The True Story of ‘Metal Gear Solid’s’ Fulton Recovery System
The CIA pioneered exfiltration via balloon
In the new video game Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, players take control of Big Boss, a legendary soldier with a grudge.
Nine years before the events of the game, an intelligence agency betrayed Boss, killed his soldiers and left him for dead. Now he’s out for revenge. The game is set in the 1980s and Boss travels to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan to run ops for foreign powers and rebuild his shattered army.
Boss recruits by force. He doesn’t pay troops off or inspire them to join his cause with fancy speeches. No, he kidnaps them with a balloon. During the game, Boss can either kill or knockout enemies with a tranquilizer gun or a chokehold.
Sleeping soldiers are fair game, and Boss can strap a balloon called the Fulton Recovery System to their backs. The Fulton looks like a bulky backpack that releases a large, white balloon. The balloon and its cargo hover in the air for a moment before rocketing into the sky where a waiting helicopter collects the new recruit.
The Fulton Recovery System is ridiculous. It’s also real.
Here’s the thing about the Metal Gear Solid series — they’re deeply weird. Their plots revolve around serious issues such as private military forces and nuclear proliferation, but also supernatural elements such as vampires and ghosts.
But the series’ military, historical and geopolitical information is accurate. Sometimes, weirdly accurate. A few hours into The Phantom Pain, Boss is learning about the Pashtun people of Afghanistan, their culture, music and tactics. And it’s all spot on.
The Russians wear period uniforms and wield accurate firearms. Despite several wacky elements — and there are a lot of wacky elements in Metal Gear games — the series’ creators maintain a slavish devotion to accurate portrayals of military equipment and personnel.
The Fulton Recovery System is no different. The weird white weather balloons Boss uses to recruit enemy soldiers are real. The CIA used them a lot in the 1960s and 70s. To be sure, the story of the Fulton Recovery System is strange one, and involves a mad scientist and a lot of damaged farm animals.
During World War II, armies experimented with airborne deployment of soldiers. The Allies pioneered the use of paratroopers and by the middle of the war, soldiers were jumping out of planes left and right.
But if the Allies could deploy troops from planes, might they also bring them back into the sky? Such a method would be useful for downed pilots and secret agents needing extraction from behind enemy lines.
In 1943, the British Army and the U.S. Army Air Forces experimented with a method of exfiltration based on an old British mail pickup system. It involved two steel poles set 54 feet apart connected by a transfer line. A plane would cruise just above the steel poles and drop a 50 foot long steel cable with grappling hooks at the end of it.
Next, the plane’s hooks would grab onto the transfer cable. As the plane ascended, the steel cable would retract, pulling up the cargo at a very high rate of speed. The U.S. Army Air Forces tried a live test with a sheep. The bleating animal experienced 17 gs of force, got tangled up in its harness and died.
The military went back to the drawing board, improved the harness, changed the materials in the cables and transfer lines and reduced the impact speed to 7 gs of force. Before long, the system was pulling soldiers from the battlefield. The Pentagon used the technique several times during the Korean War to extract assets.
But it would take a brilliant and strange inventor to perfect the technology and add his name and balloons to the system.
Robert Edison Fulton, Jr. was a mad scientist with a penchant for strange inventions with awful names. During World War II, he created the gunairstructor — an advanced simulation pod designed to help aerial gunners learn how to fight. It was an early precursor to the combat and flight simulator games used today.
After the war ended, he decided to invent the flying car. He called it the Airphibian and developed several prototypes — including one flown by famed aviator Charles Lindbergh — before he ran out of cash. One of his Amphibians now rests in the Smithsonian.
During World War II, Fulton saw the crude pole and winch-based exfiltration method used by the Army Air Forces and thought he could do better. In the 1950s, he began work on what he called the Skyhook system. Outside his home near El Centro, California, Fulton used weather balloons, nylon rope and small weights to launch objects into the sky.
But he lacked military support and the aircraft to actually retrieve what he sent into the air. He approached the CIA, who liked the idea and put Fulton in touch with the Office of Naval Research. The agency and the Navy funded Fulton’s experiments and helped him refine his Skyhook concept.
What Fulton came up with sounds like pure madness. A special recovery plane would fly over a downed agent and parachute-drop a recovery package. The soldier would retrieve a special harness connected to a dirigible-style balloon via a 500-foot length of cable. A bottle of helium filled the balloon and propelled it into the air.
When the dirigible — with the soldier attached — reached 500 feet above the earth, the recovery plane passed slightly under it, aiming for a highlighted portion of the rope. Two horns protruded from the front of the recovery aircraft that both severed the line’s connection to the balloon and hooked the line to the plane.
The aircraft cruised forward, the soldier shot upwards and the crew on the plane pulled him into a hatch on the bottom of the aircraft.
The whole process took about six minutes. Fulton conducted his first live tests with a pig. The beast shot into the air at an incredible 125 miles per hour. The flight crew recovered the creature, who was unhurt but upset. Once the pig regained its footing, it attacked the crew. Pigs do not like to fly, especially when the flight is a surprise.
The military continued testing Skyhook after the pig experiment. The first two human pickups were wild successes. The soldiers found they could spread their arms and legs and — to a certain extent — control the wild gyrations through the air that had vexed and disoriented the pig.
In 1962, the CIA used Fulton’s Skyhook during Operation Coldfeet. The agency deployed agents to an abandoned Soviet drift station in the Arctic to grab Russian research. The spooks stole the Soviet equipment from the station and a B-17 scooped up both the equipment and the agents using Fulton’s balloons.
The CIA and the military continued to use the Skyhook throughout the rest of the century, but fancier helicopters such as the Chinook and Osprey ultimately ended the Skyhook as a means of exfiltration. In 1996, Air Force Special Operations Command retired Fulton’s system.
The strange and exciting method lives on in Metal Gear Solid. But the equipment Boss uses to press-gang soldiers into his service isn’t called the Skyhook. In honor of its mad scientist inventor, the game designers called it the Fulton Recovery System.
In the game, the flight is much faster and the rope between balloon and soldier isn’t as long as the real thing, but it’s a testament to the game’s devotion to military and historical accuracy that it uses the same white balloon and the original creator’s name.