In the ice-covered wasteland separating the Soviet Union from Canada and the United States during the Cold War one local veteran made history with a covert operation that even James Bond hadn’t attempted yet.
Lieutenant Leonard LeSchack, a member of Golden’s Royal Canadian Legion Branch 122, joined the United States Navy after he could no longer outrun the conscription agents. Working as a geophysicist on the US Antarctic Expedition for 14 months, he was able to delay his entrance into the military, and gain some valuable Navy contacts at the same time.
“At that time, all the engineering and logistics for this whole governmental operation was performed by the US Navy. So I got to know some of those people, including the senior officers,” said LeSchack.
The plan, after he graduated as an officer, was to go back to an icebreaker ship in the Antarctic fleet. But a special request from the Arctic Institute of North America landed him on a US Air Force drift station in the Arctic Ocean instead.
It was there LeSchack learned the strategic importance of the Arctic Ocean in the Cold War, as he spent much of his time tracking submarines, both ours and theirs.
Both the Americans and the Soviets had stations set up in the Arctic, either on glacial ice (ice islands) or sea ice. Given the unstable nature of ice (especially sea ice) these stations often broke up, sometimes leaving very little time for personnel to vacate before planes could no longer land.
This gave LeSchack an idea.
“I realized that if we kept track of Soviet stations, particularly the ones around Canada, then we could tell when they broke up… And we know from our own experience that these stations that have been lived on for months and months, can’t be abandoned all that quickly. And a lot of the things that were there, were likely to be left there,” said LeSchack.
The opportunity to gain intelligence from these abandoned stations tremendous. The trick would be getting men on and off an ice station where planes cannot land. That’s where the Fulton Skyhook came in.
The skyhook, installed on a B-17 plane, allowed planes to pick a person up off the ground without landing the plane. It consisted of two arms attached to the aircraft’s nose. On the ground, a rope held up by a weather balloon, and secured to the person to be picked up, would hook onto the two arms as the aircraft approached as low and as slow as possible.
LeSchack was first person in history to be picked up by the skyhook during a real operation, in what was later dubbed as Project Coldfeet.
Despite a few complications during the pick-up, LeSchack had trouble breathing as he was facing into the wind and had to use his arms to maneuver himself around, he says the process is relatively painless.
The skyhook, attached to the very same plane used to pick up LeSchack in Project Coldfeet, was used a few years later to pick up James Bond in the film Thunderball.
“The mission turns out to have been extraordinarily valuable. We found a lot of good intelligence that made a difference to the Navy and to central intelligence,” said LeSchack.
This past June was the 50th anniversary of the successful operation, which was declassified in the late 1970s. The skyhook has not been successfully used in a mission since Coldfeet, and is somewhat obsolete now and long-range helicopters have advanced.
“It was a milestone for sure,” said LeSchack.
LeSchack has written a book about the mission, available at the Legion. And Project Coldfeet will also be the subject of an episode of “Weapons of the Superspies,” which will air on the Discovery Channel on Sept. 18 at 10 p.m. EST.