Keep looking ahead. Look out, not down. Those words kept rang through head as I climbed each rung of ladder that ran up the 242-foot Star Flyer ride, dubbed the “SkyScreamer” at Six Flags St. Louis. What exactly is the Star Flyer? Think of the swing ride you grew up on at your hometown amusement park or fair, grow it by a few hundred feet, and you get the idea. I sell these attractions and other rides, but this was my first time climbing one. I had wanted to scale one for some time, but my inherent fear of heights, which had gotten better over time, had held me back. Add in the fact that I that my wife was seven months pregnant with our daughter and I was not sure if I should be scampering up steel towers. Being stationed at the park as the teams put their final touches on the ride I had grown bored and wanted a new adventure, so I said I wanted to go to the top. Now, half-way up the tower, I was regretting that decision.
I have always been obsessed with amusement parks and roller coasters. Growing up most teenage boys had pictures of bands, women, sports figures- or a combination of all three. Not me, I had amusement park brochures encircling the top walls of my room and pictures of long-dead coaster designers like Harry Traver and John Miller on my door. To be fair, I also did have a few “Rush” albums hanging on the wall. But, this only proves the point that the ladies were not knocking down my teenage door to get to know me better. I was so obsessed with amusement parks that at twelve I wrote Six Flags and asked if I could volunteer there and pick up trash. While their response letter indicated a happiness at the prospect of free labor, they could not get around the child labor law issues and I was told that I was welcome to re-apply at age sixteen.
Fast forward twenty years and the amusement park-obsessed kid is an adult and with a problem. This particular installation was our Austrian manufacturer’s first StarFlyer sale in the U.S. The most significant issue was that the project, which should have lasted two months, was being stretched out in a major way. The biggest issue was shipping. A job like this usually sees all of the containers arrive in one foul swoop. A shipping delay had caused all of these projects to be shipped by rail from the East Coast, and CSX was slowly delivering the seven containers, one at a time. They also had a difficult time telling us where exactly all of the containers were. I wishfully called CSX, and asked what they could do to accelerate our shipments. We were quite possibly their smallest cargo shipment at the in the U.S., but I had to ask. I was met with little more than stupefied silence at first, and then a simple “the containers will be there when they arrive.” Initially I had told Mark who runs Skycoaster®, “They’re simple tower rides, nothing major can go wrong.”
So there I was, a grown-up coaster geek who had just put on a climbing harness for the first time, trying to catch his breath around the 100-foot mark on a never-ending ladder. I still had trouble believing I was here. I had grown up going to this park as a child and now the Star Flyer was my second ride installed at the property. As it also happened my first major roller coaster, the venerable wooden Screamin’ Eagle, stood just over my shoulder. It had taken me many years of watching this ride in order to get up the courage to get in line. This classic coaster, built in 1976, had always looked much taller than the one hundred-plus feet the first hill stood. For a boy who was so scared of heights that he went up the spiral stairs of the Statue of Liberty on his hands and knees out of fear, one hundred feet might as well have been one thousand.
Like most large machines of industry, the Star Flyer is designed to function first and thoughts about how people interface with the ride happen later. On this ride the ladder is fit snugly onto one portion of the six-sided steel framework tower. It runs straight up. About 18 inches behind the ladder is the hoisting cable that raises the star, this star is strung with seats and where the riders sit. The cable then runs all the way to the top of the tower, around the sheaves at the top, and back down to the counterweight. This means that a tower which stands nearly 250-feet tall offers those climbing inside a rather snug fit.
After enjoying the sites I kept moving upward. If you have never climbed with a safety line before it is certainly a daunting experience where you learn to put your faith in the equipment. A steel cable runs the length of the tower and climbers attach their harness to a runner, which fits on the cable. It will follow you up the tower without stopping, but if you make any sudden downward movements the runner locks up and does not allow you to fall. I had tested the reliability of the system several times at 5 feet and it worked fine, albeit extremely tightly in an area where I would not have minded a little breathing room. But, that was not as reassuring as I passed the 200-foot mark. Bill, who heads our Installation division, had once told me that if you fell from 10, 100, or 1,000 feet you were dead regardless and that the key was “not to do anything stupid.” This was easy for Bill to say. He had spent his entire life climbing and installing rides. When a prototype Japanese roller coaster was blowing hydraulic system Bill helped design and install a replacement electrical system. When the Stratosphere Tower wanted to put an American flag atop the Big Shot ride 1,100 feet in the air after 9/11 they called Bill. When we installed a Guinness World Record 403-foot StarFlyer in Texas, Bill led the job. Part steelworker, part journeyman, an expert with the workings of almost any amusement ride, Bill is a ride encyclopedia and a tool kit wrapped into one. However, he was not here.
Once I got to the top of the tower I transitioned from the ladder to the star. This is a little more difficult than it sounds as one has to straddle the space between the ladder and the star, unhook one of your safety lines, hook it to the star, and then repeat. I could not help but look down as my legs straddled the abyss. I froze up for a second as the lifting cables moved slowly back and forth in the breeze. 240 feet had never looked so high. I snapped out of it and transitioned over to the star.
Pulling myself up I was treated to sight and sounds that few get to experience. The first thing I noticed was the deafening silence. With the park closed there were no roaring roller coasters, no screaming riders. All I really heard was the breeze whipping by. While it was quiet on the ground at this height the gusts ebbed and flowed. Standing on the second-tallest ride in the park I felt like I could see forever. I could also feel the tower sway. While it might not look like it, steel structures are designed to move- if they do not have give they will snap. Growing up in St. Louis I went up in the Gateway Arch many times and had felt it sway. However, by the time I was standing on top of the StarFlyer I was being reminded that a vertical steel structures have plenty of movement with the wind swirling around them. Looking around I pinched myself, it was an amazing moment for a kid obsessed with amusement parks and petrified of heights to be standing on time of the world.
After enjoying some time by myself I climbed back down, which seemed to take longer than the climb up. Every step was carefully placed, I didn’t feel like slipping and trying out my safety line. Once I reached the bottom I remembered that there were still a few problems to take care of. In the ensuing weeks shipments came in, our CEO Ed made some phone calls and our site manager Thom rallied everyone to get the finishing touches complete. Six Flags ended up being so happy with the ride that they purchased 8 additional towers from us and Funtime. I have climbed a lot of attractions since then, Slingshots, roller coasters, and other Starflyers, but this climb remains one of my favorites. There is no better view of an amusement park than from the top of one of its iconic rides, I just recommend that you get a comfortable harness.