Forget the Bonneville Salt Flats.
If you are looking for the land of extreme speed, there is a big mesa here in southern Utah where guys in rocket-powered sleds flash by at the speed of sound, zooming down a secret, warp-speed drag strip across a finish line at the edge of a 500-foot cliff.
Call them dummies if you want.
They don't say much and they have vacant eyes. They wear the same stupid grin whether they are being jettisoned from the sled with missiles under their butts or just hanging out in the Quonset hut, a meat hook through the nape of their olive-green rubber necks.
"What's nice about these fellas is they don't complain a bit," says Hurricane Mesa Test Facility Director Ron Chase, looking over the military-pilot mannequins hanging at the only privately owned supersonic test track in the world. "Don't eat much either."
At least they eat less than the previous ejection-seat test pilots. In the early years of testing aircraft-ejection systems--back before the green-skinned dummies were enlisted and before animal-rights awareness--black bears and chimpanzees were strapped into the ejection-seat cockpits of the rocket sled. Hence one of the site's nicknames: Monkey Mesa.
The animals' similar physiology to humans made them qualified--if unwilling--test subjects for the double whammy of shooting straight up while going straight ahead . . . fast.
"The chimps were fine getting in the cockpit for their first trip," Chase says. "But after that, they wouldn't even get near the thing again without going nuts."
An easygoing transplanted Californian with white hair, Chase loves to go ballistic--literally. He runs the obscure, 12,000-foot-long track stretched across acres of a red-rock plateau overlooking the towns of Virgin and La Verkin, 285 miles south of Salt Lake City.
This is the third-largest sound-barrier speedway in the country. California's China Lake Naval Weapons Center has a 20,000-foot track and New Mexico's Holloman Air Force Base has a 50,000-foot track.
Accessed by a steep, narrow road that clings to the cliff side, the gated Hurricane Mesa compound is a proving ground for fighter-jet ejection seats, "drone" aircraft, ballistic devices such as missiles and other military hardware.
It is owned and operated by Phoenix-based Universal Propulsion Co., an aerospace contractor that manufactures "air-crew-escape systems," booster rockets and explosive fasteners for submarines, spacecraft and high-performance jets.
Ever since it quietly was built in 1954 atop what was then a remote state-owned mesa, the Hurricane Test Track has conjured up loads of local legend. There are UFO/military cover-up/conspiracy rumors circulating about bizarre lights, eerie noises and mysterious sightings.
Given the forbidding warning signs, 9-foot-high security fence, electronic surveillance and 24-hour guards with German shepherd dogs, those sci-fi tales seem almost plausible.
"The installation has been dubbed 'Space Mesa' by some area residents, who have grown used to seeing unusual lights and hearing loud reports coming from the facility," writes Matthew Coolidge in a site report prepared for the Center for Land Use Interpretation, a Los Angeles group that catalogs unusual human-made landscapes across the West.
While Hurricane Mesa is classified as a Department of Defense "confidential" facility, the security measures are more to deter theft and vandalism than to foil espionage or imprison extraterrestrials, Chase says.
"I've heard all the stories about us having a squadron of Apache helicopters that we use to chase space aliens around, that kind of stuff," smiles the veteran of more than 40 years of escape-system design and testing. "Every time I go to the barbershop to get a haircut, I hear the latest rumor about what wild things we're up to."
But most people do not even know the place exists. There is not a single sign, other than "No Trespassing," and few maps illustrate the facility. Each year more than 2 million people on their way to nearby Zion National Park drive state Route 9 about 1,600 feet below, oblivious to the hyperspeed outdoor laboratory with its bulbous silver water towers and trailer houses perched on the ledge.
The Air Force, which operated the track until 1961, selected Hurricane Mesa especially for its sheer drop-off. Rocket sleds would hurtle down the 12,000-foot-long straightaway and then the ejection seat would fire at the rim, sending the test subject--never a human--airborne over the edge.
In 1993, the Army briefly considered using the Hurricane Mesa track to fling simulated chemical weapons over the edge at Mach speed to gather data for a missile-defense system.
But the only "off-the-muzzle" testing that has been done in the last several years occurred when Chase's team propelled a Beechcraft airplane over the cliff to a fiery crash below. It was a stunt for the James Bond movie "Octopussy," one of a few films to use the test track as a location.
These days, Hollywood may have to wait because business at the supersonic speedway is, well, booming. More than a dozen runs replicating the in-flight escape have been made since October.
Using an actual nose section of an F-15 Eagle jet mounted on a carriage that rides the greased twin rails of the track, Universal Propulsion is amid a battery of tests reaching speeds of Mach 1.3 (Mach 1 is the speed of sound, 1,088 feet per second, or about a mile every 5 seconds). The Air Force has contracted Universal Propulsion to evaluate improvements needed in air-crew-escape systems brought on by the biggest change to hit military aircraft since the advent of turbine jets: women pilots.
"Virtually every escape system in use today was designed to fit the average military pilot, who is a big guy, the 95th percentile of males, standing over 6 feet tall and weighing over 200 pounds," Chase says. "Now you introduce women pilots. They're shorter, weigh less. It changes the center of gravity, the entire parameters of how the escape system operates."
The average supersonic test run at Hurricane Mesa takes about three weeks and $90,000 to prepare and is over--from firing the rocket sled at a dead standstill to achieving Mach speed to ejection to pilot touchdown--in about 9 seconds.
So much happens so quickly that data must be recorded by high-speed cameras that use laser-guided tracking to follow the neck-snapping run. The dummy pilots are rigged with 130 different load and pressure sensors from fingertips to toes, remotely monitored by radio telemetry.
The ejection seats built by Universal Propulsion--one of only three escape-system manufacturers in the world--are qualified for use at a maximum 600 knots equivalent airspeed (about 950 mph) and 50,000 feet altitude. They are standard equipment on Marine Harrier "jump jets" and various jets in the Spanish, Nigerian, German, Argentine, Japanese, Thai and Bangladeshi air forces.
If the U.S. Air Force determines after the Hurricane Mesa tests that American fighter jets need "his" and "hers" seating, Universal Propulsion will compete for that multimillion-dollar contract.