John T. Downey, who spent 20 years imprisoned in China, was captured when his plane was shot down during an attempted "snatch pickup". The spy they were supposed to retrieve had been turned by the Chinese, and they were waiting for the plane with anti-aircraft weaponry. This 1951 attempt was the first time the snatch pickup was tried in a war, according to this article about John T. Downey:

The snatch pickup was a bizarre maneuver, and an untested one. The process called for an aircraft flying at low altitude to hook a line elevated between two poles. Connected to the line would be a harness, into which an agent would be strapped. The contraption resembled a swingset, if that swingset was designed to be born aloft by a cargo plane. Two men in the back of the plane would operate a pulley, dropping the hook intended to catch the agent and then reeling in the line; both the operators and the pilots required extensive training. Describing the operation in his 1984 book Perilous Missions, a history of CIA covert operations in Asia, William M. Leary writes that the agent was forced to sit impassively in his harness, awaiting possible decapitation, among a litany of other potential injuries. The pickup of Downey’s courier would be the first time the CIA ever carried the plan into action. The Air Force deemed the operation too risky to try.

Whatever happened to this technique? Is it used today?

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    $\begingroup$ It was used in an episode of Alias (staged and no actual plane used). $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 5, 2014 at 12:26
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The Vietnam era movie "The Green Berets" starring John Wayne used film of a real pickup. $\endgroup$
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Oct 6, 2014 at 22:11
  • $\begingroup$ Possibly related: aviation.stackexchange.com/q/13732/15311 $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 4, 2020 at 10:30

2 Answers 2


No, although they were used up into the 1990s. Wikipedia has an article on this - called the Fulton Recovery system. Your quoted paragraph is incorrect - U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) did use the system, on modified MC-130s. Despite the danger, Wikipedia only mentions one death using the system, though given the clandestine nature of many of the missions it was used on, it would not be surprising if there were other as yet unrecorded instances of its use.

Modern special operations helicopters have a much greater range, and some, like the MH-53, MH-47, and MH-60, are actually air-refuelable, extending their range. Additionally, the CV-22 Osprey has a much greater range and speed than a traditional helicopter. These improvements in extraction vehicles made the 'skyhook' system obsolete.

Note that this article mentions the British used the system in 2001 to rescue an injured soldier behind enemy lines.

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    $\begingroup$ Thank you, I would never have guessed the name "Fulton Recovery system" :). You are right about the article - the paragraph actually seems to describe what they, according to the Wikipedia article, used in World War 2. $\endgroup$
    – user3773
    Commented Oct 5, 2014 at 18:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Pickett - no problem, glad I could help $\endgroup$
    – SSumner
    Commented Oct 5, 2014 at 20:38
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    $\begingroup$ @Pickett yes, the system you describe was an earlier version tried in WW2. It might even have seen operational use, though it was indeed extremely risky. Being dragged along the ground and slamming into rocks or trees being the least of your worries. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Commented Oct 6, 2014 at 7:59
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    $\begingroup$ @jwenting, based on a tv show demonstrating the Fulton Recovery System I saw many years ago, the ground load liftoff (in this case, the person being lifted) went close to vertical for the initial stage of the lift. Imagine the force vector at liftoff. Not really vertical, but definitely not horizontal. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 6, 2014 at 21:09

Perhaps a different answer than what you're looking for, but this summer I watched a banner tow plane do a number of passes attempting to hook their banner. The set-up is quite like you described: two poles with a rope between them that was attached to the banner; the plane was towing a rope with a hook, and it made a number of low passes attempting to snag the banner.

  • $\begingroup$ It's a little different: the "hook" is on the front of the plane, and you're picking up a person (at much higher speeds). But certainly a generally similar idea $\endgroup$
    – SSumner
    Commented Oct 8, 2014 at 15:33

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