The Mountain Flyer

The queen of Mountain Park's midway began life in 1929 at the Wildcat. It was built by the great Philadelphia Toboggan Company and was designed by my hero, Herb Schmeck. It was a simple out-and-back design, of average height and length for its time. It replaced a smaller wood coaster that had burned down, which in turn had replaced the park's first switchback railway. To sweeten the deal, PTC threw in a carousel (which still lives on today as The Holyoke Merry-Go-Round). PTC initially concessioned the ride. They paid a stipend to the park and in return operated and maintained the ride. One of the early operators of the Wildcat was John Allen, a PTC journeyman who would later be responsible for the wood coaster revival in the 1970s. Eventually, the PTC contract was ended and the park owned the ride.

When the Collins family bought Mountain Park in 1952, the station of the coaster was given a face lift. The ride was renamed The Mountain Flyer. A giant art deco tower was placed above the entrance. The coaster originally used a two-car PTC train. In 1963, that was replaced by two brand new three-car trains from National Amusement Device. Many enthusiasts consider those gleaming stainless steel works of art to be the most comfortable coaster trains ever built. Each train had three headlights, a big one in the center and two smaller ones above. They were powered by a battery onboard the train (under a seat, I think). The battery always had to be recharged, and it was a bit of a safety issue as well. So eventually the battery was removed. In all my years at the park, I never saw the train run with the headlights on. Before the park closed there was talk of finding a better way to light them up, but that never materialized.

At the beginning of the day when the employees arrived, Roger Fortin and his assistants would ask for volunteers to test the ride. The coaster had to have bodies in it early in the day (and especially when the park only operated on weekends) so that it had enough mass to make it up over the hills. So some of us would head over to the station and hop in. Roger would stand up in the front seat. He carried a bucket of liquid graphite and a small brush on a long handle. The ride operator would release the train out of the station. The train would curve around to the left 180 degrees and roll up to the lift hill. Roger would dip the brush into the bucket and spread the grey goop on the steel track rolling by in front of him. That would help reduce the friction between the steel wheels and the steel track. At the top of the lift, Roger would sit down. The train would plummet down the first drop, turn slightly left, fly over a little speed bump and the head up the second hill. Roger would immediately stand up and resume coating the track with graphite. The train would usually barely crest the top of the hill, and then inch its way down the next drop.

Often when the train reached the turnaround we would hear the clink-clink-clink of the ratchet dogs (which prevented the train from rolling backwards) get slower and slower...and then the train would stop. We would have to get out of the train - at about thirty feet up - and, standing on the thin catwalks, push the train forward until it began freely rolling again. Then we'd jump back into our seats. The turnaround was viscious. Roger had to rebuild it almost every year. The track dropped and turned left, and then bottomed out and shifted right. Passengers would fly over to the right of the train, and then slam to the left. There was tremendous stress on the track at that point, not to mention on the riders.

The return trip was a series of bunny hops back to the station, and the train would usually stall out again. Once back at the station, we'd take another trip and Roger would continue applying the graphite. As the air temperature heated up during the day and the graphite spread across the track, the train would run faster and faster.

The operation of the coaster was pretty straightforward. There were three large wooden handles sticking up about five feet through the station floor. Two of them were opposite the unloading platform; the other was opposite loading platform. They controlled the ride's skid brakes, two long thick sections of wood topped with steel that sat between the tracks. By pulling a handle, one section of skids would be pulled up. When the train hit the skids, it would lift up off the track and slide to a stop. When the skids got wet, though, there wasn't enough friction to stop five tons of train. That's why the coaster couldn't run in the rain. Even though there was a roof over the brake run, water would still spray onto the tracks. One set of skids was located at the beginning of the curving brake run. It ran all the way to the unloading platform. Its back section was controlled by the first handle at the unloading platform, and the front section was controlled by the other handle. The last set of skids held the train in place as guests boarded. The skids were on by default, but the force of the train was so great that unless someone applied pressure they wouldn't be effective. As the train came barrelling towards the station, the ride operator would walk over to the the first handle and pull it back hard. As the train hit the skids, the handle would jerk forward. The operator had to judge when the train lost enough of its momentum to release that handle and engage the second.

This was a crucial decision. If the operator waited too long, the train could bind up on the back skids and come to a dead halt. To extricate the train, the passengers would have to be unloaded, which involved manually releasing all the lap bar mechanisms and guiding the guests down the catwalk to the exit. Then a giant iron prybar would have to be placed between skids and the back of the train. With grunting and groaning and brute force, the train would have to be pried loose until it coasted down to the unloading area. But if the operator didn't hold onto the back set of skids long enough, the train could fly through the front set.

So once the train slowed down a bit, the operator would release the first handle and hold onto the next handle to raise the front part of the skids. The train would creep to the unloading platform. There were small metal arms sticking out of the track there. Those arms would trigger a release switch that allowed the lap bars to unlock. Once the train was empty and the platform clear, the operator would pull the handle in the opposite direction and let the train coast to the loading platform, where the small skid there would catch the train and stop it. The coasting, incidentally, was caused by the incline of the track, which was about five feet higher at the beginning of the brake run than it was at the station.

