Coaster Kingdom


Sir Hirim Maxim's Captive Flying Machines, Pleasure Beach Blackpool

Pleasure Beach Blackpool is, to say the least, an unusual park. Crammed into an area no bigger than most theme park car parks, visitors are met with the most incredible mass of rides from every era of the amusement industry. For over a century, the park has made it its business to combine the introduction of prestigious new rides like The Pepsi Max Big One, with the preservation of the classics of yesteryear. If you want proof, take a look at the northern end of the park and, sandwiched between 2000’s giant indoor flume ride, Valhalla, and the 1935 wooden Grand National, you’ll see the greatest treasure of all. The Sir Hiram Maxim Captive Flying Machines.

Despite the emergence of its new illustrious modern neighbours, the Flying Machine does not look remotely out of place. If anything, its gargantuan proportions make it look very much at home in a park that is never ashamed to go for the big and bold approach. Perched atop a group of shops, stalls, and arcades, a large oil-derrick like structure forms the hub of the ride, above which ten brightly coloured arms umbrella out, supported by a network of wires. Between these arms you’ll find the “Flying Machines” themselves, ten rocket shaped capsules each capable carrying eight riders. All in all, the ride is a sight to behold, and in many ways just as impressive as mountain of steel that is The Big One.  

For such a large and majestic ride, the entrance is very understated, buried away at the back of the ride between seafood stalls and arcade games, and facing towards the very different frontages of Valhalla and the classic Derby Racer carousel ride. The queue makes its way up the stairs to the main platform, where your tickets are collected or your wristband scanned to allow you through the turnstile. A quick peek into the control box will reveal that little has changed from the day the ride opened, and the ride is operated through a very old fashioned on-off switch. While other parks might have replaced the original controls with panels of flashing lights and beeping screens (or more likely, demolished the ride completely), everything here is just as it was on opening day. In fact the one and only acknowledgement of the 21st Century is the quiet beep of the turnstile as it scans the wristbands of those passing through.

Taking in the sea air, riders are left to their own devices to decide where they’re going to sit. More often than not, they are spoiled for choice, as the ride seats an astonishing eighty people, well above anything built in the modern era. In an age where many rides feature multiple restraints, it is quite a surprise to see that Pleasure Beach Blackpool still trusts its visitors enough to allow them to ride without anything to hold them in. Unfortunately, the sides of the planes are quite sharp and unfriendly, meaning that sprawling across a double seat becomes impossible for more than a few seconds.

The current fleet of aircraft are slightly kitsch space-shuttle like affairs, which until 2003 featured the legend “Pleasure Beach Airlines” on the side, and the tail numbers GT01 to GT10, in honour of Pleasure Beach Managing Director Geoffrey Thompson. Nowadays, the age of commercialism has caught up with the ride and it is now decked out with adverts for Ryanair. Strange to think that, back in 1904, the ride hinted at the distant fantasy of manned flight, whereas in 2004, it is used to advertise cheap package deals to Tenerife.  

Without warning, the machine will slowly and quietly come to life. At first, the side of the plane will drag along the edge of the platform, but soon the scraping sound will disappear and the planes will start to edge away from the platform. Gradually, you will find yourself getting higher and higher above the ground, swinging out over the rooftops of the nearby arcades and rides. By the time the machine reaches full speed, riders will no doubt be surprised at how high and how fast the ride seems.

The combination of the ride’s surprising speed and the exposed seating position means that you soon discover that the ride not only simulates flight, but also the sensation of being caught in a hurricane. One thing that is not to be recommended is riding the Flying Machine straight after Valhalla, as the cold wind will combine with your soaked clothes to give you an almost instant bout of pneumonia. In fact, it is surprising that the planes don’t suffer from turbulence, rather than flying around in perfect formation as they always do.  

As you feel the machine reach full power, you look around and realise just how far from the platform you are now travelling, and how far apart the cars have grown. Swinging out well above the crowds on the pavement below, you get a sense of how incredible the ride must have been back in 1904, when the idea of travelling through the air like this must have been quite mind-blowing.

