by Jay Ducharme

During my second season in 1981, park supervisor Roger Fortin gave me the opportunity to run the Satellite. That had always been one of my favorite rides. It sat in a circular elevated area between the Mountain Flyer roller coaster and the Sky Ride. The ride was made by a German company, Klaus. Roger told me that the lower part of the ride was fabricated from a discarded Sherman tank.

The ride consisted of a column about twenty feet high and four feet wide, capped by a giant wire mesh globe, that was tipped and off-center. (In later years, the globe's welds began to break and it was removed, leaving an odd C-shaped support.) The base of the column (the tank portion) widened into a cone that was about 10 feet wide at its base. The bottom of the cone was ringed with a large rack. The teeth of the rack meshed with a pinion attached to a powerful motor on the far side of the ride. Surrounding the column was a ring that was suspended by steel pipes from the cap at the top of the column, on which the globe was mounted. The ring was in two pieces and was a large bearing. The inner section rode on a track that ran up the side of the column. From the ring hung eighteen air tanks with pistons. Each piston was attached to a long steel arm that radiated outward about twenty feet, angling slightly downward and hinged at the ring. At the end of the arm was attached a rocket ship, complete with a headlight, wings lit from behind in bright red, and a tail fin.

Each ship had sort of a steering wheel, a U-shaped steel handle in the center. The ships seated two people on hard plywood seats that were padded with red leather. You sat with your legs in the nose of the ship. Pulling down on the handle put air into the ship's tank, which pushed on the piston and raised the ship's arm. The ship would keep rising until a plate on the end of the arm pressed against a valve on the tank and released the air pressure. That deafening sound was the reason a lot of people hated running the ride. The ship would pivot slightly on the arm so that it would keep a fairly level position. At its highest, the ship would be about twenty feet off the ground. The ships were painted a sort of cream color, with pastel reds, blues and greens for the wings and tails. The center column was baby blue and the base was red.

So far it was like a typical rocket ship ride from the 1950s, similar to Disney's Dumbo ride. But what set this ride apart was that the center column could also rise on air pressure. The ring of air tanks had two long steel posts coming off it. They were "hinged" to the footers at the front of the ride. When air was injected into the column, the cap would begin rising on a gigantic piston. Since the ring was hinged, instead of rising straight up the entire ride would begin tipping on its side, sending the ships circling at about a 30-degree angle. At the far end of the ride, the ships would soar about 30 feet into the air, but at the near end they would almost touch the ground. There were no seat belts on the ride. With the heavy centrifugal force and the angle of the ships, the ride experience was really scary. It always felt as if you'd go flying out. To add to that, when the ship reached its maximum height and the valve released, the ship would jerk up and down violently, as if it had hit a speed bump. Because of the ride's placement, at the highest point you could see not only the whole park but also the entire Pioneer Valley. White lights decorated the length of the ships' arms. Night rides were truly stunning.

The ride was encircled by a three-foot wall made up of the colorful pastel bricks that were common throughout the park. A short green chain-link fence sat on top of the wall. Rose bushes and vines intertwined with the fence. The ships floated above an asphalt "runway" surrounded by greenery. Above the entrance was a large sign created by Dominic Spadola that had a 3-D rocket ship on the right and an 1960s-style astronaut on the left. The sign was painted blue-green and yellow.

The operator sat on a bench beside the entryway. There were three controls: a large horizontal steel wheel with a handle sticking up from its edge, and two handles that looked like steel stick shifts. One had a black cap and the other had a red cap. When Roger taught me to run the ride, he focused on the theatricality of it. He would start by turning the wheel slightly. As the wheel turned, a "clunk" would sound as if a steel ball had dropped on a piece of metal. The wheel was ratcheted. It was a giant rheostat and controlled the rotational speed of the ride. Each clunk signaled a notch up in speed. Roger would slowly increase the speed. The riders in the ships were pulling down and pushing up on their steering wheels, trying to get their ship up in the air.

As Roger increased the speed to about half, he then pushed forward on the center stick shift and pulled it back. That sent a jet of air into the ships' tanks. Anyone who had been pulling down on their steering wheels at that point felt a delightful and scary jolt as their ship quickly shot up into the air a few feet and then fell back toward the ground, violently bouncing up and down as they spun (without hitting the ground of course). Roger would speed up the ride a bit more and then put a bit more air into the ships. They would go a bit higher and then bounce toward the ground again. Finally he'd get the ride up to full speed and put the air into the ships and leave it there. The riders could then control their own ships. After a minute, Roger would push the last handle forward, which filled the center column with air. The column would rise to its full height and touch a check valve, which would begin letting air out of the column. Roger would fill it one more time and then let the column settle back into its upright position.

