Coaster Kingdom


Air, Alton Towers

Even before the fables of Icarus, man has had an aspiration to fly. Even today, over 100 years since the Wright Brothers flew the first powered aircraft, mankind have been trying to get closer and closer to the sensation of free flight, and coaster manufacturers have been quick to carry the gauntlet and take on the challenge themselves.

Flick through any park brochures from the last twenty-or-so years and you’ll see parks trying to convince you that their newest coaster is the closest to flying yet; we’ve seen inverted coasters marketed in this way and even floorless looping coasters. But it was in 1997 that Fairpoint Engineering briefly debuted the World’s first flying coaster at Granada Studios Manchester, Skytrak.

It was evident that in the late 90’s, flying coasters were in their infancy. Even overlooking the low capacity, riders complained that the coaster was uncomfortable and so the ride closed and was subject to numerous alterations until it reopened briefly in 1998. Sadly, the problems continued, and Granada Studios chose to remove the doomed ride.

Meanwhile, rumours were a rife that Dutch manufacturer Vekoma were working on refining the idea of the flying coaster, and successfully debuted the second “World’s first flying coaster” [cough], Stealth, at Paramount’s Great America. On Stealth, riders would load sit in a ‘conventional’ train before the seats would tilt back before the train climbs to the top of a lift hill and performs a 180-degree mid-air roll, effortlessly manoeuvring riders into the prone flying position.

Whilst all this was going on, Alton Towers were touting Nemesis as a new and unique experience and wondering how they could ever better the angst-ridden Swiss monster. We’ll find out eventually how they never could, but in the meantime the park frog-hopped Air with Oblivion before then working with the Swiss duo Bolliger and Mabillard to create Europe’s first flying coaster, Air.

Following on from what appeared to be the disastrous own goal in terms of marketing, Oblivion, Alton Towers were fairly open in admitting that Air, a ‘new generation flying coaster’ would be opening in 2002.

Even before construction started, the internet fraternity offered comic relief in the form of idle speculation and pre-emptive criticism, before a rather hastily finished ride was unveiled to the public.

As workmen were painting fences and groundsmen laying turf, ride engineers were busy working on the rides’ teething problems, of which there were many. If I had a pound for every time a ghostly female voice announced the now infamous words “Air is experiencing technical problems”, I’d be typing this review from an island in the Caribbean.

The first glimpse you catch of Air is from the park Monorail from the car park, specifically the picket fence queue line which climbs over a hill almost to show itself off to incoming visitors on the Monorail. Whether deliberate or accidental, this is a strange choice of design.

In what many people have also criticised as being another design faux pas, the easy on the eye pastel green track interrupts the gritty and coarse atmosphere set by Nemesis. Hidden away, Nemesis is easy to forget about once in Air’s vicinity, but it’s easy to frown upon Air’s slender mint-green curves reaching high over the rusty spirals of Nemesis.

It seems ironic that I have commented before on the complexity of Nemesis’ theme, where-as Air opts for the opposite extremity overlaying the ride with a ‘style’ as opposed to a theme, composing principally of sweeping brushed aluminium curves contrasting with rocky sandstone outcrops.

Those unsure whether Air is for them will squirm at the thought of having to walk under the aerial acrobatics of the ride’s opening sequence en-route to the entrance. It seems strange to think that a ride that should, by default, be more intimidating than Forbidden Valley’s other B&M, is marketed as the logical step to take before you take on the mighty Nemesis. In fact, the onus falls completely on the chill-out musak (think French band, Air), pastel shades and soft roar of the train swooping through generally ground-hugging, sometimes sky-scraping track to reassure you that this is no Nemesis with a scary riding position.

Alton Towers seem too have neglected good queue design with the advent of Virtual Queuing. Air’s queue is memorable, but rarely for any good reasons. The long and exposed queue climbs up and over a grassy hill before sloping down towards the semi-subterranean station. After two seasons, Air’s reliability is still hardly something you can depend on, so expect ambiguous recorded announcements announcing that Air has broken down. Rinse and repeat until you get to the station.

The queue splits towards the end with the right side being far shorter than the left which actually bridges the track. A long front seat queue is available, but of course remember the only obstruction to your line of sight whilst on the ride is the view of the row in fronts’ shoes in your peripheral vision. We recommend the back of the train.