On busy days there could be three operators running the coaster: one manning the entrance, one at the station brake and the other at the back brakes. Since it was the most popular ride in the park (and cost the most tickets to ride), cycling people through quickly and efficiently was important.

In my second year at the park, Roger gave me a chance to work with someone on the coaster. I manned the entrance, taking tickets and filling the train. I was actually afraid of the responsiblility involved in braking the ride. It looked too complicated and risky. (Actually, the Ferris wheel was a much more complicated job.) To get to the entrance from the brakes, I had to jump across the track. But within another season, I was either running the coaster all day or running it as a break man. Often I would run it by myself. That was incredibly exhausting, but it made the days fly by quickly.

At the beginning of my shift, I would power up the lift hill, which had a big rheostat control similar to the Satellite. Once the lift was up to speed, I'd let the guests in. Many of them would head for the back of the train. Others would head to the front. When everyone was secured, I would send the train on its way. Then I'd walk over to the back brakes, where I had a clear view of the lift hill. I'd watch the train go all the way to the top. If anyone was monkeying around in the train, I'd stop the lift.

I'd stand at the brake run, waiting for the train to return (which usually took about a minute). I'd see it pop into view over the last hill and I'd pull hard on the brake handle. The first few times I got the train stuck there. But I quickly learned how to "feel" the right amount of pressure. Then I'd pull the second handle and slow the train to a stop. Once everyone was out of the train, I'd inspect the seats to see if anyone had left anything behind (like loose change). Then I'd let the train coast to the loading platform. This is where I had to keep an eye on the entrance, because kids would often try to jump the chain to get on the train before it was in place. I'd walk to the entrance, let the guests in (18 of them usually, although the seats could hold as many people as were comfortable). I wouldn't let younger children ride by themselves. Parents would often complain, saying, "He (or she) rides this all the time!" I'd get the same complaint if they were too short. We had a height guage at the entrance, but parents would still complain. It always amazed me how parents could be so cavalier about their child's safety.

As for the ride experience itself, I actually remember very little. I've heard many enthusiasts rave about the Mountain Flyer, but I wasn't a coaster enthusiast back then. I remember bouncing around in the seat. The ride had a sort of lurching or lunging motion to it. The train had no seat belts, and the lap bar was suspended at least three inches above my thighs. The giant camelback hills that were so photogenic didn't produce much air time, because the train lost most of its momentum by the time it crested them. On really hot humid days the train would pick up more speed, and the air time would become more apparent. The slamming turnaround was rightfully infamous. The return run should have been like Knoebel's Phoenix, but I can only remember just bouncing around, not floating out of my seat. I do remember that those NAD train seats were really comfortable and heavily padded. Occasionally, the top of a seat would shake loose and slide forward. They were simple padded pieces of plywood sitting on a frame. After the first drop, there were two camelback hills, the turnaround and then five bunny hops of varying sizes back to the station. The thing that always impressed me most about the Mountain Flyer was how little space it took up. It was shoehorned behind all the buildings at the edge of the park's property line. It occupied perhaps a thirty foot wide swath of land that ran the entire length of the midway. I liked how the turnaround of the Zephyr - the kiddie train - mirrored the Flyer's turn out of the station. When it was timed right, the two trains would pass each other in opposite directions. That always thrilled the little kids.

A colleague of mine, Tom Schieding, ran the Mountain Flyer for a season. He told me a story about a ride he sent off one busy Saturday. He watched the train head up the lift and then turned his attention to the ride's entrance. When he looked back at the lift, the train was just going down the first drop. And there was a man walking down the lift hill. He evidently had wriggled out of the train before it crested the top. Tom yelled up to him, "Hey! What do you think you're doing?" The man yelled back, "My momma didn't raise no fool!"

Jay Collins tried for a year to sell the coaster intact. It had a new motor, replaced two years before when the original caught fire. William Cobb, the reknowned coaster designer and builder, came to the park for a client who was interested and walked the track. He said the ride was well-maintained and in great shape. But a year came and went with no buyer. Arnold's Park in Iowa was renovating their own PTC coaster. They purchased all the guts of the Mountain Flyer: the trains, motor, chain, lift trough, anti-rollbacks, brakes. I watched as a crane loaded the beautiful trains onto trailers. All that remained of the ride was the structure. Jay tried to give that away. A few dubious characters expressed interest but never took any action. Liability became too great a concern. When I was watchman, I would catch kids climbing up the lift hill. They would rip the steel handrail posts off the structure and throw them through the roofs of the buildings below. So in 1990, Jay hired a local firm to tear the structure down. With bulldozers and backhoes, it took them two weeks to level it. The lift hill alone took two days; it wouldn't budge no matter how much they cut and pulled. The entire coaster was bulldozed into a heap where the turnaround once stood. That's when I realized what a tiny space the big coaster occupied. It was a very sad site, especially for Roger who spent so much of his life maintaining the ride.

Within a few short years, vegetation and trees overtook the area. Now, except for a few footers that were left behind, it's impossible to tell that the queen of the midway once ruled there.