Engineering a relocated roller
The beautiful thing about test dummies, at least for the engineers testing Six Flags New England’s newly installed giant roller coaster, is that they don’t get sick. No cleanup necessary.
The human-like figures, surrounded by sensors and wires, were strapped into seats hanging from reinforced steel girders on a cloudy afternoon earlier this month. The array soaring above them, a complex web of pipes curling and looping from the ground to a height of nearly 200 feet, looked like someone without an instruction manual had tried to assemble an oil rig in a rush.
Goliath, the latest roller coaster ride at Six Flags in Agawam, has been undergoing hundreds of tests to prepare for its official opening on Friday.
Built early last decade for a California park, its relocation and reassemby have presented a series of engineering challenges to rival the glory days of the space program.
Known as Déjà Vu at Six Flags Magic Mountain in California, Goliath can generate a force equivalent to 4.3 G’s, more than four times the force of gravity, along its 1,200 feet of track. That’s about half the maximum felt by fighter jet pilots.
Goliath is considered to be a marvel by many roller coaster enthusiasts and others fascinated with the science behind such thrill rides.
“The engineering and physics that go into it are phenomenal,” said Thomas Gatzunis, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety, which is charged with inspecting amusement park rides before they become operational.
Yet the question of how high Goliath ranks within the pantheon of top coaster rides in the nation is open to debate.
Jason Hammond, membership director of the Great Ohio Coaster Club, described the former Déjà Vu as “intense” and “absolutely worth riding.” But the ride is not ranked by CoasterBuzz.com, an online news site for coaster enthusiasts and industry officials, on its top 100 list of fan favorites in the United States — unlike Six Flags New England’s Bizarro, which Hammond said is widely considered one of the best roller coasters in the world.
It was much cheaper for Six Flags Entertainment Corp., based in Grand Prairie, Texas, to move Goliath to Agawam rather than build a new roller coaster. Designed as an inverted boomerang by the Netherlands company Vekoma, Déjà Vu cost $20 million to build in 2001, and $7 million to disassemble, transport, and reassemble as Goliath.
Over the course of five weeks starting in October, hundreds of workers spent thousands of man hours just to take the ride apart, company officials said.
“Every piece of that ride, from the bolts to steel supports, has its own engineering drawing,” said Six Flags’ chief operating engineer, Larry Chickola, whose job is to oversee the more than 700 rides at 19 parks. “We know exactly where every piece is and where every piece goes.’’
It took 75 long-bed tractor trailers to transport Goliath’s 192,000 pounds of reinforced steel and other equipment 2,900 miles to Agawam.
Over the past 12 weeks, hundreds of workers have swarmed the two-acre construction site at Six Flags New England, including crane operators, truck drivers, iron workers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, heavy equipment operators, landscapers, mechanics, and computer technicians.
“You name ’em, we had ’em,” said John Winkler, president of Six Flags New England.
Some 7,000 yards of fill were needed to level the site before Goliath could be reconstructed there; 3,100 cubic yards of concrete were poured to support the ride’s steel foundation.
Nearly 400 gallons of paint and 1,440 man hours were necessary just to paint Goliath from top to bottom in its “outrageous green” and “hyper blue” colors, park officials said.
Six Flags technicians then subjected Goliath to about 300 tests, using 175-pound plastic dummies, each filled with water, to simulate human beings. About 155 sensors placed across the ride monitored pneumatic pressure, the speed of passenger cars, and other factors.
“Every inch of that ride is computerized and tested over and over again,” said Chickola, a veteran of Hughes Aircraft and Lockheed Martin who, among other tasks, designed hinges and drives for space satellites. “I love the physics of roller coasters. I love the way we can mimic the sensation of flight.”
Goliath is called an “inverted” roller coaster because its passengers are often upside down, harnessed into cars that ride along interlocking rails above them; it is known as a “boomerang” because it travels for 1,200 feet in one direction and then travels backward along the same track.
At each end of the track are 20-story tall towers, which use cables like those found in an elevator shaft to haul the cars into the air.
In between the two towers, Goliath features a 102-foot-tall loop and a 110-foot-tall “cobra roll.” Each ride takes about one minute and 30 seconds.
If all goes well, Goliath’s six-person crew per shift can oversee as many as 500 passenger rides per hour, or up to 5,500 riders per day.
There’s no separate charge per ride for Goliath; the price is built into the $50 daily entrance fee ($40 for kids) that customers pay to get into Six Flags New England.
Park president Winkler said Six Flags is hoping to get a minimum of “two years of rides off of Goliath.”
Thrill rides are based on the solutions to a fundamental engineering dilemma. Peter Fisher, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an avowed roller coaster fan, described it this way:
“How do you make something very, very dangerous, and make it very, very safe?”
All factors of motion and stress, from the speed during upside-down loops to G-force pressure on steel-support beams, have to be carefully calculated, said Fisher, who has taught the physics of roller coasters to MIT students.
“The boundary between thrilling people and hurting people is pretty narrow,” he said.
There have been no major injuries associated with Goliath, but some amusement park rides can be dangerous.
An estimated 37,000 people nationwide were treated in hospital emergency rooms for amusement park related injuries in 2010, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission; three people were killed in amusement ride mishaps in Massachusetts alone in 2004 and 2005, including one who was on Six Flags New England’s Superman ride.
“Knock on wood, there hasn’t been one [fatality] since,” said Gatzunis, noting that Massachusetts has since increased its regulatory oversight of amusement park rides.
Fisher, who has not ridden Goliath, said the point of thrill rides is to scare people – and the technology behind them will undoubtedly get more sophisticated.
He isn’t complaining.
“I’d like to see a roller coaster that’s so dangerous that you have to get a note from your doctor to ride it,” he said.
“That’s what I’d like to see.”