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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
blows hot and cold. At moments, Air is inspirational - at others, it’s
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
11 July 2004
A good ride to start
on if you're unsure about larger coasters
Trains are fairly
comfortable considering you're in flying position
Patchy (and sometimes
Looks like it will
deliver more than it does
▪ The style clashes with
▪ It is still unreliable