June 18, 1956: Rocket Sled World Record

  • Published
  • Edwards Air Force Base

A Convair Rocket Sled set a world’s speed record for recoverable sleds at the Experimental High Speed Track, reaching 1,560 mph. The sled, powered by 12 rocket motors, was designed to test rain erosion on aircraft components.

A rocket sled is a test platform that slides along a set of rails, propelled by rockets.  As its name implies, a rocket sled does not use wheels. Instead, it has sliding pads, called "slippers," which are curved around the head of the rails to prevent the sled from flying off the track. The rail cross-section profile is that of a Vignoles rail, commonly used for railroads. Wheels cannot be used on rocket sleds as the high velocities experienced will result in the wheels spinning to pieces due to extreme centrifugal forces.  A rocket sled holds the land-based speed record for a vehicle, at Mach 8.5.

Rocket sleds were used extensively early in the Cold War to accelerate equipment considered too hazardous for testing directly in piloted aircraft. The equipment to be tested under high acceleration or high airspeed conditions was installed along with appropriate instrumentation, data recording and telemetry equipment on the sled. The sled was accelerated according to the experiment's design requirements for data collection along a length of isolated, precisely level and straight test track.  Testing ejection seat systems and technology prior to their use in experimental or operational aircraft became a common application of the rocket sled at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. Perhaps the most famous, the tracks at Edwards Air Force Base, California, were used to test missiles, supersonic ejection seats, aircraft shapes and the effects of acceleration and deceleration on humans. The rocket sled track at Edwards Air Force Base was dismantled and used to extend the track at Holloman Air Force Base, taking it to almost 10 miles in length.

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