Robert E. Fulton Jr, inventor of `Thunderball`s skyhook rescue system, dies aged 95

01-Jun-2004 • Bond News

Robert E. Fulton Jr., 95, who died of congestive heart failure May 7 at his home in Newtown, Conn., was coy about his family's relation to the steamboat pioneer Robert Fulton. But he insisted that by name (his middle name was Edison) and creative temperament, he was suited to become one of the more intriguing inventors of the 20th century, reports the Washington Post.

He devised an early form of combat gunnery simulator, a flying car that went 12,000 feet and got reasonable gas mileage, and an inflatable balloon meant to aid stranded spies and military personnel. The Skyhook, as that contraption was called, was featured at the end of the James Bond film "Thunderball."

"The main thing is to see the need for something and then fill it," he told The Washington Post in 1967. "Most people go through life looking but not really seeing."

Mr. Fulton was born in New York. He got his first taste for design when he was 10 and his father, president of the Mack Truck Co., asked him to redraw the timeworn blueprints for one of the truck engines.

After graduating from Harvard University and receiving a master's degree in architecture from the University of Vienna, Mr. Fulton found himself at a dinner party in London. He told the other guests that he planned to return to New York via the Orient to see great monuments -- maybe by motorcycle. "You don't see much architecture through a steamship porthole," he said.

The boast was met by a dare from an older man who happened to own the Douglas Motorcycle Co. He refitted a motorcycle for Mr. Fulton with an extra gas tank and some protective devices, including a steel underplate and a hidden compartment for a gun, just in case.

Mr. Fulton left England in 1932 and traveled through dozens of countries on the way to Japan. He then sailed to San Francisco before heading home to New York in time for Christmas 1933.

Despite a bout with jaundice in Baghdad, he considered his trek a success. He had had only six flat tires by the time he got to Japan.

He recorded his journey with a 35mm camera and wrote a book, "One Man Caravan" (1937). Decades later, he told CNN that he was struck by the superstitions from village to village in the Middle East.

"They were always warning me about the next place to go, and the next place to go was warning me how lucky I was to get through the last one," he said.

He was a self-taught pilot, training on his first wife's Luscombe seaplane, and was an aerial photographer for Pan American World Airways in the 1930s.

Bracing for the war in Europe to reach the United States, he invented the flight and combat gunnery simulators by taking a panoramic view of the sky from the Empire State Building. He placed the photo in a fake Corsair cockpit with a working instrument panel. The Navy bought 500 aircraft gunnery simulators, called the "Gunairstructor," for $6 million.

He began work on the Airphibian flying car out of frustration with traveling to remote parts of the country for his military work. Taxi drivers, concerned with wartime gas rationing, would not take him from an airport to a far-off military installation.

In 1945, with a group of assistants based at Danbury Airport in Connecticut, he fashioned a two-seat vehicle that resembled the front of an airplane fuselage. To fly, it attached to a rear fuselage with high-set wings and a tail.

The Airphibian could travel 110 mph in the air and 55 mph on the ground. It got 20 miles to the gallon, and to highlight its practicality, brochures showed a housewife in heels disengaging the car from the rear fuselage with a few twists of a wrench.

In 1950, he flew the craft to Washington's National Airport and then drove it to the Civil Aeronautics Administration headquarters in the District for certification. Although the CAA ordered several planes at $7,500 each, Mr. Fulton ran out of money for the project and sold his controlling interest. The Airphibian, a hit at air shows, soon faltered.

In the 1950s, he began work on his favorite venture: the Skyhook aerial rescue system, which reportedly has been used for clandestine rescue missions.

It worked this way: A plane dropped by parachute a package containing a special suit; a 500-foot, high-strength nylon line; a large inflatable balloon; and a tank of helium. The person would put on the suit, which was attached to the line, which was attached to the balloon. The inflated balloon would rise 500 feet, and the search plane would hook it with a special attachment, secure it and, after a few more maneuvers, pull the person aboard.

Mr. Fulton said that U.S. authorities once considered using the Skyhook to sweep the Dalai Lama out of Tibet in the event of a Chinese invasion.

In 1959, the Dalai Lama fled on the back of a yak.

Mr. Fulton spent his final years sculpting, writing poetry and lecturing. He also liked creating aphorisms, including: "One measure of a man is what he does when he has nothing to do."

His first wife, Florence Coburn "Sally" Fulton, died in 1996. A son from that marriage, Robert E. Fulton III, an aerial cinematographer, died in an air crash in 2002. Mr. Fulton's second wife, Anne Boireau Smith Fulton, also died in 2002.

Survivors include two sons from his first marriage, Rawn Fulton of Bernardston, Mass., and Travis Fulton of Snowmass, Colo.; two stepchildren; 10 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Thanks to `Moore` for the alert.

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