Many remember the Fulton extraction system from the James Bond movie, “Thunderball,” starring Sean Connery, but the system was actually developed by the CIA for extracting personnel in austere parts of the world. Named after its creator, Robert Fulton, the system was tested by the CIA’s Special Activities Division in the 1950s.
A few years back, I read a book called “Project Cold Feet,” a true story about the system’s operational use. The project saw two airmen parachute onto an abandoned Soviet research facility floating on a chunk of Arctic ice. After retrieving what they could find of intelligence value, both men and the equipment they recovered from the site were yanked off the ice and retrieved using the Fulton extraction system, also known as the Fulton surface-to-air recovery system, or STARS.
I came across another instance in which the system was never used, but was planned for as a contingency during the run up to Operation Eagle Claw in Iran:
What the two Green Berets didn’t know until that day was that Major Carney was about to lead a reconnaissance operation deep into Iran in order to take soil samples from what would be a forward staging area for the Delta mission, in order to test whether or not the ground could support the landing of C-130 military transport planes. Mulieri and Ringley would be standing by in case Major Carney and the CIA pilot flying a small Twin Otter aircraft got stranded in the desert and needed to be recovered.
“Our mission was to drop the Fulton recovery system onto Desert One in case the CCT controller, Major Carney, could not get out,” Mulieri described. With D-day for the Delta mission set for April 24th, 1980, Major John Carney was to fly in on the first of the month. “If Carney could not get out on that aircraft, then we were going to drop in the Fulton recovery system,” Mulieri said. “Then, on the second pass, we were going to jump in to help Carney and the pilot get into the Fulton recovery system.”
It was an odd request, as the Fulton recovery system is designed for a person to self-extract, getting into a special flight suit with harness, which is then attached to an inflatable balloon. A passing aircraft then catches the cable running to the balloon, snatching up the person tethered to the end, who is then reeled into the rear ramp of the plane.
Fortunately for everyone involved, that contingency never had to be employed. Although the manner in which the system recovers personnel appears to be quite dangerous, there was only one fatality from its use. When I inquired about this, I was told that the death occurred after the individual was successfully recovered. Apparently, once he was reeled in onto the back ramp of the aircraft, this person was so disoriented from spinning around in mid-air that he stumbled off the ramp and fell to his death.