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After seven years in the making, Knoebles’ one-of-a-kind ride Flying Turns debuts!

STORY: Scott Rutherford, staff writer for Amusement Today
PHOTOS: Justin Garvanovic, Scott Rutherford, Joel Styer

Knoebels Amusement Resort, a popular and well-respected family owned and operated facility, is a park renowned for its creativity and resourcefulness. It is also a park known for doing the unexpected and seemingly impossible. Not only has it survived perennial floods that would’ve drowned a lesser park, it has taken on projects that were often deemed risky or imprudent. When others said it couldn’t be done, they did it anyway. Among the park’s most impressive accomplishments are: the relocation of a 1948-built wooden roller coaster from Texas, which was reborn as the award-winning Phoenix (1985); the recreation of an amped-up interpretation of Elitch Garden’s outstanding Mr. Twister (Twister, 1999); and the transformation of an abandoned dark ride/coaster from the Jersey Shore (Golden Nugget) into the Black Diamond (2011).

So back in 2006 when Knoebels announced they were rebuilding an authentic version of the Flying Turns wooden bobsled that John Norman Bartlett made famous in the early 20th century, park fans rejoiced and the industry was intrigued. While there was plenty of excitement, the skeptics were also quite vocal. This was, after all, based on a ride that hadn’t been built in over half a century. The last one (Coney Island’s Bobsled) was torn down in the 1970s. Could they really do it? Should they do it? If anyone could make the Turns fly, it was Knoebels.

Others had attempted it. Germany’s Mack Rides built a portable, short-lived wooden Bobsled in the 1950s though little information is available. The same company began offering a steel-troughed version (Europa Park’s Schweizer Bobbahn) in 1985. Though they initially enjoyed some success, only six units have been built to date. The Mack version with its wide-radius turns and elongated ramps is a far cry from the compact, rapid-fire transitions for which the original Flying Turns were known.

Intamin gave it a go in 1984 with the introduction of their Swiss Bob. Again, this steel troughed model was nothing like the actual Flying Turns of old. The five units produced used large multi-passenger cars that were more akin to actual bobsleds then the wooden coaster version. Even ride pioneer Arrow Development attempted to produce a Flying Turns in 1979 but they only got as far as a fiberglass-trough prototype that was plagued with vehicle design problems and eventually scrapped.

Dick has a dream

As a young boy, Dick Knoebel had ridden the Flying Turns at Cleveland’s Euclid Beach Park. This was the largest and arguably the most successful of the first generation of Norman Bartlett’s rides. And Dick never forgot it.

According to Dick, longtime Knoebels employee John Fetterman happened upon a Flying Turns magazine article written in 2002 by Kim Pedersen (a coaster fan and ACE member who had experienced one of Europe’s last surviving Turns in Denmark in the 1950s). Intrigued by the notion of a wooden bobsled (and aware of Dick’s experience at Euclid Beach), Fetterman presented to the Knoebel clan the idea of rebuilding the classic attraction in 2005. With their penchant for preserving history and building one-of-kind projects, the OK was given and the endeavor began.

Working from surviving photos, videos and rare drawings of the original Flying Turns, Fetterman and the Knoebels settled on recreating a ride based on the Turns that opened at Chicago’s Century of Progress in 1933 and was later moved to Riverview Park where it ran until that park closed forever in 1967. Loosely based on that ride (as well the Coney Island Bobsled, which was a mirror image), a layout and profile were designed to fit a plot of real estate in the center of the park that had once been home to two earlier roller coasters, a Schwarzkopf Jet Star and a Vekoma Whirlwind.

Construction on the Flying Turns officially began with the raising of the first bent in January of 2006 and progressed rapidly through the winter and early spring. A typical wooden roller coaster style system of bents, cords and ledgers was built to support the trough. A skeleton of steel ribs formed the concave shape of the trough to which a wooden “sub-track” layer was attached. On top of this, teams of carpenters painstakingly affixed thin wooden strips that would make up the actual running surface. The amount of time and energy that went into this portion of the ride is truly astounding.

