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20 years in the Amusement industry

Part 27: Don’t Invite a Berserker to Supper

“The physical appearance of the Berserker was calculated solely to present an image of terror …”

The image of the Viking warrior as a brute savage, clothed in animal skins, howling into battle reflects a special group of Scandinavian fighters known as “berserkers,” and most likely owes more to literary tradition than to historical fact.

It’s freezing cold, and I am watching a welder named Elio from Giovanola Bridge Company weld a stack of steel plates together at the top of a huge counterweight. The old one didn’t work well, so it had to be cut off and replaced. It is without a doubt the most boring job I have ever had, watching sparks fall lifelessly on a wooden platform in zero-degree weather.

The origin of the term “berserk” is disputed. It may mean “bare-sark” (“bare of shirt”) and refer to the Berserker’s habit of going into battle unarmored. Other tradition contends that the term should be “bear-sark,” describing the animal-skin garb of the berserker.

In the Spring of 1985 a new prototype ride sporting the generic name “Looping Starship” went into operation at Kings Dominion. Most swinging ship rides at the time, such as “DaVinci’s Cradle” at Busch Gardens-Williamsburg, swung back and forth but did not turn a full 360-degrees over. This one did; however, it was determined after winter construction that the huge counterweight at the top of the ride was not huge enough, so the manufacturer, Giovanola Bridge Company (GBC), built a new one and shipped it over. Laying in the KD parking lot after unloading, it resembled the giant, mill dust-covered hammer of one of those Scandinavian Vikings from its namesake.

The berserker was said to be possessed of an immunity to death or even wounding. This concept of immunity may have evolved from the berserker’s rage, during which he might receive horrific wounds but due to his state of frenzy ignored them until the madness subsided or he died. A warrior who continued fighting while bearing potentially fatal injuries would have been a terrifying opponent, indeed.

The new counterweight was so heavy not one but two giant cranes had to be brought in to lift it and set it in place once the old counterweight had been removed. GBC had thoughtfully pre-drilled the 42mm holes in the ends of the legs of the counterweight to perfectly match the existing bolt pattern on the stubs at the top we were going to connect it to. The giant hammer was wrapped in steel cables and slings then hoisted into the air by the two cranes, each operator and a maintenance supervisor communicating by headsets the delicate lifting operation. The giant hammer went into the air, then slowly, slowly was lowered into position. As it got into position the supervisor waved them to stop. There was a problem …

Modern scholars believe that berserker rage may have included self-induced hysteria, epilepsy, mental illness, or even genetic defects. Many suggest drugs or alcohol may have played a role. One tribe mentioned in Tacitus’s Germania used not only “natural ferocity” but also dyed their bodies to cause panic and terror in their enemies.

… the supervisor came down and informed us that the pre-drilled holes did not line up. At all. Not only that, he had noticed the massive steel plates at the top of the counterweight arm were not solid-welded, but appeared to be spot-welded. There was rage in his voice. This was an operational and maintenance disaster, necessitating dozens of man-hours of drilling and reaming, while the two cranes sat there holding the piece in position, eating up hundreds of dollars in hours of operation. Park bigwigs huddled and came out with a plan – spend thousands of dollars drilling and reaming. They had little choice. And by golly, our manager claimed, GBC was going to send a welder in to arc-gouge out those spot welds and solid-weld those damn plates at the top of that damn hammer. This was an ugly development.

Berserkers are described in mythology as being incredibly ugly, and often mistaken for trolls. One, named “Egil,” is described as “black-haired, and as ugly as his father.” At a feast in the court of the English king Athelstan, Egil is said to have made such terrible faces that Athelstan was forced to give him a gold ring to make him stop.

It was assumed that KD’s Maintenance Manager and VP made such terrible faces at GBC’s president that he relented and agreed to send Elio, a young man known world-wide for his welding prowess. Meanwhile, the maintenance crews, with temperatures plummeting, were going to have to spend the majority of their winter on top of the Berserker, drilling, reaming and bolting dozens of holes to make the new counterweight (pictured) fit.

Another characteristic of the berserker was his great strength. The berserker was thought to have not only assumed the ferocity of an animal, but also to have acquired the strength of a bear, therefore he usually assumed a “bear” name, that is, a name containing the element bjorn or biorn, such as Gerbiorn, Gunbiorn, Arinbiorn, Esbiorin or Thorbiorn.

With the great hammer safely blocked off, a team of maintenance guys dressed in multiple wooly layers as a guard against the wind shrieking across the KD parking lot wrestled a magnetic drill press up onto the platform at the top of the Berserker where the new weight was to be mated with the existing stub at the top of the matching H-beam boat supports. The drill press had to be turned horizontally, so it was important we had a reliable electrical source to activate and retain the magnet as well as make it run. It was plugged in to one of many extension cords strung up to the top and plugged into a receptacle in the ride electric room. A 42mm bit was chucked in. Once in position, they turned it on and started drilling, with one bruiser deftly turning the handle and another squirted the bit with oil to ease drilling in the hardened steel and keep the bit from burning up. It worked great for thirty seconds before the breaker tripped, de-activating the magnet and sending the drill press crashing to the platform, almost breaking the maintenance bruiser’s arm. Thankfully no one was injured, but there was much ferocious cursing and angry faces. A larger amp breaker was installed. And the drilling resumed, then continued for days.

It was no doubt the excesses of the berserkers resulted in their eventual demise. In 1015 King Erik outlawed berserks. By the twelfth century, the berserker – with his animalistic appearance, inhuman frenzy on the battlefield, and terrorism within the Scandinavian community – disappeared.

So here I stand as a “firewatcher” while Elio stands on top of massive scaffolding and welds the massive plates together. The guys got the new counterweight arm bolted on a day or two ago, after almost three weeks effort and weather delays. I see it is starting to snow. I hope Elio will want to quit and go back to his hotel so I can go home. But I doubt it. The guy’s a machine.

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