Batman's High-Tech Pickup

30 July 2008
12:13 PM

I’m not about to disclose any major plot points from the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight, but if you don’t want to know anything about the movie before you see it, don’t read any further.

Seriously. This is as far as you should go.

When I went to see The Dark Knight—fantastic film, by the way—there was one part that stood out for me. Early in the movie Bruce Wayne and Alfred are planning an operation where Batman needs to board a flying plane from the ground. Alfred suggests a program that the CIA has been working on called Skyhook. After an action sequence, Batman uses this Skyhook apparatus, and given all the other far-fetched technology in the movie, you might think that Skyhook is imaginary too. It’s not. In fact, it’s old school.

MC-130 Cargo Plane
My grandfather was a navigator aboard this MC-130E during the Vietnam War.

I know this through something of a coincidence. A few weeks ago I was visiting my grandfather in Massachusetts for his 80th birthday. We got to talking and he showed me some pictures from his days in the Air Force. During the Vietnam War, my grandfather served as a navigator aboard the MC-130, a modified version of the cargo plane. One of the pictures he showed me depicted the plane with a strange, Y-shaped protrusion from the front nose. When I asked about it, he explained the Fulton Recovery System, which sounded to me like something from a movie. Using this system, which is also called Skyhook, a person on the ground wears a harness which is connected by a nylon cable to a giant balloon hanging the in sky. The MC-130E flies into the cable, the V-shaped fork catches it, and the person on the ground shoots into the sky. The plane’s crew then opens the rear cargo bay door and retrieve the person dangling in the distance using a winch.

Although the maneuver sounds dangerous, it was actually quite safe. Robert Fulton invented the system in the 1950’s and in the dozens of years it was in use there were only 1 recorded fatality.

Time Magazine actually has an article in their archives from December 1964 describing the Fulton system.

The Dark Knight airplane deploying Skyhook
This frame from The Dark Knight shows an aircraft about to pickup Batman with the same V-shaped fork as the MC-130E. © 2008 Warner Bros. Pictures

The Batmobile, Batman’s armor, and his other gadgets may be from a time in the future, but his Skyhook liftoff is over 40 years old.