Part 17: Reaching the Outer Limits
Kings Dominion’s Flight of Fear Project was certainly no Flight of Fancy
Overhead shot of the original crop circle, courtesy Kings Dominion Marketing.
On July 18, 1995, Paramount Parks (parent company of Kings Dominion and four other parks) challenged the Kings Island and Kings Dominion marketing departments in a conference call to introduce a new roller coaster to the media with a fun, attention-getting event in keeping with the new attraction’s “alien invasion” storyline. Two ideas were kicked around: one was a giant crater created by a “spaceship” landing, complete with a time capsule of futuristic blueprints demanding construction of an “out of this world” coaster. The other was a “crop circle” inscription cut in a field across the railroad tracks. While Kings Island went with the crater idea, some research convinced Public relations honchos Serena Barry and Betsy Reardon Moss that the giant crop circle was the way to go, cut in the softball fields between the campground and the million-gallon tank.
By the week of August 13, 1995, the sign and landscaping departments had successfully cut the enormous crop circle illustration, and maintenance guys even singed the grass with torches to give it that authentic, just touched-down look. Hurricane Felix almost drowned out media day, but helicopter passes overhead revealed an incredible multi-acre announcement heralding next season’s attraction that played as far away as San Diego.
The crop circle was a hit – now would the ride live up to the marketing?
Named for the highly-acclaimed 1960s TV show, the Outer Limits: Flight of Fear was a technologically unprecedented “catapult” coaster, designed by Ing.-Büro Werner Stengel GmbH and Jim Seay’s team at Premier Rides (rumored to operate out of a hotel room somewhere in Millersville, Maryland). Totally enclosed in a dark building, the ride was a first-generation linear induction launch coaster that required no lift hill. The train was to launch from 0-54 mph down a tunnel in about four seconds, then enter a series of elements and inversions called the “spaghetti bowl” to replicate the experience of driving through Springfield, Virginia at rush hour.
Just kidding. The ride would finish through a final corkscrew then stop in an unloading area apart from the loading area. Once unloaded the train would drift around the corner to the loading platform, giving riders the impression that the previous riders did not survive the experience.
One look at that tangled ball of steel track makes it obvious that the era of computer-designed coasters had indeed arrived. “Joker’s Jinx,” which debuted at Largo, Maryland’s Six Flags Great America in 1998 was the same ride, except outdoors, which afforded a good look at that impressive design.
While linear induction technology had been in limited use since the 1960’s, it was of little practical use until the 1980s, with the introduction of magnetic levitation (maglev) trains in Europe and Japan. Utilizing a form of electromagnetic suspension, the Flight of Fear trains employed aluminum fins bolted to the sides of the cars like airplane wings. These fins passed through a series of linear induction motors (LIMs) mounted on both sides of the launch zone that turned on and off very rapidly in sequence, propelling the train forward. The clearance between the fins and the LIMs was very tight – 10mm at best, therefore extra attention had to be paid to LIM arrangement, track joint alignment and wheel wear, as minimal track misalignment or excessively worn wheels could cause physical contact between the fin and the LIMs. This actually happened during a March, 1996 test launch when the aluminum fin caught the side of the motor, wrinkling the tough, flexible metal like a stick of Wrigley’s spearmint gum.
By the way, if the OL-FOF required a lift, it would have to be only about 80 feet tall (slightly shorter than the Grizzly). The tallest inversion in the ride – the first one – is only about 75 feet in height.
The ride had very many unique construction qualities. 50,000 cubic yards of fill dirt were brought in. Instead of traditional individually-poured concrete footers, a single pad for the launch zone and spaghetti bowl was poured as a single unit, between two and three feet deep. It was one of the largest non-military, non-nuclear power plant concrete pours in Virginia at the time (left). After the concrete cured, a surveyor began marking the pad for structure bolts. Once marked, holes were bored about a foot into the pad – thousands of them, appearing random but placed extremely precise.
Since the footing bolts had not been sunk in the concrete pad during the pour as in traditional coaster construction, they had to be placed and secured somehow – thus the OL-FOF was the first KD ride to use chemical bolts. With chemical bolts, the footing bolts were set in the drilled hole, then two capsules were dropped into the hole – a resin and a catalyst. When the capsules broke and mixed, it created an unbreakable bond between the bolt and the concrete. I forget the minimum KiloPascals (kPa) it had to withstand after setting, but every test was successful.
