If you have ever been to Zion National Park, entering through the Springdale gate, you drove past Hurricane Mesa, known by locals as “Flying Monkey Mesa.”
The mesa played a very important role during the Cold War as a testing site for ejector seats. Prior to the use of jets, military pilots made emergency escapes “manually” by climbing out of the cockpit onto the wing and leaping off. As jets began reaching speeds above Mach 1 (767 mph), ejector seats became an answer, but the technology was far from perfect. Only 20 percent of pilots who ejected from planes between 1949 and 1956 made it safely to the ground.
Knowing things had to change, construction began on the Hurricane Mesa Test Facility, also known as Supersonic Military Air Research Track (Project SMART), in 1954. It was used by the United States Air Force for testing rocket ejection seats by means of a supersonic sled on a track. Coleman Engineering held the contract to build and manage the 12,000-foot test track. Known as the longest of its kind in the U.S., it was constructed of continuously welded heavy-duty crane rails aligned to within ±1/10 inch.
Coleman Engineering began managing the facility in 1955 and reached a world land speed record of 1,800 mph, well over Mach 2, using a 9,400-pound rocket sled on the track.
But why is it called Flying Monkey Mesa?
Prior to the construction of the Supersonic Military Air Research Track on Hurricane Mesa, chimpanzees were often used as test subjects by the U.S. Air Force (USAF) as part of the Air & Space Research program. Tests on the Mesa used crash-test dummies instead.
These parachute-clad dummies were strapped to the rocket sled to test the effects of high-speed flights and ejections, which we needed as air travel was reaching Mach speeds. If you recall, we were also in a space race after Russia launched Sputnik in 1957.
The most famous dummy was known as Hurricane Sam, a highly instrumented anthropoid simulator. Sam was strapped to the seat connected with electronic equipment and a radio, and hurled down the track at 1,050 mph. At the end of the track the seat was ejected, the parachute opened, and Hurricane Sam floated 1,500 feet to the Virgin River Valley floor below.
As a nod to past practices of using live chimpanzees and apes as test subjects, the dummies were called “Flying Monkeys.” Stories are told that one series of tests did include live apes to determine the effects on live beings.
How long did these tests go on?
The tests continued for six years until the USAF ceased operations in 1961 at this site. The site has been used by various aerospace companies over the years.
If you take the short drive up the newly paved Mesa Road you will find a security fence surrounding the track, which is now owned and operated by a private corporation. You may not be able to see the track, but the views are spectacular as you look down over the Virgin River Valley.
To get there, take Hwy 9 out of Hurricane about 11 miles and turn north onto Mesa Road, just before Fort Zion (another stop you might want to add to this adventure). It looks a bit intimidating as it winds around the mesa, but now that it is paved it is well worth the climb. However, I would leave the motorhome/trailer on the valley floor as conditions on top are not always favorable for turning around and can be quite rutted.