Taking the plunge

Thanks to engineers, riders can enjoy the thrills of roller coasters in safety.

As i sail through the cool morning air at 65mph while elevated 150 feet above ground, my day at Magic Mountain in Valencia, California, has just begun. I am aboard Scream! - a floorless  steel roller coaster - rushing down the 4,000-foot train track. Three minutes and seven 360-degree inversions and twists later, my journey to conquer the scariest rides in the park has just begun.

My coaster fun was made possible by some complex engineering techniques, which have evolved since before the first US roller coaster was built by L A Thompson and opened at Coney Island, New York, in June 1884. Since then, industry players have made huge strides in bringing these techniques into alignment with best-practice safety standards.

Today, major ride industry players, such as the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, the National Amusement Ride Safety Organization (NARSO), Amusement Industry Manufacturers and Suppliers International (AIMS International), and the Outdoor Amusement Business Association (OABA), continue to fight an ongoing battle toward standards regulation in an effort to secure the safety of adrenaline junkies the world over.

As I exit Scream!, wobbly-kneed and quite unsteady, I search for my next adventure. There, off in the distance, I see it, looming hundreds of feet in the air… the Goliath, a steel superstructure that hits speeds of 85mph and provides zero-gravity floating hills and drops. As I head over to conquer the awe-inspiring mechanical structure, a queasy feeling rises up in the pit of my stomach. Is that thing really safe? My hesitation is only slight, and I continue toward the gigantic monstrosity with unequivocal anticipation.

Safety first

Dedication to safety has emerged as the fairground industry's top priority, which brings a collective sigh of relief to amusement park visitors. And while extreme ride enthusiasts look for the next big thrill, ride corporations and industry associations band together to regulate standards and practices.

ASTM International (also known as the American Society of Testing and Materials) is a voluntary standards organisation based in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. ASTM leads the fixed-site amusement industry toward improved ride design and safety, and almost all ride standards in the United States refer to ASTM guidelines.

Not only does the organisation operate a safety maintenance committee, they also have an F24 subcommittee focused on the area of amusement rides and attractions. Made up of more than 440 members from all over the world (including regulatory officials, engineers, ride manufacturers, safety consultants, park and fairground operators, consumer advocacy groups, and biodynamic experts), the committee has set the standard for design and engineering for theme park attractions.

The ASTM F24 committee, which began its work in 1978, includes members from India, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, Italy, the UK, Russia, and the US. In total, 14 countries participate in it. Already becoming a global standard, F24 has a Harmonization Subcommittee that works with countries that wish to adopt F24.

The committee, which meets twice a year and constantly works on revising standards online, continues to make important strides in global harmonisation of industry standards. These safety standards lead enthusiastic fairground visitors around the world to feel more secure in their fate aboard hair-raising, nail-biting rides that could make Dirty Harry himself tremble in fear.

"F24 analyses existing standards - such as for acceleration, design load, and restraints - and any best practices related to each standard," says Randy Davis, VP of Government Relations at the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), the largest trade association in the amusement industry. "The experts then try and bring each standard into line with those best practices. We work with the ideal of having complete global harmony within each standard."

IAAPA sponsors a Harmonization Committee that meets at locations in the US, Europe, and Asia annually, with a guideline to move toward a worldwide set of standards. Davis has found that there are many countries that don't have standards in place as of yet and are interested in implementing them.

"We point them to ASTM and tell them of other existing standards, as well," he says. "It's important to develop an industry that has consistent standards."

So, as I sit atop Goliath, waiting to take the plunge down a 255-foot drop, images of the roller coaster careening off the track run through my mind. I can't help it. I am at the mercy of the coaster, after all… right? My safety is out of my control. But my deranged desire for an ever-increasing adrenaline rush gets the better of me, and I giggle nervously as I wait to plummet hundreds of feet straight down.

Woo-hoo!

Thanks to ride manufacturers and engineering companies like Zamperla Inc., Moser Rides srl, Premier Rides Inc., and Intamin AG, my safety aboard the Goliath remained secure.

Jim Seay, owner/president of Premier Rides Inc., began his career in space engineering. Now, his Millersville, Maryland company engineers roller coasters. Premier Rides has developed attractions such as Speed The Ride in Las Vegas, Mr Freeze at Six Flags, The Italian Job Turbo Coaster at Kings Dominion, and the Revenge of the Mummy at Universal Studios Florida and Hollywood, all which grace my 'must ride' coaster list.

