Home » BLAST OFF: The Thrilling History of Launched Roller Coasters

    BLAST OFF: The Thrilling History of Launched Roller Coasters


    Roller coasters have long been synonymous with adrenaline-pumping thrills and heart-stopping excitement. For nearly the last 50 years, launched roller coasters have offered the ability to thrill coaster riders with intense acceleration and unparalleled speed in ways, unlike any traditional coaster. Let’s delve into the captivating history of launched roller coasters, tracing their evolution from humble beginnings to the cutting-edge marvels of modern engineering.

    The First Launch Coasters

    The beginning of the launch coaster dates to 1977 when two well-known coaster manufacturers developed the first launch coasters. The first manufacturer, Schwarzkopf, developed a shuttle launch coaster that utilized a counterweight launch system. This system used a large weight that would be dropped, and the cable connected to this weight would essentially catapult the coaster train along the track.

    The first installation of this type of coaster was King Kobra at Kings Dominion, and the launch propelled the train at a speed of just over 50 mph. This was the first traditional shuttle loop model where the train would be launched through a single loop and up an incline before falling back down and completing the course in reverse. While this launch technology isn’t widely used today, the original Shuttle loop coaster formerly known as King Kobra still operates as Katapul at Hopi Hari in Brazil.

    Image: Hopi Hari

    Arrow Dynamics developed its own launch coaster in 1977. This coater is like the shuttle loop model that Schwarzkopf had developed; however, it utilizes an electric winch motor system that pushes the trains from an elevated platform and down a hill. The drop allows gravity to help drive the train through a single loop and up a hill to a second platform. The same process is then completed in reverse. Unlike the Schwarzkopf model, this Arrow launched loop model requires the help of gravity to get the trains through the course. Only 3 installations of this coaster model are still operating today including Sidewinder at Elitch Gardens in Colorado.

    Image: Elitch Gardens

    Schwarzkopf continued to be a leader in the development of launch technology. Shortly after the development of its counterweight launch, the company developed a flywheel launch. In this type of launch, a wheel is spun at a very high speed and is attached to a cable that forces the coaster train along the track. This new technology would be used to debut a new type of shuttle loop starting off with MonteZOOMa’s Revenge at Knott’s Berry Farm in 1978. This new model launched riders from 0 to 55 mph in a matter of seconds reaching slightly higher speeds than the prior systems. Though it is currently closed for a massive refurbishment, MonteZOOMa’s Revenge is the oldest shuttle loop coaster in its original location.

    Montezoomas Revenge
    Image: Knott’s Berry Farm

    Schwarzkopf was not finished trying to improve the roller coaster launch. In 1982 the manufacturer developed a coaster called Wiener Looping for the park Prater in Vienna, Austria. It currently operates at Selva Mágica in Mexico as Bullet. This model of shuttle coaster utilizes a friction tire launch where pairs of tires are spun in opposite directions while a fin on the train is pushed between the tires. Many other coasters would utilize friction tire technology for years to come. One notable use of this type of launch is The Incredible Hulk Coaster at Islands of Adventure.

    Image: Selva Magica

    Unfortunately, after the development of Wiener Looping, no new launch coasters would be constructed for over a decade. Space Mountain: From the Earth to the Moon (now named Star Wars: Hyperspace Mountain) opened as the first full circuit coaster to feature a launch at Disneyland Paris (then Euro Disneyland) opened in 1995. It utilizes flywheel technology. However, as the new millennium approached, coaster launch technology would improve and advance significantly.

    Then came the introduction of the Electromagnetic Launch System…

    The Introduction of Electromagnetic Launch Systems

    The late 20th century witnessed another leap forward in launched roller coaster technology with the advent of electromagnetic launch systems. Utilizing powerful electromagnetic fields, these coasters deliver faster acceleration and increased control and efficiency. They require fewer “moving parts” and therefore wear and tear is decreased. These launch systems employ electromagnetic fields and magnets to propel the coaster trains along the track. There are two types of electromagnetic launch systems: linear induction motors and linear synchronous motors.

    Linear induction motors or LIM were first introduced as a coaster launch mechanism in 1996 with the construction of Flight of Fear (formerly The Outer Limits: Flight of Fear) at both Kings Island and Kings Dominion. This was the first use of this technology to launch coasters, but LIM was actually used in other theme park attractions such as the Tomorrowland Transit Authority People Mover at Walt Disney World. The Flight of Fear coasters were the first roller coasters to feature LIM technology and sent riders blasting off from 0-54 miles per hour in only 4 seconds. Both coasters are still operating today.

