Thrust Air 2000

Take One Freefall Tower, One Rollercoaster, and One Souped-Up Hot Rod, Stir 'Em All Together And Serve At 80 MPH.

Five years ago, most of us had never heard of S & S Sports Power; today, well, it's a whole different story. Over the course of the last half-decade, this Logan, Utah-based outfit has earned legions of Thrillseeking devotees with its devastating freefall attractions, the compressed air-powered Space Shots and Turbo Drops. Since 1995, S & S has built 85 of these ferocious monsters on nearly every continent and the biggest of them, like Knott's Berry Farm's Supreme Scream and Cedar Point's Power Tower, are horrific in the extreme. Their Big Shot, lunging into the ozone layer at the pinnacle of Las Vegas' Stratosphere Tower, easily qualifies as one of the most sublimely terrifying thrill rides known to humankind.

But S & S has a whole lot more than freefall towers up its sleeves. Under the guidance of thrillmeister Stan Checketts (shown above right in sunglasses), the S & S dream team has revolutionized another breed of scream machine: the rollercoaster. Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls, behold the future: Thrust Air 2000.

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The Thrust Air 2000 prototype was created to introduce several coaster design innovations. First and foremost, as its name implies, TA2K takes advantage of the Space Shot compressed air system to shove its vehicles into action. Second, its train rides atop large-diameter pneumatic tires and shock absorbers. And last, the track itself is fabricated with specially-designed I-beam rails. According to S & S, all of this adds up to a coaster that is smoother, quieter, more cost effective, more energy efficient, more maintenance friendly and, yes, more intense than any other coaster on the market.

Does TA2K deliver on those promises? On the morning of October 19th, 1999, the outside world began to find out.

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Just as the sun was making its way into the sky, a group of journalists and several members of the American Coaster Enthusiasts were shuttled out to the S & S plant. Before we'd gotten to within several blocks of the facility, TA2K's single "hill" became visible. Dazzling white against the clear blue sky. Over 170 feet tall. Straight up one side and straight down the other.

It's like the kind of hyper-exaggerated version of a rollercoaster you'd see in a Roger Rabbit cartoon... but this is real.


The official unveiling was scheduled to begin at 11:00 AM. After given a brief tour of the indoor manufacturing area, we were led outside for a closer look. Before too long, TA2K's Ingersoll-Rand compressors fired up and an empty vehicle crept its way around the first turn towards the launch strip where it came to a stop.

Talk about built for speed... With its metallic-blue flared fenders and chrome-plated rims glistening in the morning light, this wicked wagon cuts one hellavu mean profile. Yes, it looks more like a low-slung dragster than a coaster train and that should tell you plenty about its performance. (Currently, only the front car is outfitted to carry passengers and it uses standard Space Shot restraints, but custom harnesses are under development.)

A single warning buzzer rang, followed by a hollow whoooosh, the sound of wind coursing through cylinders. And then in the blink of an eye, the train screamed forward.

All eyes followed as it surged through the first vertical curve and made that hysterical, 90-degree climb. And snaking over the apex, it plummeted back down. "Lord, have mercy..."

Finally, as the clock struck 11:00, Mr. Checketts welcomed us, spoke proudly about what his company had accomplished, and mentioned a few details about what we were soon to experience. Above all: " to 80 miles per hour in under two seconds..." Friends, Stan Checketts is definitely our kind of guy.

With his wife Sandy alongside (the other "S" of S & S), he cut the ribbon and the crowd cheered with gusto. It was time to strap in.

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After boarding on a raised wooden deck at one end of the prototype's oval course, the train is inched forward over a row of friction wheels. Once around a left-hand bend, the vehicle comes to a halt alongside the exterior wall of the factory. Up ahead, a drag strip "christmas tree" of lights hangs to the right of the rails. And beyond that, the vertical tower, just like you'd see riding Superman: The Escape... except in this case, the tower is a lot closer.

Sittin' and waitin' for things to get started, there was plenty of time to enjoy the music piped in over the loudspeakers (The Cars, in keeping with the automotive theme). But the longer we waited, the harder it was to keep a look of detached nonchalance on my face.

Over the music, the recorded growl of a revving motor signaled that we were about to get jiggy with it. The warning alarm blared and the christmas tree lit up, a row of beacons counting down to green... toes curled, knuckles whitened, skin crawled, heart stopped.

Whooooosh... "Here we g-"

Before my mind could register that we'd begun moving, we were already halfway to the base of the tower and gaining speed at an appalling rate. I'll probably never get to ride in a fighter jet as it's gettin' hurled off the deck of an aircraft carrier, but it doesn't matter; this is close enough. To put things in perspective: Superman hits 100 per, but it takes seven seconds to reach that velocity. TA2K gets four-fifths of the way there in less than a third the time. Like I said before: insane.

As I hollered my bicuspids loose, we blasted into the curve and, smooth as can be, made the first 90-degree change of direction. Pulling away from Mother Earth, the train made an effortless climb to that 170-foot peak, like it was headed all the way to Jupiter.

But we lost just enough speed to make a gentle trip over the top. With such a small radius, this upended U-turn is a freaky treat; one moment, we're looking at nothing but sky and the next, we're facing right back down.

And down we dove, with all the fury of an unimpeded freefall. Magnificent.

Hitting the second vertical curve, the train soared back onto a horizontal stretch and plowed through the steeply banked curve at the opposite end of the oval. And then we drifted back to where we'd started.

It was over far too soon. I'd give my right arm to do it again right now.

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Amazing as this prototype is, it's a kiddie coaster compared to the "full size" rides S & S wants to build. For starters, picture more hills, more curves, more of all the things we'd want to see in a major rail-rider.

But far better than that, they're ready to design Thrust Air 2000 machines with hills twice as high - that's nearly 350 feet tall, people. And how would they get a full train to reach such an altitude? The S & S engineers claim that triple digit velocities are easily attainable. Oh, Momma!

Between now and the time when a "production" model sees the light of day, there are bound to be differences. As mentioned above, a unique restraint system is in the works and they've already found other ways to improve the vehicle. Far as I'm concerned, though, this puppy is ready to run as is. There's simply nothing else like it.

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The first time I heard a rumor that these good folks were cooking up an air-powered rollercoaster, I wrote it off as wishful thinking. I've never been more happy to be so profoundly mistaken.





© Robert Coker.
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