FEATURE — Its geography hides it and that’s one of the reasons it was chosen for its current purpose.
Due to its location atop the Hurricane Mesa, which towers just over 1,500 feet above the road, most drivers along state Route 9 on their way to or from Zion National Park drive right past it and don’t even notice it’s there.
What they could notice if they looked closely is a bulbous water tower near the cliff’s edge, but not much else. Since its inception in 1955, there has been a lot of local legend about the Hurricane Mesa Test Facility, including UFO sightings, military cover-ups or eerie noises, bizarre lights and mysterious sightings emanating from the top of the mesa.
It’s easy to see why such folklore has been generated, with foreboding warning signs posted at the site, electronic surveillance and a nine-foot security fence. One former director said that the site is classified a “confidential” facility by the Department of Defense and security measures at the site are not to foil espionage or imprison extraterrestrials but to deter theft and vandalism.
It’s been dubbed “Space Mesa” by some locals accustomed to seeing unusual lights and hearing loud sounds emanating from it.
The truth is, the facility atop the mesa mostly runs tests to optimize jet aircraft ejection seats. Nonetheless, its history is an interesting one.
The site’s impetus
After World War II, the proliferation of jet-propelled aircraft necessitated more sophisticated escape systems to reduce pilot fatalities and injuries.
“Of the 25 operational ejections occurring between early 1949 and June 1956 at speeds above 500 knots, only 20% were accomplished without injury to the pilot,” a brief history of the early test facility entitled “The Fact Book of Project Smart” prepared by its first operator, Coleman Engineering, stated. “As flight speeds continued to increase, considerable effort was required in order to design and prove escape systems intended to reduce pilot fatalities and injuries.”
Muroc Dry Lake in California’s Mojave Desert hosted the first rocket-propelled sleds for testing the effects of acceleration and deceleration on the human body under the direction of Edwards Air Force Base. The U.S. military also established test tracks at Inyokern, California (Naval Ordnance Test Center) and at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.
However, these facilities were not able to give military personnel all of the answers they were looking for as they were on flat land and the early impact of the escape capsules “destroyed much of the data and the equipment without having permitted the complete accumulation of information or a complete observation of the escape cycle.” In order to evaluate better, they needed a longer observation time before the descent to track level.
“It was, therefore, conceived by the Air Force that if the object could be ejected at the edge of a cliff, observations could be made over a considerably extended period of time while the ejected object was descended by parachute to a lower level,” the history booklet explained.
Hurricane Mesa definitely fit that testing requirement. It had the area to build the required 2.5-mile track, which ended at a nearly 1,500-foot cliff, ideal for the test device to be ejected and hurtled over the precipice. Additionally, the geology of the mesa was favorable, assuring a firm base for the test track installation since the mesa is capped by a more than 100-foot layer of sandstone.
Another advantage of constructing such a test facility was economics. Previously, testing to gather the accurate data could only be done in-flight, which risked damage to expensive experimental equipment and injury to pilots. Thus, “Project SMART” (Supersonic Military Air Force Research Track) was born, and the Air Force was glad it was for the money it would save since, “the entire cost of Project SMART is only a fraction of the cost of one experimental high speed aircraft,” the history booklet concluded.
In 1953, the Air Force requested Coleman Engineering Company of Torrance, California, to prepare a proposal for escape systems that utilized such an environment and a year later awarded the company the contract to construct the test facility on Hurricane Mesa with a tight timeline: only 18 months. The company succeeded with the first test occurring just 13 months after the awarding of the contract.
When chosen, the only way to access the future test site on the mesa was “hazardous horseback trails,” the Project SMART Fact Book explained. In September 1954, Smith, Wood and Northrup, contractors from Hurricane, started the job of constructing the precarious 3.5 mile road up the Mesa.
“Bulldozers, ‘cats’ and other heavy machinery chewed their way upward through layers of sandstone, shale, mica and talus slopes of loose, treacherous conglomerate,” the booklet explained. “Two of the ‘cats’ went over the steep embankments during the construction period but were recovered. No injuries to workmen were incurred.”
One crew worked from the top, reaching it via a combination of the Kolob Terrace and Smith Mesa roads, to construct a route with an average 10 percent grade. Blasting work to penetrate the conglomerate proved difficult, but the contractors completed the road by November 1954.
