May 19, 2004 by

Robert E. Fulton Jr.


Categories: Artists, Scientists, Writers/Editors

Robert Edison Fulton Jr. once wrote: “One measure of a man is what he does when he has nothing to do.” During his 95 years on the planet, Fulton avoided boredom by filling his days with travel, architecture, writing, film and science.
Fulton first experienced wanderlust and adventure at 12 when he rode the first commercial air flight from Miami to Havana. Two years later, he was present at the opening of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt. After studying architecture at Harvard University and earning a master’s degree from the University of Vienna, Fulton decided to take a motorcycle trip around the world.
Over the next 17 months, he trekked 25,000 miles through 32 countries. His customized bike contained an extra large fuel tank, a secret hiding place for his .32-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver and enough room to carry his motion picture camera and 40,000 feet of film. Fulton’s journey was rife with excitement. He was robbed in Waziristan and jailed for smuggling in Indonesia. He was offered a tiger cub for $2 in Malaysia, and was slightly injured when he accidentally rode off a bridge in Turkey. Fulton chronicled his amazing adventures in the book, “One Man Caravan.” His film reels landed him a job as a promotional filmmaker for Pan American Airways.
The New York City native was also an accomplished inventor who accumulated 70 patents in his lifetime. Following the outbreak of World War II, Fulton taught himself to fly then designed the Gunairstructor, a combat gunnery simulator that was used to train Navy pilots. In 1946, he invented the flying car. Known as the Airphibian, the vehicle flew over 100,000 miles and received an endorsement from Charles Lindbergh, but it never got off the ground commercially. A model of the Airphibian can be viewed at the National Aviation Museum in Ottawa. Fulton also designed the Skyhook aerial rescue system, an inflatable balloon with an attached hook that the CIA used in the 1950s to pull agents out of enemy territory. The Skyhook was featured in the 1965 James Bond film “Thunderball.”
Fulton died on May 7 of congestive heart failure.

30 Responses to Robert E. Fulton Jr.

  1. Bruce Hinman

    Fulton also invented two other useful war time aids. 1) He developed a way of dropping rice into enemy infested east asian friendly areas, by dropping a bag of rice tightly wrapped in another bag very loose. The inner bag would break upon impact, only to empty into the loose bag.
    He also developed a frogman escape, by not having the frogmen grab onto a fast moving escape boat, but by having two small rafts with a rope between them. Half of the frogman crew would get on each raft and move backwards so the line was tight, and fast moving boat would catch the line on the bow and the two rafts would follow behind. Similar to the Fulton Skyhook.

  2. J Bonzer

    Robert Fulton gave me probably the biggest highlight of my life. Being a huge WWII fighter plane buff. Fulton came out to OR for his son Travis’ wedding. His son was getting married to my roomates sister. He was flying to OR in his P-51D Mustang. That’s all I needed to hear. There was no way I would come closer to getting a chance to beg for a ride in a P-51 than this. He came out and I met him at the wedding and word was, only way you got a ride in his plane was to go where he was going. So the day he left I was on the Tarmac with my napsack and off we went for an incredible ride to Calgary Canada and I hitched hiked home from there by small plane.
    Mr Fulton took photos over his shoulder of myself in the jumpseat behind him and would flip the aircraft on it’s back and take photos of the countryside with his Hasselblad camera. He sent me those photographs months later as the only proof I have of riding in a P-51. Never really knew him but am forever endebted to him for that privilege to fly with him. What a treat!
    J Bonzer
    Eugene, OR

  3. larry souza

    i read about robert’s adventures in a magazine article in 1994. i called him and ordered a copy of his vcr tape. i asked if i could visit him and he said yes. i never did, i wish i had. i do have a sliding cardboard “model” showing how the “skyhook’ recovery system worked.

