Orville and Wilbur Wright Never Saw This Coming.

[Note: This attraction was removed from Paramount's Great America and sent to Carowinds where it now operates as Nighthawk.]

Like a number of theme parks created during the 1970's, the "gold rush" years, Paramount's Great America, located in Santa Clara, California, has seen its fortunes rise, fall and then rise again. Developed by the Marriott Corporation and opened in 1976, this Great America and an identical sister park erected outside Chicago, Illinois were originally envisioned to be the first of a coast-to-coast chain. Looking to exploit its massive lodging empire, Marriott hoped to get in on the theme park boom by turning some of its larger hotels into complete amusement resorts. In the book The Great American Amusement Parks (Gary Kyriazi, 1976), Bruce Burtch, the public-affairs manager for the Santa Clara park is quoted: "We don't expect people to drive halfway across the country to visit a Great America park... Ideally, we'd like to dot the entire nation with Great America parks..."

These two $40 million enterprises started out with real promise, boasting spectacular double-decker carousels, ultramodern three-armed Ferris wheels, Schwarzkopf-designed custom "Speedracer" coasters and pairs of intertwined flume rides. And a third Great America, targeted for Washington, D.C., was planned to be completed in 1978.

As time went by, though, it looked more and more like Marriott's grand scheme wasn't meant to be. The D.C. park never saw the light of day and in the early 1980's, California's Great America languished. After the park's Arrow-designed double loop/corkscrew coaster, the Turn of the Century, was rethemed as Demon in 1980, no significant new attractions were introduced until 1983 (The Edge, an Intamin first-generation freefall). By the middle of the decade, Marriott had signed an agreement to sell the park to a commercial real estate developer. It seemed that this Great America, not yet ten years old, was doomed.

Fortunately, local government came to the rescue. In 1985, The City of Santa Clara Redevelopment Agency purchased Great America, saving it from the wreaking ball, and hired Kings Entertainment Company (then owners of Kings Island, Kings Dominion and Canada's Wonderland) to manage the park, offering KECO a five-year buy-out option.

Great America's new caretakers got right down to business. In 1986, The Grizzly clawed its way onto the scene, followed by the looping-boat Revolution in 1987, the Rip Roaring Rapids whitewater raft ride in 1988, and Skyhawk in 1989. That same year, Kings Entertainment exercised its buy-out option, signing a 50-year land lease with the city, and kept right on going with Whitewater Falls in 1990, the Bolliger & Mabillard-designed Vortex stand-up coaster in 1991, and a $1.5 million upgrade for the park's IMAX Pictorium Theater (allowing it to screen 3-D flicks) in 1992.

Enter Paramount. '92 was the year the motion picture company became a theme park player, acquiring the Kings Entertainment parks group. And with Paramount holding the reins, Great America continued to flourish with the addition of rides like Top Gun, the B&M inverted coaster; Drop Zone, the 224-foot-tall Intamin Giant Drop; Xtreme Skyflyer, a 173-foot-tall SkyCoaster; and 1998's Invertigo (pictured at right), the first of Vekoma's inverted Boomerangs outside of Sweden.

Back from the brink of an early demise, Paramount's Great America had become Northern California's leading theme park (the Gurnee, Illinois park, of course, became a part of the Six Flags family, but that's another story). Still, PGA had not yet made its mark with a single, rapturously exceptional thrill ride.

It soon would.

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Rewind back to 1987, when designers at Vekoma first began dreaming about a rollercoaster that would mimic the sensation of flight. Years passed without much progress. But in 1992, a brainstorming session produced the first artist renderings of what would be called the "Flying Dutchman" and engineering work shifted into higher gear. By 1996, potential solutions to several major hurdles had been identified, i.e. how to load passengers, harness them in, and rotate them into a prone, face-down position. Vekoma then approached Paramount Parks with an offer: Would Paramount be interested in co-developing the Flying Dutchman?