    Flight of Fear
    Image: Kings Dominion

    Linear synchronous motors or LSM were introduced only a year after the first LIM coasters by popular coaster manufacturer Intamin. Intamin created Tower of Terror and Superman: Escape From Krypton (formerly Superman: The Escape). While the layout is simple, these powerhouse coasters launched riders to a speed of over 100 miles per hour, and they were the fastest and tallest roller coasters in the world at the time. LSM launches became extremely popular among many coaster manufacturers, but the desire to create a more powerful and faster launch system continued. 

    Superman Escape From Krypton
    Image: Six Flags

    Adding More Power With Pneumatic and Hydraulic Launch Systems

    In the early 2000s, manufacturer S&S turned to pneumatic launch systems. Pneumatic coasters use compressed air to generate remarkable acceleration. The technology is very similar to launch towers, except the vehicles are propelled another the track rather than up a tower.

    The first pneumatic launch coaster was Hypersonic XLC at Kings Dominion. This coaster sent riders flying from 0-80 miles per hour in under two seconds. A second coaster of this model was built at Fuji-Q Highland in Japan. Do-Dodonpa exceeded Hypersonic XLC’s prior statistics with a 0-112 mph launch in under 2 seconds. This led to it becoming the fastest coaster in the world. While Hypersonic XLC closed only 6 years after opening, Do-Dodonpa had remained open until 2021 but is listed as “currently suspended”. The coaster had been considered to have the fastest acceleration of any coaster.

    Do Dodonpa
    Image: Fuji-Q Highland

    In the pursuit of even greater speeds, Intamin developed a new launch technology that would be used to create the tallest and fastest coasters in the world. These new mechanisms known as hydraulic launch systems employed pressurized fluid to generate immense force, propelling roller coasters to breathtaking speeds. The first hydraulic launch coaster would open in 2002 as Xcelerator at Knott’s Berry Farm. Xcelerator launched riders to a speed of just over 80 miles per hour. Although this coaster didn’t break the speed record set by Do-Dodonpa, it laid the groundwork for one of the most infamous record-breaking coasters, Top Thrill Dragster.

    Top Thrill Dragster
    Image: Intamin

    Top Thrill Dragster was the first strata coaster and launched riders to a speed of 120 miles per hour in only four seconds. Additionally, the coaster broke the height record at over 400 feet. Intamin would build their second strata coaster two years later and it would break both the height and speed records set by Top Thrill Dragster. Kingda Ka remains the tallest roller coaster in the world. However, the speed record was taken by another hydraulic launch coaster in 2010.

    Also manufactured by Intamin, Formula Rossa at Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi holds the title of fastest roller coaster in the world at 149 miles per hour. Riders are even instructed to wear safety glasses to protect their eyes from dust during the ride. Unlike its strata coaster predecessors, Formula Rossa includes several airtime hills and banked turns. Unfortunately, hydraulic and pneumatic launch systems, while powerful, encounter significant downtime and require very specific conditions to operate properly. The unreliability of these launch systems led the focus to shift back toward electromagnetic launches.

    Formula Rossa
    Image: Ferrari World

    The Future of Launch Coasters

    The opening of Maverick at Cedar Point in 2007 ushered in a new era for electromagnetic launches and many coasters of the last decade have utilized electromagnetic launch technology. In fact, it is almost more common for new coasters to feature some type of launch than to not feature them in recent years. From Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind at Walt Disney World to DarKoaster at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, we are seeing electromagnetic launch technology utilized in thrilling and innovative ways.

    Construction is well underway on the recently announced Top Thrill 2, the world’s tallest and fastest triple-launch coaster which all roller coaster fans eagerly await and is coming to Cedar Point in 2024.

    Image: Cedar Point

    The evolution of launched roller coasters has been a journey driven by the desire to push the boundaries of speed, excitement, and intensity. From catapult mechanisms to groundbreaking electromagnetic technology, these coasters continue to captivate and delight coaster enthusiasts worldwide. As technology advances, we can only imagine the tremendous experiences that lie ahead for launched roller coasters. So, strap in, hold on tight, and brace yourself for the future of adrenaline-fueled thrills.