Midair (air-to-air) passenger transfers...possible?

…Like was depicted in a certain Sylvester Stallone movie, is it possible to do a midair passenger transfer, from one jet aircraft to another, via a tethered line?

I know this has been done in the past, by barnstormers. But this was done at relitively low speeds, between biplanes, at low altitudes.

But…would it be possible to do so at 30,000+ feet, at 300+ knots?

Stallone’s film had the characters heavily bundled up, and wearing Oxygen masks, I should note.

So, any thoughts?

I’m not sure if it was the Stallone movie, but I know one movie tried to do it with a dummy and nearly sucked the thing into one of the engines. Rather than risk losing the plane, they removed the dummy from the tether and digitally inserted the person after filming.

I was going to say that a parachuter jumped from a plane to a balloon which would answer your question (yes it is possible), but you already know that with your barnstorming quote. Other then that I would say it would be possible (wag), I would think extensive modifications are required to both aircraft.

Just another action movie, so probably a stunt-coordinator’s fantasy, but they did it semi-successfully in Executive Decision… Kurt made the transfer safely, but Steven didn’t.

In Cliffhanger the stunt was actually performed by a stunt man. The scene was going to be abandoned due to the cost until Sly Stallone gave up some of his fee.

Also done in the movie where Harrison Ford played the President. Can’t recall the movie title though.

Harrison Ford played the President in Air Force One, which I think is the movie that substituted digital insertion for a dummy, as mentioned by engineer_comp_geek.

I’m one of the airline pilots on the boards. The short answer is “almost certainly not”.

Certainly it’d be impossible without extensive modifications to the aircraft involved. But could you purpose-build a transfer mechanism and fly it sucessfully? Well maybe. Just bring money (lots of it).

At 30,000’ the air temperature is roughly -45C or -50F, i.e. seriously Arctic.

The cruise speed of a typical jet airliner or militray cargo plane at that altitude is about 500 statute miles per hour, but the thinner air up there results in a wind blast whose pressure is the same as about 300 mph at sea level. i.e. it “feels” just like a 300 mph wind. For comparison’s sake, that’s the same as an F-5/F-6 tornado.

About the slowest such a plane could safely fly at that altitiude is maybe 250 mph of sea-level equivalent wind. A mere F-4 tornado.

Doing anything involving a person in a severe tornado in the Arctic sounds pretty challenging.
Aerial refueling is a similar task to aerial personal transfer, so let’s talk about that a bit.

The USAF does aerial refueling at those speeds all the time. Keeping the two aircraft relatively stationary to within a couple of feet is not difficult, provided you’ve practiced it a lot. It does take your total attention though.

The USAF method has the receiving aircraft slide in behind and beneath the sending aircraft. Then a rigid pipe about 8" in diameter is lowered towards a 2-foot square funnel set in the top of the receiving aircraft. The pipe has small wings on it and has a hydraulicly-driven extension on the end.

The sending plane flies perfectly straight, normally using the autopilot to ensure precise control. The receiveing plane slides in behind/below the sender and the human pilot does his/her best to hold absolutely still. That gets tough in turbulence, as well as the fact that the sending aircraft is always trailing a hellacious wake as well as violently disturbed air flowing out of each engine.

Once the two airplanes settle down, a crewman (the “boomer”), looks out his window in the rear belly of the sender and steers the end of the probe to just outside the funnel, then extends the probe to stuff the end into the funnel. The funnel mechanically latches the two aircraft together and fuel can then be transfered. The boom has a range of left/right and up/down motion, as well as in/out via the extension that requires the receiver to remain within about a 5-foot radius sphere around the center point. That’s usually doable for the several minutes required to pump the gas. In vile weather or if the receiving crew is tired, it can take several tries to get this done.

The Navy (naturally) uses a different system. The sending aircraft trails 50-75 feet of flexible hose off a reel just like a firehose. At the end is a “basket”, which looks like a badminton shuttlecock made of heavy nylon webbing. I’ts about 2 feet long and 18" in diameter, with a spring in its rim to hold it open. The wind blast keeps the hose more-or-less taught and the basket is aerodynamic enough that it stays more or less still.

The receiving aircraft has a rigid pipe (“probe”) sticking out the front. The receiving pilot’s job is to drive up and plug the probe into the basket. There’s a suitable connector at the center which mechanically latches onto the end of the probe and fuel can then transfer. In any kind of turbulence or weather the basket can be jumping around in large circles and be very hard to stick.