In July 2007, the first test runs were made with a prototype vehicle that was based on those that ran on the original Flying Turns. Featuring three axles, six caster wheels and a divided body, the vehicle made it successfully through the course but it was difficult to control and didn’t perform as well as was hoped. Adjustments to the vehicle were made and by the end of the season, test runs with five-cars were attempted. Still, the ride wasn’t performing up to the standards Knoebels requires. Though discouraged, the team pressed on, troubleshooting and testing. By the end of the 2008 season, it was clear the ride was not going to open that year so they tried a different strategy.

Call in an expert

Knoebels turned to renowned wooden roller coaster designer Michael Boodley to see if he could offer advice on how to “fix” the Flying Turns. Boodley is well known in the industry for being a master of wooden coaster engineering. As co-founder of much- respected Great Coasters International, Inc. (GCII), he had already designed a number of highly rated and expertly crafted wooden coaster projects during his career. Though officially semi-retired, Dick Knoebel convinced Mike to lend his expertise to the stymied Flying Turns team. So, he became a Knoebels employee and went to work.

“The Flying Turns project was already in progress when Knoebels contacted me in 2009. They found themselves at a “stall” when they brought me in. They had taken it to a point where I was able to ride it, and I realized they were very close. I could see the potential for making it happen. I felt they needed to make slight changes to the trough and they needed a better vehicle that would make it through the course safely,” explained Boodley. “I basically took that car and redesigned it to comply with today’s ASTM standards. Still, it was too heavy due to structural analysis needs, and there were performance issues related to the three axles, which used caster wheels. The caster shaft has to be perpendicular to the surface on which it’s rolling. And there’s nothing flat on the Flying Turns. The problem with the three-axle car was that the shafts were always getting off the perpendicular and impeding the way the car naturally wanted to track.”

So with the knowledge gained from the tests, a second-generation car was constructed, which was basically an evolution of the first one (six wheels, three axles). “I did a lot to try and improve its performance but it just didn’t work. The car’s nose was running too high in the turns,” said Boodley. “You want the train to behave linearly. We actually had a number of modifications just playing with that design to see if we could get rid of some of that behavior. We did but it involved too much weight. That’s when I was just ready to throw it out.”

Discouraged but undaunted, Dick Knoebel consulted with Boodley and asked for his opinion on how they were to proceed. Seeing that Dick was not going to let this one go, Boodley found inspiration from his early days with GCII. “Clair Hain and I actually talked about building a Flying Turns. Back then, I thought about the ride, which is so complicated and has so many variables but we decided we would never build one because there was too much of a learning curve. Back then, after studying caster wheel behavior, the eight-wheel configuration we ultimately used on this ride was something I considered. I felt it would perform better than the original sixwheel vehicles. And it does. “Dick asked how we should go about it. I said we should start out by prototyping the basic functionality of this wheel arrangement, see how it works, add weight, etc. He gave his OK; he really wanted it to work.”

Life intervenes

Due to personal hardships unrelated to the Flying Turns endured by the Knoebel family, Boodley other team members, the process of bringing the ride to life stretched on further than any of them ever expected. This naturally led to unfair and undeserved criticism being directed toward the park. But it didn’t matter; the team had faith that they knew they would ultimately triumph.

The original test vehicle had a feature that turned out to be problematic. Because they then had an articulating axle with four wheels in the front and a solid axle in the back, Boodley was trying to get the front axle to steer the car toward center when it got off-center. “That was always going to be part of the first prototype vehicle. The first one actually had the steerable capacity on the front of it,” said Boodley. “We had to adjust it. Running a three-car train seemed like that steerability was the best thing we could do. We started shuffling weight around and ultimately what happened with that steerability is that the train got too squirrelly once we mixed up the weight. So the steerability actually ended up hurting us. This ride really has a narrow band of envelopes that have to work: the speed has to be right and the weight has to be right, otherwise it gets out of control. So the steerability was one of those variables that worked great under certain conditions but it didn’t work right under a wide enough array of conditions. So we threw it out. We finally decided on a typical articulated axle with four wheels on the front and four wheels on the back.” Originally, the park wanted to run five-car trains like some of the old Flying Turns. “We tested a five-car train with various speeds and such but this is a radical layout, the five-car configuration worked only when all conditions were perfect. When all the cars had the same weight, the wheels had the same lubrications … but that’s not the real world,” stressed Boodley. “We’ll be seating people with different weight and we had to come up with a train that worked with all possible variables. We tried a four-car train with various scenarios, but that just didn’t consistently track the way we wanted it to.