In December of 1996, representatives from Vekoma, Paramount Parks and the TNO Center for Human Factors (The Netherland's answer to NASA) met with Dr. Richard Brown, the leading bio-dynamicist in the amusement industry, to begin feasibility studies. What followed was two solid years of research involving the big brains from a wide-ranging collection of academic and commercial engineering outfits. Among them: NLR, the Dutch Institute for Aerospace and Space Travel; the Aerospace Department of Delft University; Schroth Systems GmbH, fabricators of harnesses for Formula 1 race cars, power boats and high performance aircraft; and Stork RMO, a Dutch company that engineers high speed railway trains. Proprietary software was employed to virtually analyze every aspect of the ride system, from the track and train configuration to the passenger restraint ergonomics. Real-world G-force tests were conducted with the same centrifuges used to examine the physiological effects on fighter pilots and astronauts. And by the end of 1998, Vekoma had begun "swing tests" of the preliminary harness mechanism. It was time to begin full-scale construction.

Typically, a prototype attraction is built at the factory; only when the concept is proven viable does it move into public view. Not in this case. Paramount and Vekoma chose to build the actual prototype on Great America property and Thrillseekers around the world watched it come together with spirited expectations. By mid-Spring 1999, with the coaster 's primary structure complete, PGA was compelled to announce that "Project Stealth," the World's First Flying Coaster, would open in 2000. And we all went bananas.

From July through October '99, the ride system was put through its paces and as with any prototype, modifications were made. First, the original upper-body restraint, a rigid over-the-shoulder harness, was replaced with more pliant padded belt-and-buckle gear (courtesy of Schroth Systems GmbH, mentioned above). Second, the individual cars would not tilt back into "flight" position while moving up the lift hill, as was first proposed. Instead, engineers were able to dispense with complicated on-board hydraulics by fully reclining the vehicles right in the station.

Over the winter, the track and supports received their final coats of paint, the station was completed and those last few bolts were tightened. Now, four years and $17 million later, Stealth has been cleared for take-off.

Forget everything you've come to know about coasters, friends. This sucker rewrites all the rules.

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Fitting for its name, Stealth is completely out of sight from the front of the park, which only adds to the suspense as you stride around the left side of PGA's signature carousel, bypass Top Gun, Vortex, the James Bond 007: A License To Thrill simulator theater, and make haste to the park's rear eastern quadrant.

And finally, there it is, a tangle of steel warping this way and that behind the vivid blue troughs of the Logger's Run flume ride. At first glance, it might not blow your synapses; after all, vertical loops, corkscrews and 115-foot-tall lift hills are dime a dozen these days. But when a train goes into action... then you'll start to appreciate what you're about to experience.

Even more pulse-racing (or disturbing, depending on your eagerness to board), is watching the pre-flight procedure. Four per row, passengers settle into the fighter-jet gray bucket seats and squirm into those heavy-duty chest harnesses, buckles snapping tight. A lower body restraint, with padded calf supports, rises up between each pair of legs. And when all are secure, the cars tip back, all the way, until the entire trainload is laying flat, staring up at the heavens. Whoa...

If you think it looks freaky, wait'll you feel it happen. First, there's the chest harness. When the ride operator cinches it good and tight around your ribcage, you're jolted into realizing how important that harness will be for the next two minutes of your life. And when leg supports lock down the lower half of your bod, you'll feel less like a passenger and more like a test pilot.

In one smooth motion, the seats flip backwards. Blood rushes into your head. All you can see is sky. And the train begins to move. Stitched onto the front of the chest harness are two loops of yellow straps, the only thing we can grab ahold of. Believe me, I grabbed.

You might be tempted to raise your noggin and look back at the station as we pull away. Don't. It's much more fun, almost surreal, to just gaze straight up, watch the position of the clouds change, see two rail sections sweep by overhead and feel the chain lift engage behind our backs... without any idea of what's coming next. Welcome to the unknown, people.