Waiting behind the ‘Air Gate’, you become familiar with the effortless routine of loading the train. Sitting on the typically comfortable seat, a lapbar (supported in the same way as an overhead restraint) is pulled down. Underneath the two enlarged grab bars running the length of your chest is a tough rubber vest which will comfortably support your weight throughout the flight. When this is pulled down, small padded flaps will restrain your legs so that you can comfortably relax without having to hold on.

Waiting for the train to dispatch, you do feel strangely isolated due to the row in front completely blocking your view ahead. As such, the only indication prior to your departure is when a ghostly voice whispers ‘Prepare for Air’ as the station is bathed in a neon blue glow and the train scoops you into the horizontal position before the softly spoken whispers “Now fly” as the train smoothly leaves the station.

Now that you’re ‘flying’, I’d say it’s fairly important to at least make the sensation of flying worthwhile from the outset. Sadly, Alton Towers simply do not rise to the challenge. The tunnel that you slowly advance through to get to the lift is completely barren, and instead of continuing the style so far set by the ride, it instead offers puddles of oil, sand and grime for you to stare in wonderment at.

One of the advantages of B&M’s flying coasters over Vekoma’s is that you climb the lift hill face down. On Air, the ground dramatically drops away as you climb over the final turn of Nemesis giving a rather intimidating sensation of height.

The train curls over the top of the lift, dipping between a number of trees, sweeping through an upward 180-degree bend before swooping into a straight downwards drop. Only moments before your knuckles start scraping the lush green grass below, you pull away climbing up over the pathway below before rolling over onto your back. The ride becomes fairly intense as you drop headfirst on your back into a sweeping curve that encircles the whole entrance plaza.

Passing behind the entrance to the ride, you roll belly down again before dipping towards the ground below, squeezing under the pathway above, curling around into a clockwise helix which follows this same path before the ground again drops away and you roll into an inline twist past the station.

Unruffled from this, the train makes a beeline for the maintenance building, before you swoop first up, then groundwards before pitching to the side and coiling through a final helix, squeezing past several standing stones before smoothly stopping on the final brakes.

Air blows hot and cold. At moments, Air is inspirational - at others, it’s just forgettable.

Let me start the synopsis by highlighting a problem, on its own small, but forming part and parcel of a larger problem at Alton Towers. From 1992, Tussauds were keen to flex their theming muscles adding areas like Katanga Canyon, X-Sector, Forbidden Valley and Land of Make Believe. Since then, established areas have been ruined by what appear to be creative whims that don’t really work.

The style on its own probably won’t leave visitors slack-jawed, but it works. But tagging on the end of Forbidden Valley, you can’t help but think that the theme does make a mockery of the overly lavish, post-apocalyptic theme heaped onto Nemesis. To address those who will say that it isn’t as if visitors will care, well yes, you’re right, which is why it seems strange that so much time and effort was spent on Nemesis’ theming, only to have Air intrude upon it eight years on.

The station shows what can be done with a little originality. The façade is modern, sharp and eye catching, although the name for the shop above, “Air Shop” hardly pushes the boundaries of originality.

Inside the station, small and creative touches abound. The whispering woman (“now fly...”) and the blue lighting at least give the impression that someone with a bit of finesse has been behind the drawing board. The tunnel, however, quashes this reassurance. Whilst it’s a bit much expecting a fly-through London Planetarium in terms of special effects, the fact that a well lit tunnel should sport less décor than a multi-story car park is disappointing at best.

The grass is greener at the other end of the lift hill. The first drop really sells the idea of the flying coaster to even the most staunch of sceptics, falling towards the ground, soaring back skywards at the very last minute.

Circumferencing the main entranceway to Air on your back is really misplaced on Air. Firstly, you’re not flying and you’re not flying for a fair while (it’s a flying coaster, remember). And secondly, it is overly intense for a ride that is, well, wishy-washy. I’ve got no problem about the ride being fairly mundane – the ride is about flying, after all. But the stretch on your back does come across as being better suited to a hardcore thrill ride than the more passive thrills that Air offers.

Soon after, fortunately the ride finds its footing again, ducking beneath the pathway and following the contours of the ground up into a helix above the pathway. Alone, the helix only really serves the purpose to point the train in the right direction, but the height above the pathway below that you follow is an inspired touch, passing almost close enough to high-five passers-by.

