10 October 2014


by Dixon Hill

In my last post, I compared rappelling against fast-roping.  Both of these are infiltration (INFIL) operations.

People seemed to like the article so, thinking that some among you might be cooking-up suspenseful cloak and dagger novels in those writerly brains of yours, I thought I might discuss some methods of exfiltration (EXFIL) this week.  True: I used these techniques in the military.  But, intel agents or spies can use them as well (see the CIA link below). There is no law preventing this.  :-)

Helicopters refueled by C-130 in flight.
These days, due to our current ability to refuel certain types of helicopters (particularly SpecOps birds) in the air, helicopter EXFIL is quite commonplace.

Commonly, the chopper just lands and picks the person or people up.  At other times, the helicopter can't land: such as in forested or jungle areas, on steep mountain sides, or from building roofs festooned with tall antennae.  In such a situation, a SPIES rig or some other method may be used.

Up, up and away!

Evidently, this can be called a "SPIES rig" (pronounced: speeze rig) or a "SPIE rig", but I learned it as a SPIES rig, and will address it as such.

SPIES supposedly stands for "Special Patrol Insertion Extraction System," but don't quote me on that.

The system is pretty basic: A line is lowered from the hovering helicopter, personnel wearing Swiss seats (or other harness types) hook into the line with a snap-link, and the helicopter takes off, dragging these folks through the air.  Eventually (hopefully!) the pilot spots a place where he can lower them to the ground.  They then clear the helipad, and the pilot lands the helicopter.  After which, the team members who recently acted as "dopes on a rope," now climb into the chopper, which flies away.

In these photos, the operation is presented from slightly different angles.  Arms and legs are not extended just to look stylish.  They're used for stability, in order to help prevent twisting in the wind -- which is very important if you don't want to lose your lunch.

I used to think getting air sick on a SPIES line was the worst fate a person could suffer. Then, however, I learned the truth: The worst fate is to suffer through the guy ABOVE YOU, on the line, getting sick!

The SPIES rig can be as simple as this fast-rope (below) with those white hook-lines woven in.  A rider just snap-links into the hook-line, and enjoys the ride -- which can make a person feel rather like Super Man!

I'm hardly an aircraft expert,
but I believe this is the type of STOL
we used in SF when I was in.
When a short -- VERY short! -- relatively flat spot of land is available, but a helicopter is not, Short Take-Off and Landing (STOL) aircraft can be used.  The pilot lands; the team jumps on; the pilot flies off.  These aircraft are quite small and very light.  You can't cram more than five or six guys, plus their gear, onto one aircraft.  Well . . . you can cram more guys in, but I don't think you'd ever get off the ground -- though I have seen these planes  carry a surprisingly heavy load at times.

If you read the CIA paper below, which mentions mail-operations, you may like to know that SF uses that type of mail drop also, and we used these planes to do it.

Rocket-Assist Take-off

Additionally, the MC-130 Special Operations aircraft is capable of great range (which may be further augmented by aerial refueling), landing on a relatively short airfield, and using "Rocket Assist" to make short take-offs, as the MC-130 may be outfitted with rockets on the sides of the fuselage.  I can attest that the near-instant acceleration of a rocket-assisted take-off makes for one heck of a ride.

C-130 aerial refueling,
in case you didn't know how it works.


Skyhook, or the Fulton Extraction System, developed in the '50s and '60s, is undoubtedly the most spectacular EXFIL method I've ever seen.

Though aerial refueling of helicopters may seem to have rendered this practice obsolete, the system may still be in operation today, as I found an online pic of an MC-130 with the tell-tale "hooks" on its nose, but was unable to gain permission to post it.  I do know it was still available for use when my A-Team trained with the Special Operations Air Wing in Florida, around 1992.  At that time, however, humans were not permitted to be extracted during training missions.  Hence, we used a dummy instead.

