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Friday, November 23, 2012

Sherlock Johnson Solves The Mystery Of Flying Monkey Mesa

Flying Monkey Mesa,Virgin, Utah:"The neat aspect of takeoff, was as soon as you left the ground you passed over the edge of the mesa and were immediately 1,500 feet in the air.”

As readers know, we love coming to the Zion River RV Resort in Virgin, Utah, for the month of November... been doing it off and on since 2002 when the park's trees were but little twigs. Mountain biking opportunities are plentiful right out the front gate, everything from single tract to unpaved back road loops. Hurricane Mesa (nicknamed, "Flying Monkey Mesa" by locals) is one of those loops and the video subject of the previous post. Way up on Flying Monkey Mesa's flattop is a fenced in government-looking compound that always bugged me; "Keep Out" signs everywhere. What in the hell goes on in there? 

Until this year, there was an old mobile home that hung out over an already overhanging rock on the mesa's cliff-edge... just dangling out there in space. What a thrilling aerial view the front room must of had. It's not there anymore.

One of my old photos of the overhanging mobile on an overhanging rock

Now a reasonably curious person couldn't help but wonder why it was there, overhanging in space. For goodness sake, if a person tried to exit the front door they'd have a doozie of a first step. Could this have been a place where prisoners of war were subjected to "air-boarding," dangling guillotine-like in order to frighten the truth out of them? A check with Google Earth revealed an extremely long runway going right over the cliff. What was that about?

After laboring the hour it took us to peddle up the old narrow access road, steeper than anything we have in the Rockies, we were confronted with "Keep Out" signs that strung for miles along a chain link fence topped with barbed wire. Gates were chained and padlocked, and not a soul was ever around to ask questions of. One year I actually considered excavating a low spot and slipping under the fence, just so I could satisfy raging curiosity. Thoughts of vicious guard dogs chewing me to pieces eliminated that idea pretty fast. Damn it. 

I could never get reliable and consistent information about Flying Monkey Mesa. Some locals had no clue anything was up there (you know, some people need to get out in their own backyards more often). Other opinions ranged from a testing facility for parachutes, rockets, ejection seats, and, a landing spot for secret new aircraft. Every year I tried searching internet and got nowhere... until this year, that is. Bingo. On an obscure website named, "Abandoned and Little Know Airfields of Southwestern Utah," I found an article that fit some of the pieces of this puzzle together. The following are excerpts borrowed from the article and a few poor quality images pulled from the website. 

 After the end of WW2, the advent of jet propulsion in military aircraft dictated the need for more sophisticated escape systems, capable of safely extracting a pilot from high-speed aircraft.

In 1953 the Air Force awarded a $2 million contract to the Coleman Engineering Company of Torrance, CA,
to construct a Supersonic Military Air Research Track to test ejection seat systems.

The Air Force selected the flat, arid Hurricane Mesa in southern Utah as the location 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' drop into the Virgin River Valley was perfect for the planned tests (in which test items would be propelled off the edge of the mesa), and the Virgin River supplied all the necessary water.

The track consisted of 12,000 feet of continuously welded, heavy-duty rails (and) formed the longest rocket research track in the United States to that date.
The "track" where sleds abstained speeds of 1800 mph while testing rocket motors for aircraft

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.
ariel photo of Flying Monkey Mesa and the 9000 foot plus test track
Coleman had completed the base by 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 mph (Mach 1.3). "Sam" was a highly instrumented anthropoid simulator with electronic equipment with 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 floated to the valley floor.

New, and "used" sleds
(Warning: Animal advocates may want to skip the next sentence). 

In (a) series of tests "Hurricane Sam" was replaced by apes, to determine the effects of ejection on live beings.

A very poor photo of either "Sam," or a monkey, ejecting from a rocket powered sled
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 mph.

In the six years of Hurricane Mesa's early 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 facility in 1961.

The neat aspect of the takeoff was as soon as you left the ground you passed over the edge of the mesa and were immediately 1,500 feet in the air.

Tom Kramer recalled, “I used to fly from Fullerton, CA up to Cedar City, UT and would cruise right by the mesa and track at about 7,500+ feet. Seeing only occasional lights up there but no apparent life, I decided to (do a) fly-over several miles off the airway and do a few low passes over the facility down to a few hundred feet off the top. I saw that even though the track was (still) there, it was unusable due to a huge pile of earth mounded up in the middle. I thought of touching down on the airstrip but since I was uncertain it was totally abandoned, I passed. On one later trip, when we drove over to Zion, I found the 2-lane entry road and drove up to the top of the mesa. Even though the road looks nice, paved and passable from the bottom, part way up, sections of it are missing from landslides and it is down to one lane (or less).
I was able to squeeze by in my Toyota Celica with my wife commenting on my sanity. At the top, you drive a few hundred yards into a pine forest and there is a huge gate,
which was locked with a chain and huge rusted padlock.
Barbed wire topped fencing goes off in each direction."