He'd then briefly "deflate" the ships, and begin slowing the ride down. It would be the opposite of how the ride started, with the ships slowly bouncing to a stop. The sense that it created was that the ships were really taking off and landing. It made the ride really exciting. During the years I ran it I had a lot of fun with that aspect of the ride, building suspense and giving the riders the thrill of flight. I loved running rides where I had control of the experience, where I could make sure that the guests had a good time.After every ride was unloaded, I would walk around the perimeter inspecting the seats. Occasionally one or two would slide loose and I'd put them back into place. Sometimes people would leave articles behind and I'd put them aside. Often the bouncing motion would jar loose change from riders' pockets, and I'd leave at night with an unexpected bonus.

By the end of my first season, I was pretty comfortable running the ride. I was used to hearing kids complain that someone else's jet went higher than their's did. One busy day a kid got off of the ride and came running over to me. "My car wasn't doing anything, man! It wasn't goin' up and down or anything!" Not one to doubt the guests at that point (I would in later years), I figured that maybe the ship's control was broken. So I had the kid point out which jet it was. I turned on the power slowly and spun the ship over to the entrance. A crowd at was waiting to get on, held back by a chain. I told them I'd be just a minute. I pressed the center handle and put air into the ships' tanks. A lot of times, riders would get confused thinking that if they pulled the steering wheel up, the ship would rise. But it worked just the opposite. Even though the directions were clearly written in red on the inside of the ships, people got confused.

So I figured I'd walk up to the ship, touch the steering wheel and tap it down, then stand back. If it worked, the ship would harmlessly bounce up and down. But I didn't count on how far over the ship I'd have to lean to press the wheel. So I leaned into the ship, pushed down slightly and in an instant I was yanked up into the air. I immediately let go of the handle and figured the ship would just drop back to the ground. But it didn't. I was clinging to the chrome railing around the seating area. In a few seconds I was twenty feet off of the ground, hanging off the edge of the ship. I glanced down. The people waiting at the entrance were pointing up at me, ooohing and aaaahing as if I was a circus acrobat.

Strangely, the first thought that went through my mind was that if Roger caught me I'd be fired. I was quite thin in those days and fancied myself as fairly athletic. I remembered old episodes of The Wild Wild West, how Jim West could swing himself up onto an overhead beam while hanging precariously above an acid pit. So I tried to swing my legs over onto the ship's wing. I discovered that television did not always conform to reality. There was nothing for me to push against, and my legs just simply drifted helplessly from side to side. I could feel my grip on the railing begin to slip. In panic, I hoisted myself up enough to hook my arms around the railing. I tried in vain to grab the wheel, but my reach was just a few inches too short. I was sweaty, and even my arms were beginning to slip. I thought this was a really embarrassing and pointless way to die. And then I heard someone call out, "What do I do?"

It was the guy who worked the Tilt-a-Whirl across from me. He had been watching me for a few minutes, laughing himself silly before he decided to help. "Pull the black handle!" I shouted.

"What?" he asked, puzzled.

"The black handle! The one in the middle! Pull it back!" He grabbed the handle and gave it a yank. With a whoosh of air, the ship slowly returned to the pavement. I thanked him. My arms were shaking. He was still laughing.

"Man, that was one of the funniest things I've ever seen!"

I unhooked the chain to let people in. A man standing next to me quipped, "Heck, that was more entertaining than the ride!"

The rest of the day went without incident. I was much more skeptical of kids who claimed their ship wouldn't work. When I did decide to test one, I would actually get inside the ship before pulling the handle.

At night when the park had closed, I began covering up the ships with their protective canvas covers that were kept on the grass near the center of the ride. Roger came over to help me. He asked me how thing went. I told him fine, except for one incident. I explained what had happened. He smiled. "Well," he said, "I bet you'll never do that again!"

I ran that ride for much of my second year, and really enjoyed it. As time went on and I became the "break man," relieving other operators, I ran it less. And I was always saddened by the employees who couldn't understand the theatrics behind running it. They would just throw all the controls to full right at the start, and then shut everything down at the end. There wasn't nearly the amount of laughter from the guests as when I ran it.

When the park closed, nearby Whalom Park in Lunenburg bought the Satellite. They left behind the manual controls. When they reassembled it, the operator would press a single button. The column would fill with air as the ride groaned, trying to get up to speed quickly. All of the ships would go up in the air at once. Centrifugal force played a big part in evenly distributing the weight of that ride. Without that, the machinery began to wear quickly. Whalom Park called Roger to help them troubleshoot the problem. Roger told them what to do: bring back the manual controls. But the park refused.

Now both Whalom and the Satellite are history. There are still a couple of Klaus Satellite Jets operating. They're easily identified by their unique tilting central column and the deafening sound of air escaping from their tanks like the constant bleating of truck horns. If you come across one, give it a ride and try to imagine the beautiful view from that little park on the mountain.