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Coaster riders: Get ready to fall heels over head
When it comes to roller coasters, most of us content ourselves with the traditional: Get in a car, strap in and ride a rail as close to straight up and straight down as fast as possible.
Then there are the folks at Bolliger and Mabillard, designers of the new Talon roller coaster at Dorney Park.
For the last 10 years, the Switzerland-based company has specialized in engineering coasters that turn traditional coaster ideas upside down.
That nice, sturdy rail under your feet? Forget about it. Imagine instead being in a car suspended from above with your feet hanging free. Imagine that car coiling 360 degrees, completely around the ride's running rail.
Imagine plummeting so far so fast that your feet seem ready to scrape the ground. Imagine being taken upside down on the top of a giant loop, head under heels.
That's right. Head under heels.
In the industry, roller coasters such as Talon are called inverted coasters, and Bolliger & Mabillard invented them.
"The inverted coasters are very popular, as they create a ride experience which is completely different from standard steel or wooden coasters," says company co-founder Walter Bolliger.
B&M structural engineer Vincent Haesler compares the experience of riding an inverted coaster to being on a ski lift in the mountains.
"You have no floor under your feet.
And when you have outside looping, you just face the sky, with nothing in front of you, nothing under your feet," he says. "It's like flying, yes?"
Indeed, "an unparalleled feeling of flying," as Bolliger puts it, drives everything about inverted coasters, 15 of which have been designed by B&M and built in the United States.
Most of the approximately 40 coasters in amusement and theme parks in North America have been erected only in the last half-dozen years.
For example, the B&M ride, Raptor, at Dorney's sister park, Cedar Point, in Sandusky, Ohio, opened in 1994.
Mark Sosnowsky, Dorney Park spokesman, says the South Whitehall Township park's new ride is largely based on Raptor, which is on Amusement Today's list of the world's Top Five steel coasters and has climbed as high as No. 2 on a similar list issued by the National Amusement Park Historical Association.
Dorney can't claim that Talon is the newest type of coaster design, or the nation's highest, longest or fastest of its type, Sosnowsky says. But the park does boast that the 135-foot-high Talon, with its 3,110 feet of suspended rail, is the tallest and longest inverted coaster in the Northeast.
Rather than a coaster for the record books, what the park really wanted was a coaster that delivered a first-class experience for riders, Sosnowsky says.
For designers, he says, that means walking a fine line between a ride that's different but not dangerous, and speed- and element-packed but not so fast that it goes by in a blur, or so "busy" that riders end up feeling more ill than thrilled.
Coaster enthusiasts typically rave about coasters that have two characteristics: "G-forces," times when your body feels tremendous pressure beyond that of normal gravity, and "air time," a fleeting feeling of weightlessness that many riders find euphoric.
Inverted coasters deliver those features of traditional roller coasters, plus the thrill of being taken upside down in a car suspended from above.
Talon flings riders upside down four times, three times in the ride's first minute. And it throws in a near-inversion to boot.
"There are other coasters that have more inversions. Raptor takes you upside down six times," Sosnowsky says.
"The unique part of this ride is it has a compact time frame. You'll go through three inversions one after the other, with just enough time to see what's coming next."
Here's the script: Within seconds, Talon's riders go from being on the outside of a 98-foot-high vertical loop, the first inversion, to a zero-gravity roll 85 feet above the ground. Riders feel weightless as they coil 360 degrees around the track.
Then, the ride plunges down and through a trench 12 feet below ground level before floating up through an Immelman, a simultaneous loop and roll named after a dogfighting maneuver invented by famed World War I fighter pilot Max Immelmann.
Although upside down at the top of the Immelmann -- a coveted ride feature and one of only three like it in the nation, according to Sosnowsky -- riders twist back 180 degrees. Their feet will again be pointed at the ground as they descend into an inclined spiral that will twist their bodies parallel to the ground.
And all that will happen within seconds after riders drop 120 feet off the top of the lift hill at a 50-degree angle without being able to see anything in front of them but sky.
Talon's vertical drop is only 10 degrees less steep than the seemingly straight-down hill of Dorney's Steel Force, and the pull-out speed is only 18 mph slower. Indeed, Steel Force exceeds the maximum speed of Talon only at one other point, and then only by a scant two mph.
And Talon's maximum G-force, at the bottom of the lift hill, is nearly four times normal gravity, just about the same as Steel Force's.
"A jet pilot can endure 9 or 10 Gs, but for a roller coaster we would limit them to 4 Gs because all kinds of people are going on them, not only teenagers and adults but also smaller children and people who are older," Haesler says.
"We don't try to make the highest G-forces. Our idea in making the coaster is that people will say, "Yeah, I want to do that again."'
But wait, the ride's not over yet.
According to Sosnowsky, another feature of Talon is that, as an inverted coaster, the close-to-the-ground elements can be just as interesting to riders as things that take place high in the air.
Before the end of the ride comes a low-to-the ground S-curve, which whips riders from side to side, making them feel as if they are driving very fast down a very winding road.
Then comes the final inversion and a spiral, a loop that is parallel to, and just off, the ground. "People will underestimate the effect of that," Sosnowsky says.
Also adding interest, Sosnowsky says, are several near-miss elements, in which riders seem to nearly scrape the ground, or another part of the ride's track or support posts.
According to Joe Greene, Dorney's vice president of construction and maintenance, the engineers designing Talon had to take into consideration Dorney's limited space. The coaster sits on a 2.2-acre footprint, but to fit it in, Dorney Park had to shorten the track of a ground-level train ride.
And because it was difficult to get vehicles into the site, the coaster was designed so its steel could be placed by a towering, 350-foot crane parked only in two spots, one at each end of the ride.
Another engineering consideration: Dorney's neighbors. "One of the unusual elements is the track and backbone are filled with sound-deadening material, so it's very quiet," Greene says. A high-tech, sand-like material does the job.
Designing the coaster took 713 technical drawings, more than 4,600 pages of load calculations, a sophisticated Computer-Aided Design System, and the work of about 30 people over about a year, Haesler says.
But for him, one of the best parts of engineering Talon was making it as beautiful as it was thrilling.
Steel support beams were streamlined and kept to a minimum to enhance eye appeal. The park chose vivid contrasting colors, purplish blue, orange and yellow, to make the coaster blend with the colors of nearby rides and stand out against the sky.
And the coaster was placed on its site so that the lift hill looks out from one of the highest elevations of the park, offering riders a sweeping vista of the countryside toward the Interstate 78 exits.
The structure dominates the landscape, and major elements were purposely positioned to be visible from the park's main entrance. "It's very impressive to drive the people by," Haesler says.
Plus, he adds, the coaster's line winds through the middle of the structure itself, an unusual feature that allows people to experience the ride from an unexpected angle even before they get on.
"We believe that the coaster must be entertaining for both the rider and nonrider," Haesler says.
But it's those riders that Sosnowsky hopes will keep coming back, even if it's only to try to figure out why their feet don't flop into their lap while the riders fly upside down.
(Hint: Water won't fall out of a pail if it's quickly swung upside down overhead, either.)
Sosnowsky expects the ride to get 1,200 riders per hour, perhaps a million by the end of the season, taken into Talon's grip 32 at a time. In Steel Force's first year, 1 million rides were given, he says.
"The feeling of Talon really is flying after that initial drop," Sosnowsky says. "It does pretty much everything you could imagine doing -- if you were Superman."