Finally, I know where Flying Monkey Mesa got it's name, and the story behind it. According to the facilities map legend, the overhanging mobile home was "camera station uncle," to film for purposes of evaluation "Sam," and the monkeys, ejecting from rocket powered sleds at speeds of mach 1.3. I would bet that the disclaimer, "No animals were injured or killed in the making of this movie" could not be used.

On a repeat ride up Flying Monkey Mesa the day before Thanksgiving, an unsuccessful attempt to burn more calories that I was about to partake, I wondered about the ethics of using animals for test purposes in the Pre-Android days. If testing parachute and/or ejection seat designs with apes saved human soldiers lives, is it justified? 

photo of a parachute deployment after ejection
Maikel, preparing to take on the steep ascent up Flying Monkey Mesa... about 57 minutes to the top from the RV park... mostly low gear cranking. 


  1. Was für ein grossartiger Blog! Wunderschöne Bilder und tolle Texte. Wir werden dir au deiner Weiterreise folgen und die Einträge mit Interesse lesen!
    In English:
    Great blog, we'll follow you :-)

  2. Andrea, of Team Alfonso!
    How great! We are following you guys too! Good luck making it all the way to South America...

  3. A great story Mark. And hats off to you for persistently researching this. I rather like the mobile room with a view.

  4. Great story! I particularly like that you showed it in a perspective over time. A great reminder that our particular 'snap shot' is but a moment in time. Great job Sherlock!

  5. Good post. I love stuff like that. Some pretty good images on the latest version of Google Earth. September of last year. Looks as if something was still going on up there. A few vehicles at the building just inside the gate.

  6. You never fail to come up with a surprising topic every now and then, and this was a fun one. I love discovering little historical gems like this. I bet it'll make future rides up to the fence more interesting!

  7. Awesome posting thanks for this great piece of history.

  8. Doesn't that just make you want to go up there even more? It does me. Great post.

  9. Just another great reason to hang out & explore the southwest. History is everywhere, whether it be old wild west, secretive military sites, mysterious UFO basis or whatever. Like you, I always have a curious nature about things like this & my mind sometimes works overtime in trying to tie up all the loose ends resulting in something resembling a kind of common sense I can understand.

  10. Gaelyn,
    Makes my palms sweat just to think about standing in the front room of that mobile home :) Thanks!

    Kib Explorer,
    Thanks... I'm a sleuth slayer :))

    Interesting... maybe I should go check that out :))

    Pam and Wayne,
    Thanks... this is my version of Geo caching... finding secret treasures :))

    George and Suzie,
    thanks... enjoy your fine weather.

    Fly Fisherman,
    It really does... and thanks for checking in.

    Bayfield Al,
    You are exactly right...
    This mystery took 10 years to unravel! Now it all makes "common sense." Lots of rusting relics to explore out west, for sure. Your Congress home base is a great central location from which to go out and explore. Thanks!

  11. Your research is correct, but there is more. I was there with my company in the late 1980's testing ejection seats along with other companies doing the same thing. At the north end of the track another company was testing bunker busting missiles into concrete. The facility owners (a private corporation) hosted all the guests for breakfast and lunch in the trailer that hung over the cliff. Steel beams supported it so we knew it was safe, but it was very scary to look over the edge. The security was tight because the tests were government contracts or R&D work and the rockets used were very dangerous. The bunker on the map was used to store the rockets. A couple of friendly dogs (friendly to us) were housed in the garage up there. Depending on the speed needed to push the sled, the appropriate number of rockets were placed on the sled. A water break was used to stop the sled well before the edge. Only censored dummies were used in the tests while I was there. We never heard of live animals being used at that time. The sensors in the dummies gave our engineers tons of data. Back then there was talk of some guys looking around at the base of the cliff and found many interesting artifacts from the early days. Who knows, you may still find things there. The road was often blocked by landslides back then. They would clear it out as needed. A Japanese client learned to drive a truck up there at the Mesa. A sign is nailed to a tree to memorialize his one mistake; "Abe's Tree." Many fun memories from those testing days.

  12. Thanks for posting this, answered a nagging curiosity I've had...Several years back we stayed in La Verkin for a week on a family vacation (we're from the New England area), we drove by the mesa twice a day on our way back and forth to the park (Zion). I wanted to drive up there in the rented mini van with the kids to check it out, but the wife wouldn't let me. just as well I suppose.