If the basket gets damaged so it’s not perfectly symmetrical, it skitters around on the end of the hose like crazy and is totally unusable. It’s too dangerous to get near a damaged basket; it can easily punch a hole in the receiving aircraft’s fuselage or break open the canopy/windscreen. Ouch!

The Navy method only works because both the sending and recieving aircraft are relatively small fighter-types, not lumbering transports like the USAF method was designed to support. So the wake from the former isn’t tossing the basket too much, and the latter is manueverable enough to hit the moving target.

OK, now let’s go back to people. One thing a person is NOT is aerodynamic. So if we hook them on to a rope and start lowering them from a door near the back of the plane, they’ll be skittering all over the sky. Unless they’re wearing an oxygen mask they’ll pass out in seconds. And unless they’re inside some pretty amazing clothing their limbs will freeze to unusability in seconds.

Before they freeze they’re probably not strong enough to hold their limbs against the wind blast to steer like sport parachutists do. And near the sending aircraft the airflow is a random tornado of swirling air. Imagine the most amazing white-water river you’ve ever seen, but it’s invisible and moves in three dimensions. Now imagine trying to surf that.

So now the receiving pilot slides up near this madly flailing body on a string, looking sorta like the sports-team flags you see on cars, whipping madly as they cruise down Main Street.

As they close on the guy, eventually he gets whipped into the side of the receiving plane and breaks at least one bone, more likely most of them.

So, that ain’t gonna work. Time for plan B.

I could imagine building a small capsule, say the size of a household garbage can, and using a variation of the USAF method. The can is attached to the end of the boom and is plugged into a suitable recetacle built into the top of the receiver.

But it wouldn’t be easy. You’d have to have a way to nest the capsule against the underside of the sender and provide suitable hatches so the person could get in, and also provide an airlock of sorts at the receiving end.

Possible, yeah probably. Sensible. No way. Like I said at the start, just bring money. Lots of it.

LSLGuy, that was one of the more lucid and clear posts I’ve seen in a while. (Three month’s belated) welcome.

As fezpp says, this stunt was actually performed in Cliffhanger. However, for the reasons given by LSLGuy, it was extremely dangerous and difficult to coordinate. The big difference between what most people consider the conventional air-to-air transfer and what they did in the movie was that instead of just lowering somebody on a cable and scooping them up, which would be next to impossible, they paid out the cable first and attached it on the receiving plane, and then the stuntman did the transfer.

As I recall from one of those HBO making-of specials, they had to (1) wait for perfect weather so they could (2) fly low and slow in order to (3) maintain some tension on the cable in order to (4) prevent the stuntman from flopping around on a loose line. Even so, I vaguely remember, they had some problems actually getting the guy into the plane on the receiving end, and were on the verge of aborting and having the guy parachute to the ground when they managed to pull him inside. In the movie, you don’t really see this; they go from the exterior shot of the stuntman arriving to an interior shot, filmed separately, of pulling the actor through a mockup of the door.

paperbackwriter:
Thanks. It’s seems like a good club with good folks.

Cervaise,
I’ve never seen the movie so I don’t know what kind of aircraft were involved in filming the stunt, but trying the same transfer at 5000’ where the temperature is +45F/+10C and oxygen is not required, and with slower planes able to fly at just 100 mph would certainly make it vastly easier.

Even airliners or military cargo jets can get down around 150 mph at low altitudes with flaps extended. With careful photography they could intermix high and low altitude shots and you’d never know the transfer didn’t happen at high altitude as the OP specified.

I hadn’t considered first connecting the aircraft by cable and then sliding the person down the line. I can see that would be fairly do-able, but you’d definitely need a carefully designed hatch on the receiving aircraft.

February 23, 2016. The last posts on this subject were in 2003. I was one of the people present, at California City airport, in 1981, when Dar Robinson (who did the cliff jump in the movie Papillon) made history by leaving one aircraft, flying his body (without cable) to another airplane and entering without having ever deployed his parachute. There were only a dozen people there, but all, excluding me were luminaries. Dar Robinson. His instructor and my friend, Larry Pearlman. Me on my motorcycle, fortunately the desert was shale and I could ride my heavy street bike. There was a chase pickup truck, an ambulance and that’s it. Frank Tallman of Tallmanz Aviation, a living legend, pulled in in his red Stearman biplane to watch. I was able to dodge desert brush, park my cycle and lie flat with binochulars. I saw Dar exit one airplane directly above me and fly over to the other. He overshot, grabbed the wing strut, but nonetheless did not get all the way into the propeller. He missed the propeller by inches. I could only tell that he hadn’t flown into the propeller because there was no pink spray. He fell off, was still conscious and deployed his parachute. I picked him up and five minutes later the pickup truck arrived. He was deathly shaken by the near miss. But, an hour later, he went up and DID it. A moment in history. Not a complex stunt. But, it’s whoever does it first.