At the same time as the road construction, a pump system to siphon water from the Virgin River to the site was installed. It included two settling basins at the canyon’s edge near the river. That water was then pumped up a 15,000 foot pipe to two 35,000 gallon storage tanks. That included one near the end of the track that supplied a water-brake trough between the rails.
With the road completed, site construction began in January 1955. The contractor, Lembke, Clough and Kin cleared a one-million-square-yard area of juniper, pinion and other growth to provide unobstructed camera visibility. Heavy machinery shifted 65,000 cubic yards of loose conglomerate and 11,000 cubic yards of rock had to be blasted in preparation of constructing the base of the track, which involved moving 52,000 cubic yards “of embankment and rolled fill,” the historic booklet explained. Excess rock and dirt was disposed of by shoving it off the cliff, something that definitely could not be done today.
The track consists of 39-foot “crane rails” weighing 105 pounds per yard fused together into two continuous 12,000-foot lengths to render them different from traditional railroad tracks with no seams between the tracks.
“It’s a railroad track with no click, click, click,” noted Chris Woodbury, a senior analyst with Collins Aerospace (the company that now operates the facility).
The welding process during construction was fast and efficient.
“Welding progressed, at its peak, at a rate of 50 rail joints, or 2,000 feet, per day, permitting completion of the job in only 16 days,” the booklet noted. “The resulting track is believed to be the longest continuous rail weld in the United States … crews labored swiftly, day and night, to bolt the track to its base anchors, working from the center of the track toward each end.”
“Because of the high speeds and stresses involved, these rails were laid on concrete with its foundation on bedrock and the track was anchored to the concrete by clamps spaced 50 inches apart,” the booklet explained. “Dimensions for the lumber forms for the concrete were held to extremely small tolerance unusual for concrete work. The precision of this work drew the praise of the Army Corps of Engineers inspector sent to supervise the job.”
Each rail, when finished, weighed 420,000 pounds. Once the two main rails were set, a third rail that stretched 3,800 feet backward from the cliff end was installed to stabilize the water scoop brakes of the test sleds.
The “nerve center” of Project SMART was the Blockhouse Control Center, an 18 by 20 foot concrete building protected on its sides and overhead with concrete bunkers. The observation slot had large mirrors to give a “periscopic view” of the firing pad to the men at the control console, which started the cameras, sent out time signals and fired the rocket. The control center had an intercom system that reached all other stations as well as a loudspeaker that could be heard throughout the entire test area.
One thousand feet east of the track near its beginning, the administration building was erected. It was a two-story, fiber-glass insulated, 40-by-100-foot steel structure on a concrete foundation. It included office space, photographic dark rooms, an instrument laboratory, a conference and projection room, a sled equipment and storage room as well as a general shop.
The first test at the site ran on July 8, 1955 and by the second test, they had already reached the speed of sound, Mach 1.
“Early tests were primarily ‘shake-down’ runs, to check out the track instrumentation, controls, camera coverage, stopping characteristics of the water brake, and to develop in our crew operational teamwork,” the history booklet said. “On one test, it was bantered among the crew that the 12,000-foot track needed an additional 15 feet as a ‘safety margin’ because the sled plowed into bales of hay piled near the mesa brink and stopped within 100 feet of the end of the track!”
The test vehicle had two parts, the locomotive and the sled. The locomotive is what pushed the sled, which carried the ejection seat or escape device that fell over the precipice and was recovered via parachute.
“Because of the terrific aerodynamic force, wheels on these vehicles are impractical and both are skidded along the track on ‘slippers’ gripping the rails,” the booklet explained.
The locomotives usually used liquid fuel rockets, which reduced cost and increased flexibility.
The braking system for the sleds was similar to that on an aircraft carrier, consisting of long, tapered steel tubes filled with water. Each tube had a piston, and when the sled would pass the tube, hooks on the sled picked up a cable attached to the pistons, forcing them to move against the water and absorb the energy generated by the sled’s velocity required to bring the sled to a stop. The water brake was capable of producing 680,000 pounds of braking force.
Woodbury said the water brakes “scrub off some G-forces.”
In addition to the water brakes, reverse firing rockets and mechanical arresting gear were used to supplement the braking process.
“The velocities and braking requirements of the seat-ejection vehicles and the liquid rocket locomotive were much higher than those of any vehicles previously used in track testing,” the booklet explained.