“Bottom line: there’s nothing to influence this ride other than the natural physics of our world. The three-car train has the ability, should it get imbalanced or out of synch for some reason, to stabilize back into synch once it goes through a horseshoe turn. The three-car train was the answer and we decided not to push the limit.”

In addition to solving many of the train issues, Boodley elected to change some aspects of the structure itself. “The trough was revised in two areas. Again, there’s no guidance on this ride so there’s a timing issue,” he explained. “The beginning of the run wasn’t timed right so I had to redesign the second curve into the third curve. We also did some alterations to the third curve. The end of the ride had some changes in elevation that I chose to eliminate. We also rearranged the lifts, which allowed us to put in a big transfer track/work area. The original design had a planned work area but it could not really accommodate the trains like we wanted it to. To make that work, we altered the third lift.”

Open for business

After a protracted period of construction, revisions and tweaking, the world’s only Flying Turns wooden bobsled finally received approval from Pennsylvania state inspectors in the early fall of 2013. During a special preview on the evening of October 4, Dick Knoebel welcomed invited guests and thanked all those who had been a part of this epic project.

“This is a momentous occasion,” said Knoebel from his perch in the ride’s station during the preview event. “It’s taken us seven years or more in getting this accomplished. There are a few people who need special recognition. John Fetterman came to my brother and me and proposed the idea of recreating a Flying Turns back in the fall of 2005. And here we are. It has not been easy. Fetterman started this project. He designed the track layout, all the superstructure along with Bill Kelly of Dynamic Designs in California. We got along so far but it wouldn’t have been without the assistance of Jim Martini, and Mike Boodley’s intervention in it. Many times we had to encourage Mike to stick with it. He did and today I can say, ‘We’ve done it.’

“Accolades go to many more than just the names I’ve mentioned. Lenny Adams of Structural Technologies built the superstructure. Clair Hain’s Great Coasters International built our transfer track and maintenance work area. We had great cooperation from Larson International and Ash- Tech [Ashland Technologies]. It has just taken everybody including our staff. Everybody has worked hard on this, and we think you’re gonna like the result. I only wish my wife was here to see this. But with that being said, I’m sure she’s with us.”

Dick then turned to Will Morey, chairman of IAAPA, who had flown up from Wildwood, N.J., to be there for the big event. “When I think of the words persistence, perseverance and determination … and heart, there’s a face that comes to mind,” said Morey with a nod to Dick Knoebel. “This obviously took a lot of resources. This is a project that was at the heart of the industry. The creativity, energy and the effort that went into this by Dick and his family and staff and all the others mentioned … I just have to say that IAAPA is so proud of what you all have done. Well, well done!”

Dick then instructed Jim Martini and Mike Boodley to open the gates. And with REO Speedwagon’s freedom anthem “Time for me to Fly” Knoebels’ Flying Turns finally took to the skies.

Flying the Turns

Standing five-stories tall with a 1,300-foot-long course, the Flying Turns debuted with a trio of three-car trains that seat up to six guests each. Capacity will be increased with the delivery of a fourth train in time for the 2014 season.

The ride experience begins with potential riders arriving at the boarding platform and being weighed with inboard livestock scales that display the weight only to a computer. An attendant assigns them to one of three positions in the three-car train with the heaviest (not exceeding 400 pounds total with one or two people) being placed in the lead vehicle. Riders sit in-line (log flume-style) on the padded floor of the cars. A single seat belt restrains both riders. Once the home brakes are lowered, the train rolls out of the station and onto Lift 1. The following descending spiral, which serves to acquaint riders with the trackless nature of the Flying Turns, culminates in an energetic speed bump that deposits the train onto Lift 2. After attaining a height just over 50 feet above the midway, the train slips off the chain and instantly begins its wall-climbing acrobatics. First-time riders are understandably impressed at how quickly the ride gets up to speed. The incredibly fast changes of direction are surprising yet are accomplished with a phenomenal fluidity. Positive Gs and centrifugal force collide in an entertaining mix that can only be labeled as pure unadulterated fun. After completing a two-layer figure- 8 and an extended S-turn, the train whips through one final curve and into the catch, a critical device that funnels the train to the center of the trough so it lines up for a trip through the transfer track/maintenance shed. A swooping 45-degree turn leads to Lift 3, which returns the train to the loading platform.