The Fulton Extraction System works like this:

a. A container is parachuted to the team/individual on the ground.
The suit.

b. The team/individual opens the container and removes a rubber-insulated suit with hood, about 500
feet of braided nylon cord attached to a deflated "blimp" about six feet long, a tank of helium, and sometimes two telescoping poles (for use if suitable saplings are not available for easy cutting). [Note: The suit is insulated because the aircraft, when it strikes the cable, may impart a tremendous electrical shock to the system -- reportedly due to the aircraft's creation of static electricity -- which would otherwise give the rider a nasty jolt.]

c. The person being extracted dons the suit, while poles are erected and the nylon cord is run through in a loop, then hooked to the shockline hook on the suit.
Catching the line.
Note "blimp" near photo top.

d. The "blimp" is inflated and permitted to rise in the air, as the suited person sits on the ground, back to the poles.

e. A plane, with the hook (what look like scissors) attached to its nose, flies along and catches the nylon cord (hanging from the blimp, and attached to the suited fellow on the ground).  It catches this line about 450 feet above the ground.
Back on the ramp.

f. The line jerks tight, and the suited person rises rapidly, to fly away, sailing through the sky behind the aircraft.  Meanwhile the aircrew, back by the aircraft rear ramp, are securing the line, as it runs beneath the fuselage, with a long hook.  Once they capture the line, they hook it to a winch and reel-in the fellow on the far end up to the open ramp.

Almost in!

The "victim" tries to keep his/her arms and legs out, and his/her back toward the aircraft, while flying, in (what is sometimes a vain attempt) order to prevent him/herself from spinning or oscillating in the aircraft's wake.  Being reeled-in can take up to ten minutes, and be extremely disorienting.  In fact, it is reported that parachutes were once issued to the person being extracted, but this practice was halted, because the "extractee" feels as if s/he's falling the entire time s/he's being reeled-in.  Once the extractee arrives in the aircraft, aircrew grab the new passenger on both sides, and strap him/her down before releasing the new passenger and confirming that the mission has been successful.  (It's my understanding that some disoriented personnel have accidentally walked off the ramp while the aircraft was flying, when this was not performed correctly, and that this is why humans are not permitted to be used as "training dummies.")

You can see the system used on film, if you watch the movie The Green Berets, or you may read a CIA paper, about Skyhook's use in an intel operation HERE

This is probably enough for now.  If you like learning about this stuff, let me know.  I'd be happy to write about driving a Zodiac rubber assault boat into a sinking CH-47 Chinook helicopter, in the middle of a dark night, next time, if you'd like.



  1. I found film footage of contemporary Fulton Recovery operation, in which cargo is picked up, at this website HERE if anyone wishes to see it.

  2. Well, all I can say is that I almost lost my cookies just watching this. I'm fine at sea: but ask me to ride through the air with the greatest of ease and I get all queasy. But it's nice to know that it can be done!

  3. Thanks for chiming-in, Eve. Sorry if I made you airsick. lol

  4. Dix, keep the SF stories coming.
    Yep, I saw the movie Green Berets with John Wayne when they kidnapped the Viet official and hooked him up for a Fulton Recovery System. Heck of a way to catch your plane. Personally, I like it better when the Huey touches down on at least one skid to drop me off or pick me up.

  5. Please do keep them coming, Dixon, and same to the others! The read is great(!) and, yes, does help in giving authenticity when writing the exploits or background of a character.

    The only question that comes to my feeble mind is when does a particular extraction method seem right in a story and when does it become incredulous to those 'in the know'? Perhaps it is just a matter of plausibility. ["if it seems to good to be true..."]

  6. Dixon, this is fascinating and entertaining. Keep on a'writing 'em.

  7. R.T., you reminded me of a time in Panama, when we were going around the jungle looking for Noriega (following up on reported sightings, before he was located) and a Task Force 160 pilot somehow held his Blackhawk right beside a steep mountain side as we each jumped on with our gear (one at a time). I still don't know how he managed to keep his rotor blades from hitting that mountain -- the chopper rocking each time a new guy jumped on. Incredible flying!

  8. Bradley, that's a good question. And, frankly, these days I don't think a lack of plausibility hurts certain works -- at least from what I've seen on the big or little screen lately. An unfortunate thing imho.


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