertigo. Winch-operator Daniels brought the cargo on board without difficulty.
As prearranged, Price, a former Navy pilot, now took over the left seat to make the pickup of LeSchack. The wind was blowing stronger, and Smith had to struggle to hold LeSchack from being blown away. As the rising balloon caught the wind, LeSchack tore away from Smith’s grasp, pitched forward on his stomach, and began to drag across the ice. After 300 feet, his progress was stopped by an ice block. As he lay on the ice and tried to catch his breath, Price hooked into the line.
Smith watched as LeSchack rose slowly into the air, then disappeared throughout the overcast. Although LeSchack rode through the air facing forward, he managed to turn around and assume the correct position before being hauled on board the B-17.
Price and Seigrist again changed seats so that Seigrist could make the final pickup. Smith held tightly to a tractor as he inflated his balloon. Still, he started to drag across the ice until he managed to catch a crack with his heels. He lay on his back as Seigrist approached the line. “The line made contact on the outer portion of the left horn,” Seigrist remembers. “It just hung there for what to me was an eternity.”
Slowly, the line slid down the horn and into the catching mechanism. As the line streamed along the bottom of fuselage, assistant jumpmaster Johnson reached down through the “Joe hole” and placed a clamp on it. He then signaled nose-trigger operator Scott to release the line. Next, tail-position operator Nicol secured the line, Johnson released his clamp, and winch-operator Daniels quickly brought Smith on board. He received a warm welcome from Fulton, Cadwalader, and Thorsrud–and a drink of “medicinal” Scotch.
Operation Coldfeet, Cadwalader reported, produced intelligence “of very great value.” ONR learned that the Soviet station was configured to permit extended periods of silent operation, confirming the importance that the Soviets attached to acoustical work. In addition, equipment and documents obtained from NP 8 showed that Soviet research in polar meteorology and oceanography was superior to US efforts. “In general,” Cadwalader summarized, “the remarkable Soviet accomplishments in their drift stations reflect their long experience in this field and the great importance that their government attaches to it.”
Beyond the intelligence obtained, Cadwalader wrote, perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Coldfeet “was to prove the practicality of paradrop and aerotriever recovery to conduct investigations in otherwise inaccessible areas.” Certainly, Coldfeet had been an outstanding operational success. The recovery of Smith and LeSchack had been especially challenging. As Admiral Coates wrote to Thorsrud, the pickup had been conducted “under stronger winds and lower visibility than had previously been attempted; nonetheless, through the exceptional skill of pilots and the coordination and efficiency of the crew, all pickups were made without a hitch, and in the best time (6 1/2 minutes) yet achieved.”
While the Skyhook system provided an important asset for all manner of intelligence operations, its utility as a long-range pickup system was somewhat undermined during the 1960s by the development of an aerial refueling capability for helicopters. Still, it appears likely that Fulton’s Skyhook did find employment in a number of specialized clandestine operations following Coldfeet, although its subsequent use by CIA and the military services remains shrouded in secrecy.
Interesting to say the least and there is a really good book that covers this operation in its entirety – CLICK HERE to preview the book on Amazon.
Next week we will continue talking about the “Mystery Lady,” but until then, take care, be safe, and have a good weekend.
September 29, 2017