The ZELMAL project was one of the most interesting exploratory and research programs conducted at the Flight Test Center in the early 1950s. With the Cold War at its height, planners were worried that a sudden Soviet onslaught in Europe would leave Air Force planes with no usable runways to counter the aggression.
Early cruise missiles such as the Matador and the Regulus, however, were routinely launched off short ramps with the aid of solid-rocket boosters. Perhaps the same concept might be applied to jet fighters? Thus was born project ZELMAL - Zero-Length Launch and Mat Landing.
Due to its experience with the Matador missile, the Glenn L. Martin Company was selected to develop such a system and to conduct tests at Edwards Air Force Base. The straight-wing F-84G Thunderjet fighter-bomber appeared to be the most suitable aircraft for the experiments.
Boost-launching an aircraft to flying speeds was one thing however; to land a jet without a runway was quite another. To solve this, Goodyear fabricated a large, portable, air-filled mat, closely resembling a huge air mattress. The idea was that the jet would make a very low pass, engage an arresting cable in the air with a Navy-style tailhook, and flop onto the mat on its belly.
The flight test phase of this dubious enterprise was carried out at a remote spot on the northeast shoreline of Rogers Dry Lake. Phase I, the launch of a pilotless "junker" EF-84G took place from a trailer-mounted launcher on Dec. 15, 1953.
A successful manned launch took place on Jan. 5, 1954. Martin test pilot Robert Turner experienced stresses no worse than a conventional catapult launch, but his left hand was jerked back, nearly stalling the engine. Three weeks later, both plane and pilot were ready for the second manned launch, which was successfully conducted on Jan. 28. The two flights indicated that rocket-boosted takeoffs would not be particularly troublesome. A conventional runway landing followed both of the zero-length launches, however.
The mat landing phase of the program did not begin until June, and turned out to be another story altogether.
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