An Up-and-Down Career

As chief engineer for Six Flags, Larry Chickola presides over the scariest, most exhilarating moments in millions of people's lives.

By Gary Drevitch, published May 1, 2018 - last reviewed on July 22, 2018

ON TOP OF THE WORLD: Larry Chickola on an inspection climb of Kingda Ka in New Jersey, the world's tallest roller coaster and North America's fastest.

Roller coasters may be terrifying to ride, but their engineers know precisely how much g-force they can throw at you, and just how to turn, spin, and even flip you without causing you to lose your enthusiasm (or lunch). Six Flags chief engineer Larry Chickola is responsible for maintaining those standards across 800 rides in 19 parks, including 140 steel roller coasters and 25 wooden ones, while pushing the envelope with virtual-reality experiences at 70 miles per hour. This season, he's helping to introduce CraZanity, the world's tallest pendulum ride, and the Mardi Gras Hangover, which takes riders completely upside down.

What's the first step in conceptualizing a new coaster?

A lot of choices: Where is this park? Who goes there? Is it primarily a thrill ride park or a family park? Each park has its own DNA. The next biggest consideration is that whatever it is, it needs to be new. Whether that means a very speedy ride or a very tall ride, someone needs to look at it and say, "Wow, I haven't seen that before; I gotta ride it."

How closely do you track a rider's experience on your coasters?

We've put instruments on riders and measured heart rate and oxygen saturation, and we've placed a GPS on them so we can track them when they're in line, in the station, in the lift, and on the coaster. The question we want to understand is, where is the biggest thrill? For a lot of people, the scariest thing is going up the lift: It's making that clacking noise, all you can think about is what's going to happen, and your heart is racing. For some people, the scariest part is the first drop. For others, the worst part is waiting. 

WILD KINGDOM: Kingda Ka is one of 800 rides under Chickola's purview nationwide.

How do you minimize motion sickness on today's rides?

If you have a ride where you spin people, it really helps to unspin them. Like, if you do five rotations clockwise, it really helps to minimize motion sickness if we wrap it up with five counterclockwise rotations. Your brain is sort of back to where it started. That helps people with a propensity for motion sickness. It also has a lot to do with the length of time you are going through wild gyrations. If you keep it under 30 or 40 seconds of hot action, it's rare for people to feel really bad.

How do you know how much you can push people on your rides?

We rely on the research—done with test pilots in the Navy since the 1970s—on g-forces and things like blood flow and consciousness. So we know what the limits are, and we stay away from them. That's outside the zone of fun. 

Is virtual reality going to replace the roller coaster?

I ask the same question. But what do coasters have that your home VR can never have? The g-forces and the wind in your face. The roller coaster is a real, physical experience, and virtual reality is not going to take its place. We'll see if the younger generation proves me wrong. 
 
Still, you've incorporated VR into some of your coasters.

It has pluses and minuses. We've matched the shape of the ride to a path in virtual reality, so when you're wearing the headset and you turn right in the ride, you turn right in the story: You could fly between a tight set of buildings, and Batman or Superman could fly by. It works pretty well; it puts you in a world you could never be in. We offered the option last year on multiple rides. Most people tried it once or twice and said, "That was great," but then went back to riding without it.

When roller coaster engineers get together, what do you talk about?

Safety. We all work together on standards for rides. While we're competitors and we wouldn't share anything about new rides before they're announced, we do share safety information. And we talk about our rides: Do kids like them? Do adults like them? Does anybody get sick? 

You're known as a very hands-on engineer, rappelling down the sides of giant coasters to inspect their nuts and bolts.

This is a fun job, but it's extremely serious. We're picking people up, taking their body through the air at 60 or 70 miles per hour, and then bringing them back and putting them down in the same spot they started from. And we do that 250 million times a year. People don't see it, but for the most part those rides get taken apart every year. We do metal testing, looking for signs of decay, and if any parts show that, they get replaced. We want to inspire confidence. Our kids get on these rides, and the most important thing for us is that they can come back and ride the next day, because these are thrills they're not going to get anywhere else.

Facebook image: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock