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Poor Old George-(An Interview With Bob Nicol)

by Gayle Morrison (Associate) |

This is a follow up story to “Project Coldfeet,” by Toby Scott (MYC-57), which ran in the January 2010 issue of “Smokejumper.” Bob Nicol (MSO-52) was another crewmember on the Intermountain Aviation B-17 that was used in Project Coldfeet. As part of her oral history research for a book about Jerry Daniels (MSO-58), Gayle Morrison conducted multiple interviews with both Nicol and Scott regarding the B-17’s Skyhook aerial pickup system. This firsthand account of a second Skyhook mission is a composite of Morrison’s interviews with Bob Nicol.


One of the first projects we got into down at Marana was the Skyhook. I think the B-17 got down there towards the end of ’61. Robert Fulton, the Skyhook inventor, was there at Marana almost all the time.


The aerial pickup system required five crewmembers, excluding the two pilots Connie Siegrist and Doug Price. The Skyhook team was the nose position manned by Toby Scott or Kirk Samsel (MSO-60), Jerry Daniels was the winch operator in the old radio compartment, Miles Johnson (MYC-53) was in the Joe hole (belly gunner) position, I was in the tail position, and Jack Wall (MSO-48) was the crew chief. All of us were smokejumpers.


After much trial and error, the first time we used the Skyhook pickup system operationally was in May and June 1962 for Operation Coldfeet when we picked up two military guys we’d dropped on an abandoned Russian research station out on an ice island in the Arctic Ocean.


We used the Skyhook system again in the summer of ’63 when we extracted an American scientist up at the ARLIS Arctic research station. I called him “Poor Old George.”


See, in July ’63, Jerry and Toby and I and my wife were over at Silver City, N.M. I was flying Jerry and Toby around in an old Cessna 190 so they could ride in rodeos. Those guys paid for the gas for the airplane, and they’d hit one rodeo a weekend. They usually lost their butts, but they had a lot of fun.


My wife and I were sitting in the grandstand waiting for Toby and Jerry to get on their bulls or whatever they were riding that day. On the loudspeaker the announcer says, “Bob Nicol, please report to the announcer’s booth.”
I thought, “What the hell? Who knows I’m out here?” So, anyway, I went up there and they said, “You got a call from Marana. You’re supposed to call them back right away.”


I did, and that call was the alert to go up and get this sick scientist. He’s one of eight or nine people livin’ in Quonset huts out on the Arctic ice pack.
We rounded up Toby and Jerry, and we beat feet back to Marana. The next day we launched the B-17 and went right straight through to Fairbanks.


The scientists on the ice island were talking on the radio all the time. The one guy was sick and Skyhook was the only way they could get him out because the runway on the ice island was closed.


When the sick scientist heard the Skyhook plan, he said, “You’re gonna get me out of here, how?!? No way am I leaving like that!” So we went back to Marana.


We got back to Marana and about a week later I read in the paper that a scientist at the North Pole died. Well, so sad, too bad; he missed his chance. When I read that, little did I realize that we were going back up there. See, an ice island ain’t a really good place for a grave, you know?


So the scientists wrapped Poor Old George in a sleeping bag and a canvas and strung him up on the roof to freeze him and to preserve the body. That was better than just layin’ him in the snow where dogs or polar bears could get at him. They figured on bringing him out in another six weeks or so when the ice froze hard enough to land airplanes there again. Then his family found out about that and said, “No, you ain’t gonna treat my son that way.”


They wanted his body back for burial now. They said, “Get him off the roof and put him in a freezer.” Well, the family didn’t know what they were asking for. They didn’t realize there was only a short deepfreeze. To get him in there, the scientists had to bend him over bare-ass naked.


Then the Navy contracted with Intermountain for us to go back up there and use the B-17 Skyhook to pick up Poor Old George.


Jerry and I and the rest of the Skyhook crew left Marana on Aug. 9. We took along a couple gallons of Oso Negro Mexican gin with us.


A couple days later a DC-4 dropped the whole pickup package to the ARLIS research station, all 850 pounds of equipment with the pickup suit, instructions and everything else. The pickup suit is like a snowsuit with a parachute harness sewn into it.


As it was, Poor Old George was bent frozen, and they couldn’t get the suit on him. We were waiting in Barrow, and we said, “Well, you gotta get Old George in the pickup suit. Thaw him out.”
They laid him on the kitchen floor and tried to thaw him out so they could straighten him. They radioed and said, “He ain’t gonna thaw. Every time we try to get him to full length he starts comin’ apart.”


We had what we called a pickup drop bottle. Basically it was a canvas bag shaped like a milk bottle, about four feet tall and three feet in diameter. That’s what we used to drop the entire pickup package – the balloons, the line, the suit, all that stuff. And we had used it to pick up stuff from the Russian ice island the previous summer when we dropped off (U.S. Air Force Maj. Jim) Smith and (U.S. Air Force Lt. Junior Grade Leonard) LeSchack.


All the documents and equipment that they retrieved from NP8 came up in one of those bottle bags. It had good air flow, and we could get it in through the tail, no problem. But it’s pretty small. Anyway, we said, “If you can’t thaw him out to get him in the suit, can you get him in the pickup bag?”


They said they’d try. Then all of a sudden the word come out that they got Poor Old George in the bottle bag. An hour later we were fixin’ to launch.
We got all the way up there and the ground fog over the ice was so bad the weather canceled us out. We went back and waited in Barrow a couple of days because the weather was supposed to get better. It did and we launched again.


By the time we found the research station, the ground fog was rolling in again. It was rollin’ in like fog does, comin’ in low ground. We were pretty close by then.


The pilot radioed, “Launch the balloon.” Over the fog that white balloon was stickin’ right up through the clouds. The pilot said, “Stand by for pick up,” and boy, we were ready to go within 30 seconds. When we went over the research camp, we never did see anything on the ground.


I was in the tail and Old George was just a routine pickup once we got hold of the line. Up came Old George. He was totally in the pickup bag, still frozen in the bent-over position. And as the yoke grabbed the tether line, I threw those two gallons of Oso Negro gin out the tail. We had ’em padded up real well, and we had little parachutes rigged on ’em.


You should have heard those guys on the ground talkin’ on the radio. They said, “It’s just like God came to us. Here’s George sittin’ in a bag on the ground and then we hear an airplane overhead, and George slowly lifts straight up and disappears in the fog. At the same time two small parachutes come down through the fog with big jugs of gin on ’em!”


It was a long flight back to Barrow with Poor Old George riding in the tail of that B-17. My log book says the whole trip was 15 hours and 25 minutes.


I don’t think the airplane would have held up much longer. We’d gone up there almost to the North Pole less than a month before, came back to Marana, then went again. Those old airplanes need a lot of tender loving care when they get rode hard and put away wet, you know?


Anyway, it was seven or eight hours back to Barrow, and those scientists on the ice island were talking on the radio that whole flight. As the night went on and we got closer to Barrow, the story about Old George rising up through the clouds and the gin coming down just got better.