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Protecting the magic

Strap in and enjoy the ride

Merlin's Group Engineering Director Dawn Elson compares notes on rollercoasters and RAF aircraft...

Surely an aircraft and a roller coaster have nothing in common? Well you might be surprised……

Having spent most of my career in the Royal Air Force in charge of maintenance and airworthiness for various types of aircraft including Hercules transporters, Nimrod surveillance craft and Tornado jets, I was a little surprised by the remarkable and unexpected similarities between aircraft and roller coasters when I first started my job as the Engineering Director for Merlin.

What’s the same?

To start with you are a passenger on both!

You are helped on your trip by a team of highly trained staff who appear to be there for your comfort and to keep everything moving on time, but in reality their primary purpose is to ensure your safety and security.

It is unusual for an aircraft or roller coaster to exist on its own. It usually works with a whole host of supporting infrastructure – the airport or the theme park. Within these structures, teams of highly qualified engineers, technicians, operators, safety experts, and logistical specialists work behind the scenes to keep everything moving how it should.

Both aircraft and roller coasters are kept in great working order through a strict maintenance regime of daily checks, weekly and monthly inspections and also a periodic, much deeper, maintenance check. This deep maintenance can be based on either time elapsed (annually for example) or number of use cycles (flying hours for aircraft or number of times around the track for roller coasters). During this deep maintenance the aircraft or roller coaster will be stripped down to its component parts. Any single item that experiences high stress in use will then undergo non-destructive testing to assure the integrity and continued performance of each component or trigger its replacement.

For an engineer or technician to be allowed to work on a roller coaster or an aircraft they must be specifically trained on it. For example, a technician has to have completed A380 training to work on an Airbus A380 aircraft - or for a technician to work on the Stealth launch roller coaster at Thorpe Park they will have had to go through a full training programme and need to have worked for many months under supervision on that specific ride before they are certified and qualified to carry out maintenance on it.

Aircraft and roller coasters are both designed to strict standards to assure the safety of passengers.

Prior to it going into operation, independent authorities have to certify an aircraft or a roller coaster as fit for use. For an aircraft, this is done by the Aviation Authority. Similarly, an independent and certified inspection body will inspect a roller coaster and certify that it is safe to operate. The ride will then need to have annual independent inspections to certify its continued ability to operate safely. In the UK, this body is called the ADSC or the Amusement Device Safety Council and they certify every single one of our rides every year.

Both aircraft and roller coasters are forever evolving through advancing technology. Aircraft are getting faster, going further, carrying more passengers and becoming less damaging to the environment. Roller coasters are getting smoother, faster, higher, having more tricks and thrills or having virtual reality added to expand the experience. No matter what the advances are in either, safety will remain the core principle in the development of them.

You experience ‘g’ force in both – that is force created by the gravity of the earth and felt by your body. You are feeling 1’g’ all the time as that is the gravitational force on your body as you stand still on the earth. But as you are subject to other forces that change your velocity faster that gravity can you will either feel lighter (less ‘g’) or heavier (more ‘g’). You will feel g force in an aircraft if it makes a sudden manoeuvre or during the high power used for take-off. If you are lucky enough to go in a fast jet or aerobatic aircraft you could experience up to 9g and would need to wear a special suit to stop all of the blood from rushing from your head! Obviously, in a commercial aircraft the ‘g’ forces are usually very low. A roller coaster however enables you to experience slightly more exhilarating ‘g’ forces than a commercial aircraft – usually 2 to 3 ‘g’ as you fly round the track. So you will feel as though you are pushed and then pulled and get ‘butterflies’ in your belly as you loop and swoop. These forces are anticipated and factored into the design and build of all modern roller coasters.

What’s different?

You never actually leave the ground completely in a roller coaster because you are still connected through the structure of the roller coaster track and the roller coaster car.

An aircraft is powered by engines throughout the entire flight whereas a roller coaster is either launched, pulled or lifted up to the highest point of the ride (creating potential energy) and it then uses this energy to travel around the rest of the track. The cars or trains on the roller coaster do not have any power or engine themselves.

In an aircraft you generally want to go from one place to another and the time in the air is unremarkable; but in a roller coaster you return to the same place you got in. The whole point is the amazing thrill of it – so strap in and enjoy the ride!

Dawn Elson is Group Engineering Director, Merlin Entertainments. She was formerly Officer Commanding of Engineering and Logistics at RAF Waddington where she was responsible for the engineering and maintenance of five fleets of aircraft around the world. Subsequently Dawn was Head of Engineering at Gatwick Airport.

 In addition to her Degree in Mechanical Engineering, Dawn holds an MBA and a Master’s Degree in Defence Studies. She is a Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the Royal Aeronautical Society, the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Women’s Engineering Society. Dawn has received the Confederation of British Industry’s First Women Award and has been ranked in the Top 50 most influential female engineers in the UK by the Daily Telegraph newspaper.

February 2017

Merlin Entertainment