The inline twist past the station is fun, smooth but not as effective as an inline when sat down, adequately fulfilling the role of a flyby past the gallery on the left side of the Air Shop.

Having regained much of it’s lost dignity after the session on yer back (quit sniggering back there), Air falls apart quicker than a cheap suit. Setting itself up for the grand finale, your ‘aircraft’ makes a beeline for the forest green tin roof of the maintenance building. Sadly, the architecture of this building most certainly won’t have Sir Norman Foster looking over his shoulder. Now, my friends, not only does our 28-seat train go over this eyesore, but it infact elects to follow almost the entire length of this building.

Once we pull out from this dark cloud, we’re coming into our final approach. The finale is excellent, consisting of a subtle bunnyhop into an anti-clockwise helix which really makes full use of the flying sensation before you pull into the brakes, slowly flying over one of the wonders of the world, “The Seven Stripes of Spit” where bored teens decide to leave their mark via the medium of flem.

Having acutely lambasted Air, I genuinely believe that Air is a pretty good ride ruined by a catalogue of problems, small and large.

Air is a novelty coaster. It’s fun, unique, yada yada yada, but sooner or later that novelty will wear off and so it is up to the layout to hold your attention. Nemesis is most certainly up to the challenge, for example, using a powerful and unrelenting layout to blow your mind. Once you look through the thin veil of flying, Air really doesn’t offer all that much. It’s all very nice and everything, but will always play second fiddle to Nemesis and maybe even Oblivion which obviously doesn’t bode too well for a new ride, and one of the parks’ biggest coasters.

Another complaint, owing to the novelty value of Air is the reliability. It seems to have become an annoying habit of late that a coasters’ novelty value should take precedence over substance. So long as it looks good on the front of a park leaflet, who cares about longevity or reliability? Well, the poor sods stuck in the queue, that’s who. Whilst it’s fair to say Air has grown out of the sustained periods of downtime when it first opened, the ride is still far, far too unreliable.

Air is well presented, coming across as chic, modern and contemporary. The ride has a sharp colour scheme and a near-consistent style, but it still comes across like John Travolta would have if he wore odd socks in Saturday Night Fever. This is to say, everything seems so polished and well presented apart from two notable clangers, both of which are noticeable to all but the blind; the tunnel on the approach to the lift not only is non-descript, but it’s ugly too. And the maintenance warehouse is a spot on an otherwise pretty face.

Let’s briefly digress and reflect why Air came to be. Alton Towers felt that there was a niche at the park that needed to be filled. Nemesis was the subject of exclamation and people were turned off by the proposition of being subjected to tight turns and unrelenting speed. Yeah, I pity them too.

And so Air was designed as – and I kid you not, an “emotional experience”. An ‘emotional experience’? Well: “People will look at this new ride and will want to do it” says Liz Greenwood from Magic HQ.

Whilst the ride Air delivers is most certainly befitting of this brief, Air most certainly barks louder than it bites. I’m sure that the Runaway Train, Black Hole* and Corkscrew are for more suited to this role, all offering a better bark-to-bite ratio than Air.

[* Black Hole is enclosed, perhaps disqualifying it from this particular comparison due to people not knowing what’s inside]

In other words, even with pastel shades and chill-out music, Air has a lot of presence compared to the ride it delivers. I’d be surprised if people seriously look at the ride and think it is THAT far behind Nemesis in terms of thrills, but yes, it is.

In a way, Nemesis has set expectations for the parks’ next coaster so high, it appears they’re really tip-toeing around the subject of trying to outdo what is still – ten years on – the parks’ main workhorse. Prudent indeed, but a ride that is as big as Nemesis, deliberately tamed down relying upon novelty value doesn’t really do the trick now, let alone in ten years time.

Bolliger and Mabillard are often criticised for the ‘samey’ nature of their coasters, but Alton Towers have three B&M coasters now, each having an individual character. Air is not breathtaking, nor will it blow you away. Whilst it was never supposed to leave you breathless in the same way as Nemesis, everything that is good about it is all very pleasant, but everything that is bad just ebbs away at what could have been a wonderful ride.

MS 11 July 2004

Good points:

A good ride to start on if you're unsure about larger coasters
Very smooth
Trains are fairly comfortable considering you're in flying position

Bad points:

Patchy (and sometimes non-existent) theming
Looks like it will deliver more than it does
▪ The style clashes with Nemesis
It is still unreliable



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