Suddenly, we're no longer completely reclined - the train has begun to rise up that first 30-degree slope. And because of our captive posture, we simply can't anticipate when we'll reach the apex. Tension mounts as we move higher and higher, waiting for something to happen.

Finally, it does. We slide over the top, our torsos tip back, and Stealth picks up airspeed. It's time to pry our fingers outta those straps, spread our arms wide and get ready to fly.

In the first of four acrobatic 180-degree twists, the train curls completely upside down. Without warning, the sky disappears and gravity pulls us hard against those harnesses. We're left gaping down at the ground, over 100 feet below. Brothers and sisters, this is what it means to be inverted.

Charging forward, the train glides around a turn and we start to soar headfirst towards the earth, diving like a bird of prey. Sensational. Fight the fear, keep those arms outstretched and go with the flow, baby!

Our flying machine reaches a maximum cruise velocity of 51 miles per hour and pulls back up, zooming into the "horseshoe" inversion.

Up and over we careen, flung to the right and nearly tossed onto our backs again. The sky whips in and out of view in a heartbeat before we scream down a second major descent. By this point, I was already smitten, but these first few gentle maneuvers were just warm-ups for the mind-melting gymnastics ahead. From here on in, it's like we're strapped to the underside of an ICBM gone completely haywire.

As we regain a little altitude past the bottom of the second drop, we hit a second abrupt track twist and flip over, jamming face-up through a banked curve and rocketing into the base of the vertical loop.

I don't care how many loops you've ridden through, sitting, standing, hanging, forwards, backwards... nothing has prepared you for riding through a loop like this. With your cranium leading the way and your spine parallel to the rails, Stealth makes navigating an "upright 360" a completely unique adventure. Bizarre and brilliant. And the barrel rolls are still to come...

We leave the loop behind and tear into another turn, passing over the lift hill and hitting the third 180-degree flip-flop. Losing all sense of direction, aren't ya?

Face-down once again, we sail towards the outer edge of Stealth's course, with the corkscrews off to our right. But before we tackle that horizontal vortex, we've got to get properly oriented. The fourth and final track rotation whirls us over and a barrel rollin' we go.

Somersaulting madly, Stealth scrambles us up like a human omelette. And just as your inner ear is begging for mercy, we slide away from the mayhem and ease back into the station. The cars tilt up and we're free to stumble away.

Good Lord Almighty, Stealth is something else.

Oh, I nearly forgot: be sure to empty your pockets, every single one of them, before you ride. Keys, loose change, wallets, lint, anything you want to see again, put 'em in a locker or hand 'em to someone who's willing to wait behind. Otherwise, they are history.

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And the beat goes on. As nearly everyone knows by now, the park has received city approvals to build a 172-foot-tall attraction for 2001, to be located near the Xtreme SkyFlyer. Will it be another coaster? "Not necessarily" is all they'll say. But it is promised to be a major thrill ride and that's good enough for me.

Because of the unique nature of the Paramount/Vekoma partnership, Paramount was to have exclusive rights to exploit Flying Dutchman technology for a while. But that is no longer the case, as evidenced by the addition of X-Flight to Six Flags Ohio for the 2001 season.

On a final note, let's also keep in mind that Vekoma has proven itself quite capable in the realm of launched coasters; their linear synchronous motor-propelled Rock 'n' Roller Coaster at the Disney-MGM Studios park is an out-and-out stunner. Is it even worth daring to hope for? An LSM-launched Flying Coaster...

Maybe, just maybe...

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  • TRACK LENGTH: 2,781 feet
  • TOP SPEED: 51 Miles Per Hour
  • MAX. G FORCE: 4.7 Gs, positive - 2.5 Gs, negative
  • MAX. HEIGHT: 115 feet
  • RIDE DURATION: 2 minutes, 50 seconds
  • CARS: Two trains composed of 6 cars. Each car accommodates four passengers across.
  • DESIGN AND ENGINEERING: Vekoma International, The Netherlands





© Robert Coker.
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