Before the Fulton Recovery System, There Was the Man Pick-Up Kit
The U.S. Army Air Forces used the contraption to snatch up downed pilots
For almost as long as combat aircraft have been around, engineers have looked for ways to quickly rescue downed pilots from dangerous situations. Thanks to movies like Thunderball and video games like Metal Gear Solid V, the Fulton Recovery System has become one of the best known, if extreme methods.
But before the Fulton system came onto the scene, the U.S. Army Air Forces developed a different arrangement for airplanes to snatch people right off the ground. In the early 1940s, the Air Technical Service Command at Wright Field in Ohio cooked up a so-called “man pick-up kit.”
The Army even published a manual on how to use it that came along with a particularly colorful introduction and appropriate illustrations.
An Arabian sailor named Sinbad started the idea. His mythological fortunes had placed him in a predicament. He was in a valley with a floor of diamonds but with walls so sheer he could not hope to climb them.
He noted, however, that Diamond Hunters on the cliffs above threw down pieces of meat which the eagles carried aloft to their nests. Then the hunters frightened the eagles away and collected the small diamonds which had adhered to the meat. Seeing this, the crafty Sinbad, after collecting a bagful of diamonds, tied a choice cut on his back, and a hungry eagle lugged him home.
The A.A.F. man pick-up kit takes the place of that meat. When you find yourself in a situation from which escape can only be negotiated from the air, this kit makes it possible for the old eagle, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, to pick you up whole, hale and hearty and whisk you to greener fields.
Independent researcher Michael Ravnitzky discovered the document and sent it to the now defunct website The Memory Hole. The more practical elements of the handbook outlined a system that the Army also used to grab unpowered cargo gliders after they had landed during combat.
Having survived a crash with the kit — or having received one from a plane circling overhead — a pilot on the ground could build a goal post-shaped contraption from sections of piping. The pilot would then don a special harness and attach a rope between the rig and the two upright sections.
Next, a recovery plane would zoom in and snatch the line and attached pilot right off the ground. Once safely away, the crew just had to reel the dangling airman up into the plane.
At The Memory Hole, Ravnitzky offered more details from his own research.
This rescue device used a “trapeze” system invented in the 1930s to allow airplanes to snatch gliders off the ground, which itself was based on a system invented by a Pennsylvania dentist in the 1920s as a way to pick up parcels from the ground with an airplane. The dentist went on to start a company called All-American Aviation which won contracts to service mail stations along dangerous mountain routes using this method.
The first “volunteers” to test the device were sheep, picked up in July 1943. After a number of sheep trials were successfully completed, the first manned pickup occurred on September 5, 1943, when Lt. Alexis Doster was retrieved near Wright Field near Dayton, Ohio.
According to Harry C. Conway, an engineer on the project and the third man to be picked up from the ground, the system was used in China and Burma toward the end of World War II, and later in Korea. (An air-droppable version of the system was also used by the British to extract operatives from occupied Europe during World War II.)
However, a [Central Intelligence Agency] history says that the first operational use of the system came in February 1944, when a C-47 snagged a glider in a remote location in Burma and returned it to India.
By the 1950s, the CIA had gotten their first Fultons and quickly came to favor it over the older man pick-up kit, both seen in the video below. However, Conway continued to promote his system.
While the CIA and Air Force commandos preferred the Fulton, the flying branch continued to use the older snatch method to retrieve film canisters dropped from early spy satellites — and grab spy drones after they had completed their missions.
The Air Force retired its Fulton gear in 1996. Today, the Pentagon relies on helicopters and special tilt-rotor aircraft – which fly like normal planes, but can take off and land like choppers – to get people out of harm’s way.