(Photo courtesy Themeparkreview.com)
During the fall of 1988 a contingent of Kings Dominion brass traveled to Germany to view a prototype of a new style of mechanically interactive ride that lifted guests 90 feet in the air, raised and lowered them on an arm and spun them 360 degrees in either direction, all via a joystick located between the two seats. Impressed, the brass returned, announced the ride was a winner, and within a few months construction and maintenance prepared for the arrival of what to be the newest addition to Candy Apple Grove – the Sky Pilot (or as it was generically called, the “Flight Trainer.”)
Oddly enough, an Intamin engineer assisting with the installation kept calling it the "Shy Plot." We thought it was too hilarious to correct him, so we just let him say it. Many, many times.
“The Flight Trainer is a fascinating amusement attraction,” stated the promotional material from Intamin in slightly mis-translated (but much better) English, “which represents a sensational flying adventure in a remarkable height. The outstanding feature of the Flight Trainer is the fact that the passengers can pilot the movements of their cabins by themselves, therefore they will feel the experience of piloting a flight cabin on its orbit.”
The “Flight Trainer” was about 70 feet tall. It had 20 cabins (or gondolas) and theoretically could carry 1,200 per hour. It ran at Kings Dominion from 1989 to 1998, and according to KD carried 5,535,145 lifetime riders. The following year, in 1990, Kings Island opened the same ride under the name “flight Commander” and Great America in Santa Clara, California under the name "Sky Hawk."
On the big day the center tube was supposed to arrive before quitting time, at 3:30 pm. However the truck didn’t show up until 8 PM because it got delayed at the New Kent weigh station – it was too large and heavy to go through Richmond during rush hour. For some bizarre reason, the Sky Pilot was one of the heaviest free-standing flat rides ever built until the Drop Tower came along. An inauspicious start.
The existing concrete pad that formerly held the Apple Turnover was inadequate for the weight of the new attraction, so a device called a whiphammer was brought in the break it up. It was basically a giant articulating sledgehammer mounted on the back of a loader. The head of the hammer was solid steel, and the size of a 50-gallon barrel. The operator raised it, and when it slammed down it shattered the 12” reinforced concrete so handily one could actually see the shockwaves from the impact. We shuddered to think we should be so unfortunate to get our foot under that thing.
Construction went fairly uneventfully. During that winter, while the center post was being installed, one of the pods and its drive unit came from Intamin, and the maintenance staff rigged it up to an arm inside the maintenance shop so VIPs and other office staff could come over, climb inside and get the experience of being inside what most compared to a very slow clothes dryer. I recall two young ladies from marketing coming over wearing skirts, and seeing the smiles on the faces of the maintenance guys when the pod turned them upside down.
Once constructed it became obvious very quickly that the pods had to be covered with canopies to staunch the deluge of coins and wallets, as well as other personal belongings (and the occasional hurl) falling below while the ride was in operation. An Intamin engineer named Fritz (not the other Fritz – this was the first Fritz) came to KD to supervise the installation of aluminum-framed Lexan canopies that originally were pneumatically connected from the operator’s panel.
Each Individual canopy was controlled by a small electronic control panel mounted in the nose of each pod. The open and close speed adjustments were notoriously fickle – a 1/8 turn on the speed control made the canopy either dead slow or horrifically fast, with nothing in between. More than once a canopy slammed down on the hand or head of a mechanic deftly trying to fine-tune the mechanism with the acuity of a safecracker. Once while lying under a pod running the air lines to the canopy I heard the Maintenance Manager yell “Goddammit it Fritz!” when a canopy slammed down on his head while adjusting. He wore a strawberry on his forehead the rest of the week.
The canopies arrived as solid pieces with no ventilation, sealing the riders like a clear can of mixed nuts. Determining that it was a bad idea to raise, lower and spin guests in a sealed, un-ventilated, non-draining environment, a hole pattern had to be devised, and mechanics drilled several 1” holes in the extremely expansive Lexan to retain air, wallets and coins in, and any liquid waste material out.
Eventually the automatic open and close mechanisms in the pods were taken out, and operators raised and lowered them manually to allow guest ingress and egress. The automatic controls were just much trouble to keep from pinching fingers or decapitating someone.
The main ride had two large motors – one to lift the tower and another to rotate the center. The lift motor was placed inexplicably inside the center tube, and when it broke down one pre-season only the skinniest mechanic in the department could slither inside the claustrophobic tube, disassemble the motor in pieces and hoist them out until he could reach the problem. He came out coated head to toe in black grease.
Once assembled the guests rode and controlled the raising, lowering and rotating via a joystick mounted between the two seats. It became apparent soon that the joysticks broke off very easily. Later that season a very small but almost unbreakable nub of a control stick was installed.
The ride proved to be mechanically reliable, however, although the electrical installations were suspect. Many nights after shutdown electricians had to be lifted via a JLG vertilift to the top to replace wiring and components that wore out prematurely.
On June 9, 1991 tragedy struck Kings Island, when a woman fell out of the Flight Commander to her death. On that same day, two other guests were electrocuted when they stepped over a fence into the International Street fountain.
Still, the ride enjoyed many seasons at KD, and eventually closed due to high maintenance and low ridership – a one-two punch that can permanently KO any ride.