The engineering and technology behind these rides includes Linear Induction Motors (LIMs), magnetic brakes, and composite technologies. And as the incoming chairman of the F24 committee, Seay says that developing guidelines for all aspects of the amusement industry, including design, manufacturing, testing, maintenance, and operation, must remain at the forefront of the industry.

"Consistent standards are critical to ensuring a global level of safety that is the same in all corners of the globe," he says. "And from the manufacturing standpoint, it is important that standards are consistent so that manufacturers do not build a product that is only acceptable in one region of the world."

And although ASTM standards are voluntary, the majority of US states have adopted the guidelines as part of their regulatory process, thereby making the recommendations part of common law. And ASTM F24's recent efforts to make the standards more applicable in a global environment has led to a number of other countries adopting the regulations, ranging from Canada to subtropical Sri Lanka.

With respect to specific standards, one of the most notable industry achievements includes detailed G-force guidelines and graphical tools that tie the rider's G-force experience with specific types of restraints and the requirements for the design elements of those restraints. And ride restraints are the pinnacle of safety measures, especially when hitting 4gs on your favorite roller coaster!

Speaking of coasters… as I jet down Goliath's near vertical, 61-degree drop and then roll into huge, sweeping upside down spirals, the issue of safety abandons my thoughts. Instead, the adrenaline rush consumes my being, and I let out an ear-piercing "woo-hoo" as I stretch my arms above my head.

Designer rides

The design and development of amusement rides has always required a mastery of engineering, physics, and mathematics. In the past, fairground engineering technology focused on the smaller ride attractions. But today, since many ride operators have the challenge of transporting their machines, the engineering in many of them focuses on designs that can transform what appears to be a permanent attraction - such as a 200-foot drop tower - into a portable product.

"It is important for assembly and disassembly to occur at speeds that allow the ride operators to tear down at one location and set up at another in a relatively short amount of time," Seay says.

Hydraulic systems are a significant aid to these applications and are used extensively. Continual improvement through the introduction of force reactive supports, headrests, comfort padding, seat dividers, ratcheted restraints, computer controls, and magnetic braking systems has greatly enhanced ride safety. And with the use of computers, advanced materials, and certain design innovations, ride design and development has become an increasingly complex and precise creative process.

As the coaster finally pulls slowly into the landing dock, the wind blowing softly through my hair, a cool breeze on my face, I feel victorious, as if I've conquered an untamed beast. What's next, I wonder giddily, as I continue my quest to find the ultimate fairground ride…

Thrilling future

The ride-design process is simply amazing, and today, ride designers employ modeling software to manipulate a large number of elements quickly and easily, optimising a ride's layout and providing an analysis of its structural integrity, g-force parameters and performance. Computer-based manufacturing techniques have also made the fabrication of various ride and attraction components even more technically precise.

Incorporation of advanced materials has led to new ride developments. The use of lightweight fiberglass and plastics has contributed to the improvement of various attractions, including carousels, bumper cars and animatronics, perennial favorites at funfairs. Several types of thrill rides, especially coasters, employ vibration-dampening material to provide structural enhancement.

After devouring a candied apple, I ride the Tilt-a-Whirl...

Getting creative

Design innovations have also resulted in ride advances. 'Locking' coasters on the track via a three-wheeled device has produced a variety of twists, turns, and inversions, adding the stomach-wrenching terror coaster fans strive to find. And modern catapult-type launch systems, powered by pneumatics and linear electric motors have expanded the creative options available to many ride manufacturers.

Looking toward the future, Seay insists that manufacturers need to focus on the use of weight reduction components, such as composites and high-strength materials.

"With the cost of fuel and imposed highway fees, the weights of the products become more and more of an issue," he says. "There are already larger coaster-type products that have been developed for the travel type of market, but with the need for 100 trucks to move them, the cost of transport becomes a significant burden."

Seay also points out that the fastest-growing area in the amusement industry is, by far, in Asia and the Middle East. "Significant independent developments that are large by any standard are being built on a fast-track basis in the Middle East region," he says.

Finally, I head for the Log Jammer and grab some funnel cake for the road…

These facilities are tied to prestigious entities such as Formula 1, Ferrari, and Kerzner International, the owner of Atlantis on Paradise Island. Additionally, high-end entities, such as Universal Studios, are planned for a number of locations, including Singapore, Dubai, and Korea. The potential of thrill rides continues to expand to the delight of ride-aficionados around the globe.

Well, the sun is setting, and my day at Magic Mountain is winding up. Ten 'extreme' rides later, I feel a strange sense of accomplishment. And as
I head, somewhat exhausted, toward the exit of the amusement park, I am already planning my return.

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