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A Look Back … The CIA and the All American System

During the Korean War, the Central Intelligence Agency was engaged in operations against Communist China to try to divert Chinese military and security resources from the Korean peninsula. Among those CIA efforts was trying to establish a resistance network in Manchuria. CIA trained ethnic Chinese agents and used its proprietary company Civil Air Transport (CAT) to air drop them into Kirin Province and also to resupply them as they established contacts with, it was hoped, anticommunist forces in Manchuria. Anticipating the need to extract an agent from the ground so that he could provide needed intelligence, CIA had trained one of its agents in a unique aerial exfiltration method known as the All American system.


All American System

The answer was the All American System: a modified version of a mail retrieval system created during the 1920s. The system was improved by All American Aviation before the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

The All American System consisted of two steel poles set 54 feet apart in the ground on either side of the mailbag or object to be retrieved. A transfer line, which was attached to the person, was strung between the two poles. When it was time for the pick-up, an aircraft would fly slowly toward the setup at about 90 mph trailing a hook. Once it reached the poles, the hook would snag the transfer line and pick up the item on the ground. A flight mechanic would then pull it on board.


Perfecting the System

During World War II, the All American System was picked up by the Army Air Forces and further developed. The first successful human pickup occurred on September 5, 1943. Lt. Alex Doster, a paratrooper, volunteered to test the improved system. It took less than three minutes to retrieve him once he was picked up.

The Army Air Forces also developed a package containing telescoping poles, transfer line and a harness that could be dropped by air. The first operational use of the system came in February 1944 when the Army Air Forces retrieved a glider from a remote location in Burma. While the Army Air Forces never used it in operations to retrieve people, the British successfully retrieved agents with the All American System.


CIA Involvement

In the fall of 1952, CAT pilots in the Far East tested the system many times before successfully retrieving a mechanic.

On the evening of November 29, 1952, CIA officers John T. Downey and Richard G. Fecteau left a Korean airfield in a CAT C-47 aircraft for Kirin Province to retrieve members of a team that had been working since the previous July. A double agent betrayed the team and the Chinese shot down the plane as it came in for the pickup. The pilots — Norman Schwartz and Robert Snoddy — were killed, but Downey and Fecteau survived and were captured, tried, and imprisoned by the Chinese. Fecteau was not released until December 1971; Downey was freed in March 1973.


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Posted: Jun 17, 2010 09:59 AM
Last Updated: Apr 30, 2013 12:38 PM