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Only Dummies Make the Fast-Track at This Supersonic Test Facility

Military: Ejection-seat systems are evaluated at a private runway on mesa in remote Utah. Mannequins have replaced bears and chimps in the rocket sleds.

March 16, 1997|CHRISTOPHER SMITH | THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE

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.

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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.

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