Not that the ride is enjoyable only for its historical significance. Even today, there is a genuine exhilaration to the ride. At full flight, the sheer size of the circle your aircraft defines in the Blackpool sky, coupled with the power of the motor, and the strength of the wind, serves to make the ride seem quite awesomely powerful. It may not be a “thrill ride” in the normal sense, but it manages to generate a tremendous sense of excitement and wonder, quite unlike virtually any other ride in the world.  

As you carve your way through the sea air, it is difficult not to be impressed with the views. Almost of the Pleasure Beach’s major rides are visible during your flight, and it’s easy to imagine the changes that the ride has seen in its days. From towering above rides like the Bicycle Railway and the Jack and Jill Slide, to its current position among fellow grandees, the Derby Racer and Grand National, and the new generation of rides like The Big One, Ice Blast, and Valhalla. A ride on the Flying Machines is a perfect way to remind yourself of how grateful we should be to the Pleasure Beach for maintaining its balance of new and old rides.

As if you are being woken from a dream, you feel the motor begin to slow down, and your aircraft begins its decent. The slowing is very gradual, but eventually you find yourself nearing the platform, and as the car again begins to scrape along the edge, it’s time for you to return to the 21st Century. As you exit the ride, you head through the Maxim Emporium, where among the usual Pleasure Beach souvenirs, you’ll find a display of information about Sir Hiram Maxim, and a window through which you can see the original motor, complete with ornate paintwork, whirr into life as it makes the next group of riders airborne. As if to emphasise the ride’s history, the motor actually sits on the sand, harking back to the ride predates the promenade, and that in 1904 the Pleasure Beach literally was a group of rides built on the beach.

By far the best time to appreciate the Flying Machines is at night, particularly during the illumination season. Somehow, this adds a whole new dimension to the ride. The structure is elegantly decorated with lights along the wires, and makes an awesome sight when up to speed. Meanwhile, riders can look out onto everything that makes the Pleasure Beach what it is, and soak in the electric atmosphere of the park. Further afield, you’ll see the town alive with the prom, the piers, and the Tower lit up in the distance. It enables you to take a step back from the hustle and bustle of the crowds and appreciate what it is that makes Blackpool and the Pleasure Beach so indefinably special.

The Flying Machines is the very definition of a perfect family ride. Its ability to thrill without being intense means that every age group will find something to enjoy. Children will no doubt love the sensation of flying, and the ability to go on a large ride without being hindered by height restrictions. Parents will no doubt relish the sense of history that hits you from the moment you climb the steps to the entrance platform. Grandparents can enjoy a large ride manages to be both thrilling and smooth, and perhaps relive memories of riding it in their youth. There aren’t many rides in the world that can honestly boast of offering fun for absolutely everyone, but that’s exactly what you get from the Flying Machines.  

There is something quite humbling about the Flying Machines. The overwhelming sense of history is quite awesome, and generates a great sense of perspective. How many of today’s new rides will still be holding their heads up high after one hundred years of operation? How many parks would have the sense of tradition to maintain rides to the point where they are as good as new after an entire century, resisting the temptation to demolish it in favour of some new short-term money-spinner? Somehow, when you consider how long this monster of a machine has been in place, thrilling generation after generation, suddenly all your little worries and day-to-day grievances seem pitifully insignificant. Anything that can give you a sense of your place in the great scheme of things has to be worth preserving, and the Flying Machines does it brilliantly.  

It would be easy for thrill-seekers to dismiss the Flying Machines out of hand, but to do so would be to ignore a truly incredible ride. Even in a park that has as many treasures as the Pleasure Beach, the Flying Machines stands out as the jewel in the crown. It is a real piece of working history, and a great ride even after all these years. A tribute to the generations of people who have worked so hard to keep it in good condition, and to the millions who have climbed those steps and taken a flight through the Pleasure Beach’s airspace. As it begins its second century of operation, the Sir Hiram Maxim Captive Flying Machines remain a truly first-class way to fly.

JP 08 February 2004

Good points:

▪ A timeless classic
▪ Still a really exhilarating ride, even a century on
▪ 80 people per ride, and a long ride
▪ A good use of space - much of the area beneath is a shop/arcade

Bad points:

▪ The ride is now sponsored
▪ Seating is uncomfortable



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