The Edge We Seek
I pushed the button just like I had pushed the button hundreds of times before.
Seated at the enclosed rider operator's console, I scanned my eyes across the spinning mass of steel that was the Propeller Spin, one of Knott's Berry Farm's oldest attractions. Installed in 1976 as part of the Buena Park, California's "Roaring 20's" themed area expansion, the Propeller Spin was a Hrubetz Super-Round Up attraction known in the amusement park industry as a "flat ride." Not that the contraption stayed flat, mind you. "Flat rides" are usually carnival-style rigs that spin in a circle instead of traveling along a track like a train, log flume or roller-coaster. The Round-Up was popularized by Frank Hrubetz and Company out of Salem, Oregon and has become a stand-by (pun intended) attraction at most fairs and carnivals. You've seen the thing and have probably taken a spin.
It's a flat disc with wired sides and pads and handlebars for people to lean against and hold onto. A chain is fastened in front of each rider. When the ride spins up and reaches a certain point of centrifugal force, plastering thrill-seekers against the pads, the entire wheel lifts up on a hydraulic arm, changing the angle of rotation from horizontal to vertical, which has the effect of pushing the skin of your face backwards with forces in excess of 3 Gs, yet still somehow tickling your stomach with weightless moments at the apex of the rotation; a true spin-and-barf if there ever was one. The Propeller Spin was one of a handful of rides at Knott's where I held an operator's certification, and it was pretty much an automatic cycle, like most rides, but it came with an exciting manual touch.
Once all of the riders were situated in their metallic stalls with chains fastened, I'd walk the circumference of the ride, checking to make sure everything was where it needed to be; all chains secured, all exits clear, no-one freaking out. Back in the booth, I'd glance over the operator's panel and make sure that all lights were good, then hit the green button to start the cycle. From there, the ride ran itself as I watched the wheel spin around, checking for daredevils to unlatch their chains, or turn themselves upside down in their stalls, or anything unusual falling from the ride. As a ride operator, you're supposed to watch your ride. Just because you push the green button doesn't mean that you won't need to act on impulse should something go awry, and if it does - that's what the red Emergency Stop button was for, known simply as "E-Stop" or "Abort." You typically never hit that button during operating hours unless shit just got really real.
The ride would accelerate, rise up, come down, and then switch off the motors that ran the drive tires. It was up to the operator to bring the ride to a stop, and that's what I loved about this thing. There were two wide openings in the wheel, at nine o'clock and 3 o'clock. Busy days saw cycling with two operators and riders boarded via one entrance and then deboarded through the other. On slower days, one operator would bring riders on and off through just one of the portals. On the back of the wheel were a number of support bars that held together the framework of the ride. One of these was painted black. On the elevated deck which housed the operator's shed, there was a yellow arrow and your job was to line up the black bar on the ride with the arrow on the deck. That way, the entrance/exit portals lined up with the ramps and people could freely leave and board the ride.
It was an art form. Pushing your foot down on the big metal brake underneath the control panel and feeling it bounce as the discs fought to slow the wheel down. If you did it with grace, and strength, you could bring it smoothly to a stop within 45 seconds and then allow your dizzied cargo to stumble off into the midway. If you were in a hurry, because you really had to go to the bathroom and your relief shift arrived early, you stomped on the pedal and screeched that thing to a halt in about 20 seconds, which always brought a little shriek of "whoa!" but if the riders are in their stalls, they've got nothing to worry about. Never lost anybody. Did have someone throw up on the ride, but since there's a roof, I didn't find out until the dude operating the attraction next to me came over, puke still in his hair, saying, "you may want to check your ride for vomit." Such is the life of a ride operator.
Still, you gotta keep focused.
I pushed the button and off they went, spinning in front of me, lights beginning to twirl and spin and blur into the amazing kaleidoscope that this ride always generated. Everything looked normal and I felt the whipping of the wind against my face as it reached peak velocity, pinning the riders up against the sides of the wheel, draining blood from their faces and tickling their bellies. The hydraulic light came on amber, as usual, when the arm began to lift up and I raised my eyes upwards to keep the rim of the wheel in view. The night had just begun to deepen and the moon was casting its own carnival glow through the chilly and overcast Southern California night. It was a nice...
...SPARKS! whatinthehell...sparks...drive wheels, what'shappening...ABORT!
I slammed my hand down on the big red button and the hydraulic arm reversed its ascension and began to come back down into the load position. There were still showers of sparks pouring out of the motor for the drive wheels and they began to lessen as the arm lowered into place and I stood on the brake, tires squealing, all the while giving my address over the loudspeaker.
"Please remain standing in your stalls with the chain fastened until the ride comes to a full and complete stop..."
There was a wailing and a collective, "oh, come ON!" from the riders. Yeah, I'd feel cheated too. Shortest ride ever. I guess none of them saw what I saw.
When the last guest had departed, I called my area lead, who then called ride maintenance, and, to say the least, the Propeller Spin was shut down for the night. Two days later, they had the hydraulic arm in the fully raised position, guys in blue uniforms all over it. A month later, it was gone. Bye-bye, baby, you ain't killin' no-one heah! When even a well-known and trusted establishment like Knott's Berry Farm is dodging bullets when it comes to amusement-related mishaps, it's no wonder that people have a healthy fear of the ticky-tacky, gut-busted, ramshackle displays that are the carnivals at festivals, state and county fairs.
The tragedy at the Ohio State Fair is being watched by people from all over the world, some who are horrified by the fact that they just rode the thing last week and by some who are carefully watching to see where the blame lies. Some onlookers reported that the ride seemed to be swinging too fast, with riders shouting, "it's too fast, stop the ride" and the operator frantically pushing at buttons. The ride manufacturer is calling it "metal fatigue." My eyes, after watching and re-watching the awful video, see a part of the loading platform that has, somehow, risen while the ride is in motion, something a failsafe would normally prevent. At least one other theme park industry expert has noticed that the ride itself wasn't descending, rather, it hit something that was ascending. Which, I think, points to computer error, which is kind of terrifying because it's all of the computer safety failsafes that we count on to make these flying torture machines safe enough for crazy folks to go seeking that edge.
Sometimes, we don't know how close we get. But we go there anyway. You're more likely to die in a car accident than in an amusement park ride, but that's what makes the incidents so shocking. One moment, you're having the time of your life and then, suddenly, horrifically, it's over. Yet, when I was walking around the Columbiana County Fair yesterday in Lisbon, Ohio, the lines were massive for the midway attractions. We all take chances everyday, driving, walking, living. If we stopped doing everything that could cause us to lose life, we've already lost it.
I may ride the Fireball again at some point, if for nothing else but to prove to myself that I'm not afraid of the Experience. Tell you what, though. I may do a LOT of reading on the owner/operators before I buckle up.