Project COLDFEET: Seven Days in the Arctic
During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union battled for every advantage, including studying the Arctic for its strategic value. For seven days in May 1962, under Project COLDFEET, the US intelligence community pursued a rare opportunity to collect intelligence firsthand from an abandoned Soviet research station high in the Arctic.
The Soviet drift station – located on a floating ice island – had been hastily evacuated when shifting ice made the base runway unusable. Since the ice was breaking apart – and normal air transport to the island was now impossible – the Soviets felt the remote base and its equipment and research materials would be crushed and thoroughly destroyed in the Arctic Sea. Unfortunately for the Soviets, they were wrong.
Project COLDFEET was truly a joint venture bringing together the resources and expertise of the Office of Naval Research, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Central Intelligence Agency. On May 28, using pilots and a B-17 from CIA proprietary Intermountain Aviation – accompanied by a polar navigator borrowed from Pan American Airlines – two intelligence collectors were successfully dropped by parachute onto the ice.
The B-17 – now rigged with Robert Fulton’s Skyhook – returned on June 2 to recover the team and their take. The Skyhook was a unique airborne pickup device that included a nose yolk and a special winch system. The key measure of COLDFEET’s success was the unprecedented safe removal of the investigative team and many critical items.
The mission yielded valuable information to the US intelligence community on the Soviet Union’s drift station research activities. The team found evidence of advanced acoustical systems research to detect under-ice US submarines and efforts to develop Arctic anti-submarine warfare techniques.
This small team — incredibly courageous and resourceful — planned and executed a remarkable feat, capitalizing on a rare intelligence opportunity.