Technically speaking, the ride is a marvel of engineering and American ingenuity. The designers had to devise a coaster system that hadn’t been attempted since the first half of the 20th century. And they had to create it completely from scratch as well as make sure it conformed to today’s strict industry safety standards.

To accomplish this extraordinary feat, they outfitted it with a number of unique safety features, which are necessary due to the fact that, for the most part, the ride vehicles are basically freewheeling along the course like an actual bobsled. Unlike, most modern roller coasters that feature multiple sets of wheels that keep trains fully locked to the track, the Flying Turns is a much different animal. These designers had to account for this by building into the ride, especially the trains, a staggering number of redundant and overlapping safety systems.

The Flying Turns uses an Allen-Bradley control system that was programmed by Ed Ayan and Jim Martini. This system works in concert with a Bosch multi-screen video system to oversee all aspects of the ride during operation. A total of 42 cameras, strategically placed around the ride, track the trains at all times and monitor the trough in case something should fall in that could potentially impede the train’s momentum.

The trains themselves were manufactured and constructed by Larson International and Ashland Technologies utilizing urethane wheels provided by the Uremet Corp.


This Flying Turns re-creation was never intended to be a knock-your-socks-off thrill ride. Knoebels has plenty of those. Compared to the early Flying Turns, which sported only the most rudimentary of safety features, Knoebels’ version is a phenomenal achievement. Those who created it took as long as was necessary because they were determined to produce an attraction that was entertaining, reliable and, above all else, completely safe.

The experience itself is absolutely unique, especially when measured against the steel models produced by Intamin and Mack. Unlike those, Knoebels’ wooden version is far more compact, which results in a ride that playfully toys with one’s equilibrium from beginning to end. Surprisingly, the three-car trains are virtually silent as they traverse the wooden trough, gracefully swooping through the turns with ease. In fact, the only real sound is that of delighted riders. Instead of screams of terror, the Flying Turns elicits from its passengers spontaneous bouts of laughter and uncontrolled giggles. When the train completes the final curve and slithers into the brake run, applause and smiles are the result.

Virtually everyone at Knoebels wears a variety of hats and works in multiple capacities. From the beginning, park employees Ron Berkheiser, Jim Brophy and Jim Martini were very involved with the Flying Turns. AT spoke with Martini, who found himself in a position that equated to project manager, about how he feels at the end of this journey. “I have ridden the Turns many times in its various forms and it’s a ride that will never get boring,” he said. “It’s such a different experience. I’ll go walk in the queue line and talk with people I’ve never met, answering questions about the ride and such. Then I deliberately stand on the exit side of the platform and wait for them after they’ve ridden to get their feedback. I already know it’s a great ride but to hear that from our guests, that they completely enjoyed it and found it to be unlike anything they’d ever done. That really makes all we went through over the last few years totally worth it. I am so pleased with what we’ve created here.

“I stand here and look at the Flying Turns. Then just to the right, we have the Allen Herschell Looper and then the Flying Scooter, and I realize just how much amusement industry history Knoebels has. Yes, the Turns fits in just fine.”

It has been a long strange trip …

With the 2013 season now wrapped up, Dick Knoebel finally had time to take a breath and reflect on what it means to have one of his career’s most challenging and ultimately rewarding projects successfully completed. “It has pleased me to no end to have Flying Turns up and running. It would hurt me to hear people pass by and wonder why we hadn’t given up and just demolished it,” he said. “But I always had the faith that our talented team would accomplish what some said could not be done, like when they told me I couldn’t move a wooden coaster. And our team did it! It brings joy to my heart hearing all the wonderful and superlative comments from the riders. Not for my personal satisfaction but to know what we have done pleases our guests.”

The Knoebel family and its dedicated staff and all the contractors and artists should be commended for recreating this shining example of amusement industry history. Long may it fly!


This article first appeared in the November 2013, issue of Amusement Today, and is reproduced here courtesy of Amusement Today.

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