W. Paul Reeve
History Blazer, March 1995
Following World War II America’s rapidly advancing military technology produced jet planes with the capability of reaching speeds in excess of 500 miles per hour. At such high velocities pilots had trouble safely escaping from their planes during emergencies. Between 1949 and 1956 only 20 percent of pilots who ejected did so without harm. The need for an ejection system that threw pilots clear of their planes without causing injury eventually found its solution on a desert mesa in southwestern Utah.
In 1953 the Air Force awarded a $2 million contract to the Coleman Engineering Company of Torrance, California, to construct the Supersonic Military Air Research Track. The Air Force selected the flat, arid Hurricane Mesa in southern Utah (16 miles west of Zion National Park near the town of Hurricane) as the site for the facility. The location proved to be ideal. The region’s mild weather allowed year-round testing, the mesa’s flat bedrock provided a secure anchor for the track, its 1,500 foot drop into the Virgin River Valley was perfect for the planned tests, and the Virgin River supplied all the necessary water.
Coleman Engineering began construction of the facility during the summer of 1954. The track consisted of 12,000 feet of continuously welded, heavy-duty rails that formed the longest rocket research track in the United States to that date. The entire facility included the track, launching pad, crew shelters, camera towers, rocket storage depots, water system, power system, communication system, security facilities, administration building, and a shop building. Coleman had completed the base by July 8, 1955, when the first test took place.
Testing at the site typically involved hurling a rocket sled, carrying a seat with a dummy known as “Hurricane Sam” strapped to it, along the track at a speed of 1,050 miles per hour (Mach 1.3). “Sam,” in actuality, was a highly instrumented anthropoid simulator with electronic equipment and a radio connected to it. Just before reaching the edge of the cliff the ejection mechanism fired, flinging the dummy over the precipice where its parachute opened and it floated to the valley floor. In one series of tests “Hurricane Sam” was replaced by apes to determine the effects of ejection on live beings. By 1958 Coleman Engineering had begun using the track for other tests, including the launching of missiles from the rocket sled at targets 75 miles away. At one point Coleman even set a world land speed record when the 9,400-pound sled reached a speed of 1,800 miles per hour. Eventually the Air Force allowed different aircraft companies to test their equipment at the Hurricane Mesa site, and many of Coleman Engineering’s innovations were adopted by various industries.
In the six years of the site’s operation some 334 tests helped the Air Force to standardize its ejection systems and perfect a seat that made emergency escapes much safer for American pilots. With this original purpose accomplished, the facility began a gradual phaseout that ended with the closure of the southern Utah base in December 1961.
Source: Thomas G. Alexander, “Brief Histories of Three Federal Military Installations in Utah: Kearns Army Air Base, Hurricane Mesa, and Green River Test Complex,” Utah Historical Quarterly 34 (Spring 1966): 121-37.