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Skyhook: Ground to Plane Rescue in Minutes


Seven Days in the Arctic, by Keith Woodcock, Oil on Canvas, 2007
Seven Days in the Arctic, by Keith Woodcock, Oil on Canvas, 2007
If you think the idea of a plane rescuing someone without landing sounds like something out of a sci-fi or adventure movie, then you might be surprised to learn the CIA had a very successful program doing this very thing.

The Skyhook Aerial Retrieval System

In the 1950s, the CIA needed a capability to extract officers out of hostile situations without ever setting foot (or wheels) on the ground. The aerial retrieval system used by the Agency was called Skyhook.

The Skyhook system used two main elements:

1. a plane equipped with steel wire-catching horns, an electric-powered winch—a mechanical device used to pull in or let out cables—and a 50-foot steel cable; and

2.  a separate package of gear—delivered by air-drop—to allow officers on the ground to “catch” the Skyhook.

The First Operational Use of Skyhook

In May 1962, the Skyhook proved critical in extracting CIA officers and materials from an abandoned Soviet ice station that was suspected to have monitored American submarines. This was the first operational use of Skyhook, and it yielded valuable intelligence on the USSR’s Arctic activities.

The operation is illustrated above in “Seven Days in the Arctic,” a painting from the Agency’s Intelligence Art Gallery.

The CIA Museum recently added a new Skyhook artifact to its collection: an instruction card for the officers being plucked off the ground by the Skyhook.

Skyhookfrontthumb.jpgSkyhookback.jpgHere’s how the process worked:

  • From the air-dropped package, the officer on the ground used a helium balloon to lift a 500-foot cable into the air.
  • Then he would strap himself to a harness connected to the other end of the cable, and sit with the wind to his back and arms crossed.
  • A low-flying, slow-moving plane, such as a B-17, would snag the cable with the Skyhook device on its nose, sweeping the person off the ground.
  • The plane’s crew then pulled the officer aboard the aircraft within a matter of minutes.

Note that the Skyhook instruction card urges users to “act carefully rather than quickly” because their safety depended on it.


To learn more about the inventors of Skyhook and its role in CIA operations, read the Center for the Study of Intelligence articles: Robert Fulton’s Skyhook and Operation Coldfeet and "Seven Days in the Arctic."

Historical Document
Posted: Oct 11, 2012 12:25 PM
Last Updated: Apr 30, 2013 01:03 PM