  4. K. Levni

    I only recently was intorduced to Robert E. Fulton, Jr.’s journeys and inventiveness. What a rich and full life!
    K. Levni
    New Haven, CT

  5. Statler

    In late 1972 or 1973? I spent a day with Bob. His plane had been grounded in Urbana Champaign Ill by a snow storm. I was a recent grad of Architecture doing research on Louis Sullivan and Terra Cotta. One of those boring Sundays that become rare events bringing strangers together for an eternity in a moment: One of those rare days in life that forever changes who we are. Somehow I think he knew we would never meet again. His book has been a pattern for my own travels and I am truly saddened by a great person’s passing. Statler, Yellow Springs Ohio and Piran Slovenia

  6. hal lawrence

    I was Air Force in Vietnam 1966 – 1967. There was an experimental program underway for an aircraft emergency egress [escape] system. As I recall, A1E propeller aircraft had no ejection seat to use in emergencies. Fulton Egress Systems, a company was testing a system whereby in an emergency the pilot would fire a rocket mounted behind his seat that would go straight up pulling a long bungee type cable that would pull the parachute out behind it and then the pilot. The idea was for the pilot to parachute safely to the ground.
    Was Robert E. Fulton, Jr. associated with this operation? I can find nothing about it on the web with Google querries.
    Harold L. Lawrence, Col. USAF Ret.
    Ocean Springs, MS

  7. Bill Spencer

    I met Robert Fulton in 1969 in Houston, TX. I think he opened my eyes to the world of invention. He was so full of life and stories of his exploits. He showed me how to think outside of the box. I loved hearing about how he would fly his P51 from one Air Force base to another as he had clearance resulting from his top secret invention work with ONR, etc. He said that he had an extra sized gas tank and loved nothing more than flying at night listening to classical music and watching the stars from the cockpit. What an amazing man. I didn’t realize that he had died this year. I was just thinking about him and wondering what happened to him.

  8. Mike Rapson

    I met Bob Fulton in 1970 when I visited members of his family at his Connecticut home. I was in my early 20’s, confused by Viet Nam and discouraged by failures in school and business. Bob invited me to accompany him down to his workshop while he finished turning a fitting on his lathe…he was a Machinist. On our return to the house, he explained the sculpture he had fashoned on the lawn…he was a Welder and an Artist. In the family room, we were treated to a presentation of a childrens book he had written…Author, and because of the nature of the book, an interactive adventure with pop-ups, fold outs and puzzles that was years ahead of the times and needed careful marketing, a Publisher. The house that he designed was unusual for the time,and the bed that hung from the ceiling of his bedroom on great wrought chains was unusual for any time.
    In one weekend, he showed us that there are dozens of paths to a lifes work, and success is not where you find it, but where you make it. I have thought of him often. You would have liked him.

  9. Paul M Tree

    Robert E. Fulton ……… some memories.
    Bob Fulton was the most amazing individual I have met.
    I read his book in the 60’s by accident then tracked him down through the Mack truck museum 20 yrs later. ( his dad had been president of Mack ).
    In Sept 89 I was riding my BMW to Maine on business and was sent his phone number by the museum.
    He graciously invited me to come and visit, and said they had lots of spare room. I got to spend 2 days with Mr Fulton and his wife at their large estate, grass runway included. Bob took the Douglas bike he rode around the world out of the barn to show me. It wasn’t running but he muscled it out. Later it went to Bristol for a full restoration by the old ex factory boys at their request.
    He had 40 staff in various bldgs on site, making Skyhook components. Cad cam, accountants, engineers, balloon barn, you name it. He could even weave any nylon webbing he needed . Everything was built on site, nothing subcontracted. He told the USAF if they wanted the system, he had to supply it all. He kept control which was smart.
    I spent the day as ground crew, helping to fly his new 6 man pick up balloon on his runway at 600 ft on a tether. We tied it to a Ford Econoline bumper as it lifted 180 lbs , just about my weight ! At 79 yrs old he was wrenching heavy helium cylinders open and moving them around

  10. Mike Womble

    I meet “col.Fulton” back in 1964. When he was working on the “Fulton Aerial Recovery systom” with my dad capt.Floyd Womble. Where a man is plucked from the jungle by a plane.
    My dad was the pilot of the c-123 at HULBERT AFB.
    Capt. Gough was the name of the 1st man to be retreved on Nov 1964. SAWC{Special Air Warfare Cent.}
    Just someting else the col. invented but not much said about.

  11. Giles Morgan

    I met Bob once in the UK. He first met my grandparents in Baghdad in 1932 when motorcycling round the world – see “One Man Caravan” – and they kept in contact for around 15 years, then lost contact till he sent a letter to the last known address in 1989 – my grandmother still lived in the same town and they renewed friendships. Someone more down to earth one can’t really imagine – and with such a gift for invention and putting such into reality – there won’t be many more like him.