Speed was governed by the number of rockets used, wrote Victor Hall in his compilation entitled “Selected Topics Related to Hurricane, Utah.”
“Sixteen or more solid-fuel rockets could be fitted into the main racks and 12 or more smaller rockets could be attached to the sides,” Hall wrote, noting that windows were painted on the sides to help determine the vehicle’s center of gravity and the wedge-shape of the cockpit mockups helped hold the vehicle to the track.
The Hurricane Mesa Test Facility provided the opportunity for controlled tests that would provide good data, being able to be programmed to within a few thousandths of a second.
“Project SMART was designed for the maximum simulation of actual aircraft flight conditions (even to providing drop space after ejection), and at the same time allow the intimate study of equipment behavior under actual operating conditions,” the history booklet said. “It is possible to prearrange the position of a particular flight or test event along the track so that its space coordinates are known to very close tolerances.”
Precision fixtures along the track were designed to allow alignment within tolerances of plus or minus 0.005 of an inch.
The absence of an on-board flight crew made the tests completely safe. Most of the test objects were anthropomorphic dummies closely approximating a pilot. One dummy, known as “Hurricane Sam,” was highly instrumented with electronic equipment and a radio connected to “him.”
However, at one time, chimpanzees were strapped into the ejection seats for testing because of their similar physiology to humans and because of the desire to determine the effects of ejection on live beings. According to one former site director, the chimps were easy to get into the cockpit for their first trip. But after that, it was much more difficult, Christopher Smith reported in a story in The Salt Lake Tribune in February 1997.
Woodbury tells the story of a Chimpanzee named “Jake” being rewarded for his work with drops of orange juice squeezed into his mouth. The use of these chimps in testing earned the site the nickname “Monkey Mesa.”
During its heyday, the site usually ran two tests per week, but other times it could take a month to get a test ready. Tests could not be run on cloudy days because of the film-speed limitations of the time, Hall wrote. A byproduct of the testing system was the development of a double parachute system capable of recovering the forward sled after its ejection over the cliff.
The main goal of the tests was, of course, to gain data concerning ejection seats for high-speed aircraft.
As Hall explained, typical questions that needed answering were: How much ejection force was needed so that the pilot would not be struck by the aircraft’s tail? How fast could a plane be flying until successful ejection became impossible? How long could the plane be flying and the pilot still be able to parachute safely to the ground? Answers for one aircraft didn’t necessarily hold true for another.
“Because we are going beyond the borders of the ‘state of the art,’ much of the work necessarily is of the trial-and-error nature, even with the best of planning and advance calculation,” Project SMART Technical Director H. H. Clark said in one of his first progress reports about the Test Facility. “We have the advantage in our favor that the facilities are flexible and adaptable to various types of testing not yet attempted.”
The photographic and electronic instrumentation capabilities of the facility continually improved and expanded. Hall noted that at first test computations were run on an IBM 607 electronic calculator powered by vacuum tubes and bigger than a refrigerator. Computers, then in their infancy, were installed at the test site in the late 1950s, Hall wrote.
The fastest test conducted at the site reached a velocity in excess of 2,600 feet per second, or 1,800 miles per hour, which set a land-speed record at the time.
By 1958, Coleman Engineering began using the track for other tests, such as launching missiles from the rocket sled at targets 75 miles away. Eventually, the Air Force started allowing private aircraft companies to test their equipment on the Hurricane Mesa test track. In the six years of the Air Force’s jurisdiction over the test site, 334 tests were run to standardize ejection systems and perfect a seat that made emergency escapes much safer for American pilots, Paul Freeman reported on his site “Abandoned and Little-Known Airfields.”
Coleman Engineering’s last test for the Air Force was on December 6, 1961 and the Air Force ceased operations at the site on December 30, 1961. Antone Bringhurst, who worked at the facility from 1957 to 1959, said the Air Force decided to vacate the site because it determined that most problems with military aircraft occurred at take-off or landing, meaning it was most important to focus on the pilot’s safety at or near ground level, negating the need for a dropoff like the mesa provided.
Since then, the test facility has been leased and operated by various private aerospace companies, including Stanley Aviation, Universal Propulsion, Goodrich Aerospace and now Collins Aerospace.