Cool story bro.

Welcome to the Dope

Zombies wouldn’t be worried about hitting the prop.

[quote=“LSLGuy, post:8, topic:216905”]

… …The USAF does aerial refueling at those speeds all the time. Keeping the two aircraft relatively stationary to within a couple of feet is not difficult, provided you’ve practiced it a lot. It does take your total attention though.

The USAF method has the receiving aircraft slide in behind and beneath the sending aircraft. Then a rigid pipe about 8" in diameter is lowered towards a 2-foot square funnel set in the top of the receiving aircraft. The pipe has small wings on it and has a hydraulicly-driven extension on the end.

The sending plane flies perfectly straight, normally using the autopilot to ensure precise control. The receiveing plane slides in behind/below the sender and the human pilot does his/her best to hold absolutely still. That gets tough in turbulence, as well as the fact that the sending aircraft is always trailing a hellacious wake as well as violently disturbed air flowing out of each engine.

Once the two airplanes settle down, a crewman (the “boomer”), looks out his window in the rear belly of the sender and steers the end of the probe to just outside the funnel, then extends the probe to stuff the end into the funnel. The funnel mechanically latches the two aircraft together and fuel can then be transfered. The boom has a range of left/right and up/down motion, as well as in/out via the extension that requires the receiver to remain within about a 5-foot radius sphere around the center point. That’s usually doable for the several minutes required to pump the gas. In vile weather or if the receiving crew is tired, it can take several tries to get this done.
…QUOTE]

My plan: redesign this setup with a much bigger tube and correspondingly bigger control surfaces, and fire the passenger through the tube.

Easy peasy!

Burt Reynolds, in the movie Deliverance, had a scene where his character went down some rapids and got his leg broke. They tried filming the scene using a dummy, and the director shook his head and said “it looked like a dummy going thru some rapids”.

So Burt tried the same scene. He nearly drowned. Finally they pulled him out of the river. Burt coughed out half a river’s worth, and asked the director “How was that?”

The director shook his head and said “it looked like a dummy going thru some rapids”.

Regards,
Shodan

While we’re on the subject of air-to-air transfers, here’s one that involves gliders, although he didn’t enter the second aircraft.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zok7LltWU0E

I recall seeing the Dar Robinson jump on the TV special about his life. I remember reading in Skydiving or Parachutist that BJ Worth did a similar jump for a James Bond movie (one of the Pierce Brosnan films, IIRC in the movie they make it look like he jumped off a high dam and caught a plane but the actual stunt was filmed with BJ Worth leaving one plane and catching another in flight).

Here’s a video of someone leaving one plane and actually getting into another. Note that the target plane deploys a drogue chute and idles the prop. You can see how much trouble the skydiver has actually taking grips on the target plane and that’s at low speed (~120mph vs some of the higher speeds that LSLGuy refers to).

Prop planes under carefully controlled conditions is one thing, I certainly wouldn't want to try it between jets at high altitude/airspeed.

Anything is possible with enough money.

Joe Canutt was the stunt man in Airport '75. He doubled for Charlton Heston and was winched out of the back of a helicopter and into the front of a flying 747.

In* Airport 75*, a small plane collided with a 747 head on, and made a big hole in the 747 cockpit roof. For reasons of plot, the heroes had to float a pilot into the plane from another aircraft. See here for a review and a neat picture.

Was apparently quite a tricky stunt to do, but looked completely fake in the shown footage.

I just rewatched both pilot transfer scenes again and the only actual in-air footage you see is the stuntman being reeled out the back of the helicopter on a cable. There is a 747 flying close behind but what you see matches my (dim) memory of the scenes which is that the “hole” in the 747 cockpit looks like a paint job. You never actually see a stuntman being lowered into contact with the 747 (let alone climbing aboard) other than obvious blue-screen/stage work. I don’t imagine that anyone would have let the film company cut a man-sized hole in the cockpit and fly it around.

Here are the scenes from the movie:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q5AxvY3N4WE