  12. jim mcclain usaf sof ret

    Met Mr. Fulton several times over years while stationed at Hurlburt Field with the 8th SOS. Worked the STAR system as ground and air as loadmaster on the MC130E. It was finally demil’d in the late 90s.
    Have pictures of him when they were working on Project 46 and other improvements to the original system.
    I wish I had taken the time after retirement to visit him and do the book about his life that I wanted to do. He supported the military as much as John Wayne did, but in a way that was devoted to saving lives. He should be recognized by the government with an award as well as the Air Force.

  13. jim mcclain usaf sof ret

    I recently found an aerial gunnery simulator on ebay that I purchased. It appears that it is the one that Mr. Fulton may have invented. When I get it, I will begin restoring it.

  14. Mike Malby

    looking for robert fulton that lived in olive hills estates as a child, , he and i went to same grade school etc, anyone who might be able to help, i would appreciate it, his great grandfather was the inventor

  15. Joseph Cormier

    Met Mr. Fulton in the mid 1990’s while I served as a crew chief on the 8th SOS’ MC-130E. We flew to Minnesota to do a Fulton recovery demo for him. When the system was removed in late 1998, I had the terrible task of de-mod on the first Talon I to lose the system (64-0555), and it made me sick to have to do it. The T1 lost a very unique capability indded. I loved the system, and meeting this incredible gentleman was indeed one of the highlights of my career.

  16. Rob T

    I am reading Robert Fultons incredible “One Man Caravan”, does anyone one know what happened to the documentary film he took of this epic trip?

  17. Lois Hurd

    As a child in the 1940s, I remember Robert E. Fulton coming to see my Dad, Benjamin S. Hurd, owner of the Monroe Airport in CT with his Airphibian. Also I have a copy of an article about Mr. Fulton from the July 12, 2000 “Sunday Republican” from when I was visiting my son, Norman Nagy in Newtown, CT. I wish I had gone to see Mr. Fulton at that time as it would have given me a lifetime of memories, but I felt that I would be intruding on an elderly man.

  18. Jeffery Gauss

    I never met Robert Fulton Jr., but my grandfather Micheal Gauss worked for him for many years. I recieved a copy of “Winds of Change” It keeps my mind wondering! He has inspired me to great new heights!
    Thank You Mr. Fulton!

  19. Mark Colbert

    It was a rainy spring day of 2001 and I was in the Newtown area eating at a small diner with my 1 year old daughter in a baby carrier…
    started talking with some Newtown natives about my 10 years as a product designer from CT…this guy “chimed” in about Robert Fulton Jr. living in the area…
    I thought it might be a bold move, but decided to drive to his residence and meet this old-time designer of whome I’ve only read about and studied back in design school.
    I found the place 20 minutes later, rang the bell and told the home assistant who I was, and my intention was to meet Mr. Fulton and,
    well…I didn’t really have a plan, but I wanted to meet him to simply say hello.
    He graciously agreed to see me…we sat in his dark/wookworked, office/gallery/living room, with customed, slanted glass panels overlooking his backyard (terrarium style).
    We sat there, I was in awe at all the designer’s clutter (not unlike my office)…so many projects, architectual drawings, artwork…
    He asked “what can I do for you, what do you want”…I wanted nothing…
    I simply shared some of my basic understanding of the designers role in this world, both in reality and on the fictional, blue sky level.
    He was thoughtful of my flight training and areonautical knowlege.
    I shared some stories of my father’s engineering knowledge & turbine engine design, when he worked with Avco Lycoming.
    We chatted for a a while more as my daughter just slept & slept in that carier.
    A shop engineer(his name, PALGI, I think, I know his brown card simply said SKYHOOK) was called to come get me…
    we took a walk in back to one of his barnlike, airplane hanger in his backyard…he swung open the door, and there stood a wonderous shop
    with aircraft prototypes / parts and many other projects I dare not mention…
    I couldn’t believe where I was, who’s work I was enduring and the engineering history, right there in front of me…
    I left that day with a signed copy of his book “One Man Caravan”…actually, he made me pay for it!…which we both chuckled about a bit over some tea,
    I think his wife brewed for us from thier own personal tea garden variety…and he gave me (free of charge this time) a book of pictures and thoughtful poems…”Steadfaith”…
    We parted with a long, firm handshake and a promise to return someday when I’d land my Cessna on his strip for another cup of tea someday…
    that day never came…my life went on, had another child, got busy on design projects, and well, you know how that goes.
    Looking back, I don’t regret stoping in that day with no plan and certainly no appointment…sometimes those are the best off-the-cuff meetings of minds that history can never repeat.
    I’m just learning of his passing now; and wish the best for his family and close friends.
    I’m still not far from Newtown, here in CT, and maybe I’ll fly in to see what kind of work his crew is continuing to develop…
    Steadfaith, Mr. Fulton, I’ll never forget those thought-provoking 90 minutes, SteadFaith.
    Mark Colbert
    Sterling Group

