Murphy lives here

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Matt Wroten
  • 846th Test Squadron

A few miles north of main base at Holloman Air Force Base in the Tularosa Basin of southern New Mexico, the 846th Test Squadron, known as the “Holloman High Speed Test Track,” or more affectionately (and recently) the “Rail Rattlers,” prides itself on planning and executing high-speed rocket sled tests, enabling critical weapon system development in support of the warfighter.

The Holloman Track is the longest, 10 miles, and fastest, Mach 8-plus, facility of its kind. Since the beginning, the Track has operated under the vision of being “Second to None.”

Here is a story from the early days to illustrate:

It was the morning of Dec. 10, 1954. The ambulance rushed to the base hospital from the Test Track at Holloman AFB. Although onlookers were horrified at his external appearance, the patient knew he would be okay. The rocket sled run, which generated unprecedented human tolerance data along with a new world land speed record, had just concluded. As author Craig Ryan relates in the book “Sonic Wind: The story of John Paul Stapp and how a renegade doctor became the fastest man on earth,” Lt. Col. Stapp, temporarily blind and aching terribly from the sled run, was already thinking about his ultimate goal.

Stapp wanted to conduct a Mach 1.3 manned ejection test off the cliff of the top secret Hurricane Mesa Test Track facility in southern Utah. Stapp had just become the “Fastest Man Alive,” surviving 632 mph and 44 Gs of deceleration force on a rocket sled at the Holloman track. From 1947 to 1954, at the old Muroc Field (soon-to-be named Edwards Air Force Base) and at Holloman, Stapp subjected his body to 29 bone-crushing rocket sled tests in the name of science and pilot safety.

The need for this kind of work was stark and underappreciated. In the 1950s, one out of every four pilots who ejected from an aircraft was killed in the event. Additionally, many pilots who did not have ejection seats were dying in crashes they should have been able to survive.

Stapp conducted this seemingly reckless sled test research to prove humans could withstand much more force than commonly thought in a crash or ejection, if only they were properly restrained and supported.

Although the Mach 1.3 manned ejection at Hurricane Mesa never occurred, Stapp’s willingness to push boundaries and challenge assumptions about what was possible revolutionized crash safety design for military aviation, general aviation, and the automobile industry. His work saved countless thousands of lives in the ensuing decades and is, for example, one of the main reasons the modern seat belt has a shoulder strap.

A few years prior to the final, record-setting run, Stapp had popularized the famous aphorism, “Murphy’s Law,” dedicated to an instrumentation engineer on the team, Capt. Edward A. Murphy, and his frustration at incorrectly wired transducers on a sled run. When asked at a press conference how human tolerance testing had been so successful, without a single fatality, Stapp responded, “We do all of our work in consideration of ‘Murphy’s Law’…If anything can go wrong, it will. We force ourselves to think through all possible things that could go wrong before doing a test and (we) act to counter them.” This revolutionary risk-mitigation attitude became a hallmark of the program, and is still exemplified by the Air Force Test Center of today.

Although the idea of testing on human subjects at extreme, crash-representative forces might have seemed reckless to the outsider, these very first “Rail Rattlers” used a disciplined build-up approach on everything they did. Seven years of manned rocket sled runs, generating forces that were thought to be impossible for the human body to withstand, and the team never once suffered a fatality or serious injury. 

To this day, the attitude of the original team represents what the Holloman Track is all about: pushing the boundaries of what is possible while employing world-class test planning and risk-mitigation strategies. As the holder of multiple world-land speed records, including our fastest – Mach 8.6, the Track is very used to doing things that have never been done before.

Still, maintaining Hap Arnold’s post World War II vision of being “Second to None,” coupled with the demands of the new National Defense Strategy, requires us now to throw our laurels out the window, let alone rest on them. There are daunting challenges ahead if we are to gain a new competitive advantage over our adversaries.

To meet these challenges, the Holloman Track is embarking on a new journey. In addition to a healthy dose of ejection seat, guidance, impact and dispense testing, we are gearing up for a bow wave of hypersonic work. We need to go even faster, with heavier weights, at lower-vibration levels, and all of this with the ability to recover the sled in some cases. The return to great power competition demands a new suite of systems…operating in some regimes the Track cannot yet reach. More than upgraded facilities, what we need is a culture of innovation, with people who are at once brave in their creativity and yet disciplined in their approach. Luckily, the next generation is stepping up to the plate.  

Young program managers at the 846th like Bryan Sinkovec are making this possible – Bryan has managed the development of our new rain experimentation lab, as well as defined future propulsion requirements for all five test tracks in the nation for years to come.

Test managers and data engineers like AJ Ronquillo and Tim Gros are moving into senior roles, taking on more responsibility, training junior personnel, and implementing the disciplined approach we so urgently need. With the support of mentors, younger engineers like Laura Ahrens, Robert Edmonds, and Matt Horst are working on some of our highest risk sled designs, using Computational Fluid Dynamics, or CFD, simulations and other state-of-the art modeling techniques to do things we’ve never done before. For instance, accelerating a warhead to hit an extremely narrow 2-inch wide initiation window at Mach 2.5, about 100 feet after it leaves the end of the track!

Instrumentation engineers and technicians like Brent Kolste, Phil Popp, and Pat Nunnelley are improving our data collection and reliability for our testing on the next generation of ejection seats in fighter and bomber aircraft. Photo-optics technicians like Ralph Starr and Jason Woods are capturing boundary layer and shock wave effects of new prototype weapons at hypersonic velocities.

Sheet metal technicians like Kevin Zamora and model makers like Brad Jensen are fabricating new sleds out of exotic materials that can withstand the most extreme environments. Operators like Ken Pennie, Tech. Sgt. Brian Holmes, Jimmy Virden, Robert Eanes, Vince Hall, and Gilbert Lucero set up and execute our mission – they have a work ethic and dedication to mission excellence that defines us as the World’s Premier Test Track.

These devoted individuals are the reason we have already been so successful in this ramp-up. The culture they facilitate is the reason we will be ready to prove the superiority of future systems.

And yet, in spite of our best efforts, Murphy does still live here at the Holloman Test Track…especially in the reaches of the unexplored. He will bite…if you are not careful. Luckily, we know about Murphy and his law, and in most cases how to account for him.

Just as John Paul Stapp of the 1950s, we need to maintain an attitude of pushing the boundaries, but under disciplined planning, processes, and buildup. Our nation demands our diligence and pursuit of being “Second to None.” Our mission and the warfighter demand us to be ever looking forward.

Murphy lives here, but that will not stop us from reaching, as the Air Force Test Center proclaims, Ad Inexplorata – “Toward the Unexplored!”