Once all the footing bolts were in place, the support structure was set in place, then the track was placed onto the structure and bolted in place. It all fit – the design had been impeccable.
Power demands were crucial to this ride – the linear induction motors created massive power spikes during a launch, and two years later when Volcano: the Blast Coaster was built, Hanover County reminded KD that if in the unlikely event both coasters launched at the exact same time, it would brown out central Hanover County. Thus, a separate power substation was extensively modified just off Route 30 across from the parking lot.
Completed building, 1996
Once the structure was in place, and with the incredible infrastructures under way, construction began on the outside building. Few realize the scope of this project; in fact, at the time of its construction, the Outer Limits building had the largest (in square-footage) self-supporting roof in Virginia. Think about it – there could be no columns, like you see in a Walmart, because the spaghetti bowl was in the way.
Once the outer building was almost completed, the remarkable queue-line theming co-designed by Paramount designers Bob Dennis and Tina Skees was put in place, complete with a flying saucer and a digital video portraying a group of hip and not very convincing scientists running tests on the wrecked saucer buried in the side of the building, which had been labeled “Hangar 18, Bureau of Paranormal Activity.” It was a remarkable, immersive experience.
Bob Dennis, by the way, was set decorator for the grade-D movie “Beach Fever,” which was Kato Kaelin’s first film. I give it ½ star, at best – and Bob knows why.
I do not recall the exact date of the first successful launch (sometime in late March or early April, 1996), but I do recall two maintenance managers hopping onboard at the last minute after a few empty test launches. When the train arrived back in the station one of the impromptu riders’ glasses were missing. He staggered out of the car, looking at the floor. When someone asked him how was the ride he only replied “great” before going somewhere to lie down.
There was a good reason for that: the LIM speed was adjustable; simplistically, it could be “dialed up” or “dialed down” depending on a network of variables, including temperature and train weight. The trick was to hit it just right. In this case the train was “dialed up” too high: it launched from 0 to about 70 mph, exposing the two riders to over 6Gs in the first inversion versus the 0-54 mph, 4G exposure, which became the norm. Testing then became a horrendous experience, not for riders but for maintenance – there were hundreds of false starts while the speed was adjusted. And the train was so heavy it only drifted back less than halfway to the loading platform, so a dozen maintenance guys had to push it back into the station into loading position. LIM motors (indicated as A, B, C and D) weighing hundreds of pounds each had to be moved, replaced and tweaked, then placed precisely back in place, within just a couple millimeters. It was back-breaking, 7-day-a-week work.
Train wheel assembly, 1996.
The final ride was originally designed for 4-train operation (6 cars, 24 passengers per train) but currently runs 3 - 20 passenger trains. It is 2,705 feet in length, with a maximum speed of 54 MPH. the maximum banking angle was 90 degrees, has 4 inversions and 30 vertical and 25 compound horizontal turns.
After the 1996 season a few problems had to be addressed. It became apparent that some very high-stress sections of the track were experiencing premature fatigue. Such discoveries are typical of new, high-impact rides, and an extensive project was launched to beef up the track. A total of 73 “Super-ties” were fabricated based on Premier designs and welded over the next two winters into the higher stressed areas. The project was completed in 1998. Also during this time a safety catwalk and emergency stairs were constructed in the center of the ride to allow evacuations from the first brake zone in the top of the spaghetti bowl.
In fact, the first train evacuation on these new stairs was made during a wedding conducted on the ride. The bride and groom said their vows in the station, then the entire party boarded the train for a ride, which hung in a dip at the top. They took the inconvenience in good spirits, but it was rather comical to see the bride in her white wedding dress climbing down the staircase and walking back to the station.
Many modifications had to be made to the restraints, as people returning back into the station had either bleeding earlobes or were dizzy from the side-to-side pounding of their heads against the restraint. The original shoulder restraints were too hard, so pads were added at ear level, which helped a bit. Eventually (after this author left the park) the shoulder restraints were removed and replaced with just lap restraints.
Eventually, with the name shortened to just Flight of Fear, and the theming scaled back after Paramount got out of the theme park business, this first-generation launch coaster in 2016 will celebrate 20 years of operation – an eternity in high tech roller coaster years, and an excellent testament to the NASA-inspired engineering work of Stengel and Premier.