  20. Joe Garcia

    I was a young Electronic technician of 22 when I had the lucky fortune of working for the US Air force and Lockheed on Project 46 which was about increasing the pickup load of the package size to 1500 lbs for the Fulton Recovery System. Over a period of about 3 years we did 52 midair pickups of various sizes. All of our tests were conducted at Edwards Airfare Base in the North. I met Mr. Fulton at Lockheed Ontario, Ca. one day while instrumenting our plane. At the time he must have been in his late 60’s or early 70’s, but I saw this old guy climbing around our Talon II C-130 (S/N 551), the ramp was down and I saw him laying on his belly looking under the aircraft and he would go thru the front escape hatch and climb on top and look around. He just struck me as a vary youthful person for someone of his age. I was later introduced to him when I asked who he was. I was told of his motorcycle adventures and what a rich history he has.

  21. David H. Moran

    I had the great privilege to work with Robert Fulton for 5 years. This was 1963 thru 1968 but what month I started and what month I left has departed my memory some time ago. What I wll never forget was the experience working with him.
    Those were the years he worked and designed the Sky Hook, the leaflet disseminator and the system for picking up the frog men.
    I remember as it was yesterday sitting with him in his office tower as we worked on the costing of the Sky Hook to prepare the Goverment contract.
    I could write a small book about those days we worked in his shop over looking his grass airfield where you could slide the doors open to field as we machine parts. I think of the people we worked those days like Jimmy Washburn,John,Junie the Secretary Joan. There were only a few others at that time but I will struggle to remember all their names. I remember one time Mr. Fulton had me build a fixture to pull the head off off his motor for the P51 Mustang. The Sky Hook was one of the most if not the most exciting projects I ever worked on. He left me with alot of good memories. I enjoy reading about Mr. Fulton because he was such a gifted man and a pleasure to work with. I thank him for the memories. If any of you out there remember those days write me.

  22. Ritchie Rasmussen

    I first had the pleasue of meeting Bob Fulton in Edmonton Alberta in I believe 1979. I was at the Municipal Airport one Saturday afternoon and Bob arrived from Calgary with his P51. He landed with a flat Tail Wheel Tire. My friend Keith Knowles and I came up with a Tail Wheel tire and Bob was on his way to visit a Friend in the Oil patch. On his return from Grande Prarie Alberta he stopped, then off Home. He made sure to look us up on his return visits the next few years. In 1983 I called Bob to ask if he still had his Mustang, he did. I made a deal with him to Buy the Airplane.Gordon Plaskett of King City California and I visited Bob in Danbury made a deal and I flew the Mustang to Edmonton via Hamilton Ontario and Saskatoon Saskatchewan Dec 20 thru Dec 22. I refurbished the Airplane for Gordon and Deliverd it to King City March 31 1984.My wife Shirley and Visited Bob and his Wife in Danbury in 1995. We saw Bobs Stinson in Oshkosh this year.
    Bob flew N5427V 2200 hours in 22 years.
    Some history on the Mustang may be one that the owners used the most over the years?
    1945: 12th AF, WWII Vet, shipped home and served with various ANG units
    1957: sold surplus for $755.00 !
    1963: N5427V, Robert Fulton, CT
    1983: Gordon Plaskett, CA, restoration
    1985: Anthony Buechler, WI
    2006: Mr. Buechler has flown this P-51 for over 2000 hours in the last 21 years!
    It has never been raced or wrecked. It is on its third engine now and going strong with a set of Roush pistons. You can find Mr. Buechler at most EAA Airventure shows at Oshkosh WI, during the last week of July