One of the test site’s claims to fame is its participation in a stunt for the James Bond movie “Octopussy,” when staff sent a Beechcraft airplane over the cliff edge to a fiery crash below. The sled that launched that plane is still sitting in the test facility’s boneyard, Woodbury said.
One of the test site’s low points was the death of Hurricane resident and Stanley Aviation employee DuRell Covington on August 5, 1971, when the rocket sled he was working on blasted off accidentally. Another man, Todd Hansen, was severely burned, but survived.
Working at the test facility
During its initial six-year run under the auspices of the U.S. Air Force, several local men worked at the site. One of them was Bringhurst, who landed the job because his brother-in-law, Kelly Spendlove, worked for one of the contractors who built the facility and later landed a job there after it commenced operations. A math whiz who later spent 40 years as a mathematics professor at Utah State University, Bringhurst worked at the facility as a data analyst.
In addition to the data analysis group, Bringhurst said there were several other groups with specific tasks, including the electronics group, the photography group, the propulsion group and the physical facilities group, in charge of day-to-day operations
Bringhurst’s job was computing the trajectory of the dummies to see at what point they would fail, or in other words, kill the pilot. The data analysts figured out what elevation the ejection seats and dummies would reach at different speeds.
The site utilized what were called Theodolite cameras with film widths up to six inches.
“We had to have cameras at two different angles to triangulate the exact location,” Bringhurst explained.
The speed of each test would determine where to point the cameras to grant three different reference points on the film. Analysts would measure the distance of the object from the edge of the film, at first writing their data on a tablet but later entering the information into an electronic IBM calculator.
The data team calculated velocity, Bringhurst said, through a set of coils with magnets attached to them spaced equidistant from each other along the track. The magnets would give an electric pulse that would help them calculate the speed.
One of the things about the job that still marvels Bringhurst is the speed at which the tests were run and the efficiency of the braking systems.
“To me, one of the most spectacular things was how fast they could stop [the sled],” he said.
One run, in particular, that he said is ingrained in his mind was a solid rocket test to see if the track could withstand such force and speed. The test lifted the rocket from its “slipper” and broke it loose from the track.
Pertaining to the braking system, another thing the data analysts had to calculate was where to stop each sled so that the ejection seat would clear the mesa.
Other than the memorable work experiences, Bringhurst said the job was a major blessing because it paid better than most jobs in the county, especially for a young man, and was one of the few jobs available that had medical benefits.
“It was the most interesting job I ever had,” Bringhurst said.
Bringhurst said that everyone who worked there had to have security clearance because of the confidentiality of what was going on. One of the things they couldn’t talk about was the site’s use of chimpanzees as test subjects — something that would never “fly” today with animal protection laws on the books.
Another interesting tidbit Bringhurst mentioned was about the site’s name. Originally, it was known as Lower Smith Mesa, but thanks to Hurricane booster and poet Owen Sanders, who served in the Utah House of Representatives at the time, the name was changed to Hurricane Mesa to put Hurricane “on the map.”
The test facility today
Collins Aerospace currently operates the Hurricane Mesa Test Facility and continues to run tests for private companies and even other countries, still simulating the stresses of supersonic flight. Tests are not limited to just aerospace anymore as automotive crash tests have been conducted at the site as well, Woodbury said.
A few items from its original construction are still in use. The track is the original and the Quonset hut is also original, the only vintage building left. Woodbury said they’re even still using some of the 1954 rockets. To the dismay of some, the lunch trailer that protruded slightly over the cliff is no longer there.
Today there is evidence that the site’s construction, even though completed at a breakneck pace, was solid. Woodbury said today’s staff sees less damage in the concrete poured in the 1950s than concrete poured even 15 years ago.
One thing that is different about the tests today is they rarely approach the cliff. There is a cable arresting system backup to prevent going over the cliff and there are railings set up today for those getting close to the cliff to take in the view.
The test facility is by no means a tourist attraction. Visitors to the site must have a clear purpose and clearance for being there.
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About the series “Days”
“Days” is a series of stories about people and places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah.
“I write stories to help residents of southwestern Utah enjoy the region’s history as much as its scenery,” St. George News contributor Reuben Wadsworth said.
Wadsworth has also released a book compilation of many of the historical features written about Washington County as well as a second volume containing stories about other places in Southern Utah, Northern Arizona and Southern Nevada.
Read more: See all of the features in the “Days” series
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