Fred Johnson sent us a notice about the newest Airailimages Video Magazine, which includes a photo story about air tankers at Coeur d’Alene, Idaho in the summer of 1973.
The aircraft was used by the CIA in the 1950s and 1960s
(Originally published on September 2, 2018. Updated on September 3, 2018 to add a photo of the aircraft taken in 1980)
Today I was surprised to see a B-17 Flying Fortress in an unexpected location — the Golden Triangle Regional Airport near Starkville, Mississippi. The old warbird had a paint scheme similar to air tankers — red at the top of the tail and red stripes on the wings. The tail and nose of the aircraft were covered with tarps, indicating work in progress.
It was Sunday and the facility was closed, so I could get no closer than 700 to 800 feet away, and the only camera I had was an iPhone 8.
I grabbed some shots using the 2x lens and still had to crop them extensively, so the resolution is poor, but good enough to read the serial number: 483785. A minute of research on the internet revealed that the full number is 44-83785, and its FAA number N-207EV is currently registered to Fortress and Fighters LLC out of Stow, Massachusetts. For 15 years it was on static display at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum and according to Aerodynamic Media was acquired by the Collings Foundation in 2015 to join their popular “Wings of Freedom” tour.
However since this B-17 was operated by the CIA for 10 to 15 years the original serial number may be lost to history since the agency routinely changed the painted numbers on their aircraft in order to confuse the casual observer.
It served as an air tanker for about 10 years beginning in 1969 when Intermountain Aviation converted it into a firefighting resource. At various times it used tanker numbers 22, C71, B71, and 71.
The aircraft has an extremely interesting history.
It was built in 1945 and never served in combat. In the mid-1950s the Air Force transferred it to the CIA where it was reportedly one of five B-17’s painted black. It worked out of Taiwan and was used for dropping agents into China and to support other secret operations. In 1960 the CIA’s cover story was that it was operated by Atlantic General Enterprises, and two years later was transferred to Intermountain Aviation. Both companies had ties to the CIA. Evergreen Helicopters took it over in 1975 and later Evergreen Equity/747 in 1985.
One of its more interesting missions was in 1962 when it was used on a secret mission, code-named “Project COLDFEET” to exfiltrate two agents from an ice floe where they had obtained information at an abandoned Soviet Union drift station, NP 8, that was part of an acoustical surveillance network in the Arctic collecting information about American submarines.
The agents had parachuted onto what remained of the floating ice after it had cracked rendering the airstrip unusable, which was the reason it was abandoned by the Soviets. After a few days the B-17, working with a P2V that had better navigation equipment, used a “Fulton Skyhook” attached to the nose to swoop up the agents who were attached to the bottom end of a rope suspended into the air by a helium filled balloon.
The video below sheds some light on how the Skyhook works.
In the 1965 movie Thunderball, James Bond was rescued by a Skyhook-equipped aircraft.
Project Coldfeet has been declassified by the CIA, which has a lengthy and fascinating description of the Skyhook developed by Robert Fulton and the training and execution of the effort to collect what turned out to be very valuable information.
Here is how the CIA summed up the results of Project COLDFEET:
Operation Coldfeet, [commander of the operation Captain John] Cadwalader reported, produced intelligence “of very great value.” ONR [Office of Naval Research] learned that the Soviet station was configured to permit extended periods of silent operation, confirming the importance that the Soviets attached to acoustical work. In addition, equipment and documents obtained from NP 8 showed that Soviet research in polar meteorology and oceanography was superior to US efforts. “In general,” Cadwalader summarized, “the remarkable Soviet accomplishments in their drift stations reflect their long experience in this field and the great importance that their government attaches to it.”
Beyond the intelligence obtained, Cadwalader wrote, perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Coldfeet “was to prove the practicality of paradrop and aerotriever recovery to conduct investigations in otherwise inaccessible areas.” Certainly, Coldfeet had been an outstanding operational success. The recovery of Smith and LeSchack had been especially challenging. As Admiral Coates wrote to Thorsrud, the pickup had been conducted “under stronger winds and lower visibility than had previously been attempted; nonetheless, through the exceptional skill of pilots and the coordination and efficiency of the crew, all pickups were made without a hitch, and in the best time (6 1/2 minutes) yet achieved.”(17)
“While the Skyhook system provided an important asset for all manner of intelligence operations, its utility as a long-range pickup system was somewhat undermined during the 1960s by the development of an aerial refueling capability for helicopters. Still, it appears likely that Fulton’s Skyhook did find employment in a number of specialized clandestine operations following Coldfeet, although its subsequent use by CIA and the military services remains shrouded in secrecy.”
I took the image below around 1972 at a fire on the San Bernardino National Forest in Southern California.