  23. maren rae

    I had read about Mr. Fulton a couple years ago in a motorcycle-related book. I just watched the DVD and I wish I’d had the opportunity to shake this man’s hand. Aside from the incredible adventure spirit of his trip and his life…. he had such an insightful, sensitive, and spiritual take on his travels and the people he met.
    People like this are an inspiration. I got my first motorcycle at 54, and in 4 years, I have travelled from Alaska to Mazatlan. I won’t be able to ride across Afghanistan, but I feel inspired to go as far as I can by this DVD. It is such a gift to all of us that the film survived.

  24. Dominic Angerame

    Bob was a teacher of mine in Chicago at the Chicago Art Institute and I first met him around 1975, During my many years as a student I can only count two teachers who had a profound affect upon me and Bob was one of them.
    I guess one would call Bob a spiritual film teacher….he never taught me stuff like f stops, or how to splice…instead he showed me how to “see”, and how to release thought into the shot without attachment to either the thought or the shot. Bob also taught me the importance of “what he would say is creating that one good frame, and if you could can capture one good frame, then you can create thousands and before you know it you have a created a film. These lessons I now impart to my film students as well in my own film work. My films are directly influenced by Robert Fulton.
    I remember the first day I walked into the School of the Art INstitute of Chicago and Bob was teaching a class. He was smiling with a hugh grin and had just finished watching a student’s 100 feet of 16mm black ans white camera roll. He had found several frames or series of frames that excitied him and talk about it for a great length and encouraged the student to shoot another roll of film exploring those visual items that were discovered on the first roll. bob suggested that the student shoot a roll of film a week, and when the student said he could not afford to this, Bob gave him a 100 feet of film, and said he would give the student a roll of week on the condition that he film with it and brought it class each session.
    Bob continued the class like this for about 6-7 hours without taking a break, and after class would invite us all out for salads and drinks at his expense…and talk philiosophy and jazz with most of us….
    The other thing that was amazing about Bob was the language that he used. He would talk carefully choosing each word, like an important film frame, and each word seemed to be dense with meaning like his movies. It was almost as if his everyday speech was a film poem of sorts……..that made me re think my own concepts of perception art and life.
    I had never experienced a class such as that and continued to go each week. Eventually me and Bob became close and I invited to San Francisco to judge a film festival and be a guest artist at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1981.
    I would visit his home and studio in Newtown, watch his new films and had to beg him to let me take them back to SF to put into distribution with Canyon Cinema…..a film distribution company for which I am the Executive Director.
    I remember the time I was visiting relatives in Albany NY and called Bod to check in and he wanted me to see some new work. He mentioned that it was impossible to get from Albany to Newtown by car and he would come in his plane a pick me up. He asked me to look out the window and describe the cloud formations….he then met me at the Albany airport and we flew on to Newtown…..
    I know that now Bob’s spirit lives on in not only the excciting cinema that he created, but also inside each and every one of us who knew him and experienced his presence…..and are continuing to make films.
    Spirit don’t ever die……

  25. Sally Baxter

    In going through some old books, I came across “Wind of Life”, signed by Mr. Fulton to me, although I never met him, my friend Pita knew him and got the book for me. What a wonderful thing to find.
    “Wind, wind, blow our way. Blow your magic upon this day. Sing us a lilting song of love while we soar above. Above.”
    “When I was a child I thought tomorrow would never come. Now I wonder where tomorrow went.”

  26. Tom-Scott Gordon

    Today, the situation in Haiti brings back my fondest and saddest memory of Bob Fulton, whom I had met in 1973 through a common friend, Robert Andrew Parker. To say that this was a life-changing event for me would be a gross understatement, as I too was a practicing photograper and Bob took a special exception to teach me a few tricks with my Hasselblad.
    Of all of the things which Robert E. Fulton could claim credit for, none were remotely as impressive as the true story of his heroic rescue of the families trapped in the Northern California Wildfires, just a year or two prior. Doubtless, one or more of the commentators above knows much more about that incident than I, but it should be sufficient for me to point out that it required him to hand his life over to a non-pilot, while Bob dropped himself via his own SkyHook, into a ring of fire as he rescued 6 or more lucky souls.

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