Here’s How I beat Sean Connery to it:
[‘SkyHook is a rescue at sea system designed for the Navy in the early 1960s. I was involved in testing it. Sean got to use it in Thunderball much later. Here is the story of how my participation happened.]
SkyHook Questions and Answers
How did you first hear about Skyhook?
In 1963 I was pushing paper as the executive office of UDT 12 in Coronado, California. A request came across my desk requesting volunteers for testing a new method of rescuing pilots who were downed at sea far from other rescue possibilities.
The paperwork came with a description of what the system was and how it was to be used.
I was fascinated. Imagine being snatched out of the water by an airplane traveling well over 100 miles per hour with a long line attached to a body harness!
I don’t like pushing paper–never did. Life in UDT 12 was great before getting the Exec job. I liked training on the beach, on various navy attack and reconnaissance vessels, submarines as well as just hanging out on the beach and working on a tan to go with dirty swim trunks and big watch that was the traditional Frogman ensemble.
Once my inconvenient seniority nudged me into the executive officer’s job most of the fun stuff went away so when I saw this request I wanted to be one of the volunteers to have some fun.
It was not the kind of thing that Execs are supposed to do, so I called my boss, the Captain, for permission.
“You’re crazy!” was his response to my request to be one of the volunteers, “But, if you really want to do it, OK, you deserve it.”
And my name went on the volunteer list.
What was so attractive about it?
I can only comment on that looking back. At the time it was just something interesting and adventurous to do. All my life I remember resolving to live an adventurous life. I read dozens maybe hundreds of adventure books starting with “The Wizard of Oz” as soon as I could read. Some of my favorites as I got older were about hardhat diving, and then one day I got Jacques Cousteau’s “Silent World”.
I don’t remember my age at that point, but it was about seventh grade or thereabouts.
He told his story of the first SCUBA devices (then “Aqua Lungs”) that he and Emile Gagnan invented. Emile manufactured gas regulators for stoves as I remember. Jacques undersea adventures totally fascinated me, and I still held his images as prominent memories when 25 years later I met Jean Michelle Cousteau on the island of Maupiti in Tahiti.
Anyway, when given a choice it became my habit to choose the more adventurous path if there was one available. That led, among other things, to Naval EOD and UDT training. (Explosive Ordnance Disposal and Underwater Demolition Team)
The opportunity to participate in something as unusual as Skyhook was a no-brainer.
Weren’t you worried about the risks?
I didn’t think about that initially. It was to be a controlled test and while there are always risks associated with that, I knew that the Navy would not expose personnel to very hairy risks if it were not a critical military operation. Of course, had it been that I still would have participated. That’s what I had signed up for as a UDT volunteer.
Later, during the briefing for the exercise we volunteers saw a test in which the subject was filmed from pickup to the moment he was winched into the aircraft via a hatch in the underbelly of a B-17.
Moments after he was winched in out of sight of the camera he appeared again, falling. He instinctively assumed a skydiver’s stable position and had we not known in advance what was happening we would have expected to see his chute appear. It didn’t. A few hundred feet above the water he tucked into a tight ball trying to protect himself as he hit the water at nearly 100 miles per hour. He died.
What happened was explained to us. The system had worked nominally with one tiny exception. A limit switch on the winch that should have automatically shut off the winch when the harness reached it malfunctioned and the powerful winch parted the line to the harness. The crew had not yet secured the sailor to a safety line inside the aircraft. The sailor fell out through the hatch.
Why wouldn’t he have had an emergency chute?
We asked that. The briefing team explained that an accidental deployment of a chute during pickup would cause an extraordinary
drag on the front of the pickup plane and would probably cause it to nose down with insufficient altitude to recover.
They also explained that there had been changes to the system including a winch that could not break the ascending line under any circumstances.
Did any of the volunteers back out?
Of course not. There were three of us for the test. The first test was a single person on the recovery. I was one of the two assigned to the second test which was designed to recover two persons at once. We went on with the briefing and I don’t remember anyone remarking on being apprehensive at all. We were all excited to get on with it.
Where did the test take place?
Camp Pendleton, a marine training base is about 20 miles north of San Diego. We operated from a utility boat about 1/2 mile offshore. Our support personnel were on the boat along with the inventor of the system, Robert Fulton.
I think the aircraft was a B-17. I wasn’t into airplanes but I imagine it could be Googled to find out.
[Watch the short video clip at the beginning of this article to get the idea of how it went down]
On the first pass the huge plane came in low and dropped a package that, upon hitting the water, opened and a raft inflated. My partner and I swam to the raft and hoisted ourselves on board.
In the raft was deflated nylon balloon and a fiberglass pressure tank full of helium at extremely high pressure. There were also two body harnesses with hooded coveralls to protect us from the air stream. They looked like Arctic Onesies.
We put on the harnesses and hooked up the balloon to the helium supply. Attached to the balloon was the braided nylon ascending line. As the balloon inflated and rose it extended the line almost straight up several hundred feet (I don’t know the distance).
We then checked the fastenings of the harnesses to each other and to the ascending line and lined up in the raft facing into the wind. The natural drag of the balloon oriented the bow of the raft to the north so we faced south. Then we waited.
I think at that point was the first time I felt any apprehension. The B-17 with its insect looking, antennae-like boom extending ahead of it captured my full attention as it approached low over the water like a flying whale. It grew in apparent size rapidly and, finally passed directly overhead. I expected a yank when it engaged the rope, but there was none, and for a moment I thought maybe the line had broken or the plane had missed the line.
Then, quite gently we were lifted from the raft vertically at first for a second and then I had the sensation of suddenly seeing the support boat and crew and raft as you would through a telescope looking the wrong way. They zoomed to a mere speck in no time at all.
I couldn’t see my fellow tester behind me. The harnesses held us in a semi sitting position which was quite comfortable, and the heavy fabric of the Hooded ‘Onesies’ insulated us from the wind.
I could only look to the north as the plane flew south towards San Diego. The noise of the wind was muted and there was no sound of the plane several hundred feet behind me.
The twenty minutes it took flying along the coast at 2000 feet hanging in the harness watching the coastline drift by was a magical time. It was like a very long parachute drop with no reason to be concerned about landing. Altogether it was a great experience.
After what seemed a long time I finally saw the tail assembly of the airplane slide into view above me.
Gradually I saw more and more of the plane until the hatch was above me and shortly thereafter I was inside and strapped into a seat for the landing at Coronado.