Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2003 | 11:12 a.m.
Like a huge, mechanical dragonfly, a skycrane helicopter made seven trips to the top of the 1,149-foot Stratosphere this morning to carry up the 18 tons of Las Vegas' latest thrill.
Under a clear blue and nearly windless sky, some of the many spectators who watched said the airlift was a thrill of its own.
"I'm a retired civil engineer and I've seen this kind of thing before -- but no matter how many times you see it you are just amazed," Randy Lauritsen of Ponca City, Okla., said.
The helicopter was putting pieces in place for the Stratosphere's X Scream ride, which will dangle riders over the edge of the tower. Crowds of people stopped to watch the installation of the ride's main components.
Lauritsen said he last saw a helicopter used to install machinery on offshore oil platforms in Dubai several years ago.
"This is just not something you see every day, and certainly not at such a high level," Lauritsen said as he and his wife, Lavonne, watched from the third floor of the Stratosphere parking garage.
"We have a 10-hour drive ahead of us to get back home, but we just had to stop and watch this," Lavonne Lauritsen said. "It's remarkable."
Glynn and Rachel Evans of Portsmouth, England, watched the helicopter lift off from the eighth floor pool deck of the resort.
"We certainly don't have anything like this in England," Glynn Evans, a carpenter, said. "Where I work we are building a ground-base radar station for the Royal Navy and we'll be using a large crane. When I go back, I'm going to ask why we are not using helicopters to set some of the (radar) components on the 150-foot tower."
Rachel Evans said, "I'm amazed at how close the helicopter comes to the tower -- just 15 feet, I've been told. I feel, just watching this, I'm a little part of it, a part of history really."
When the largest of the seven pieces -- 69 feet of track weighing more than seven tons -- was safely set atop the Stratosphere, there was applause from the roof of the tower and down on the ground.
The Evans couple said that when they come back to Las Vegas next year they will consider riding the X Scream.
"It will take a lot of courage, and perhaps two or three Bud Lights," Glynn Evans said.
Mike Gilmartin, spokesman for the Stratosphere, said there will be a bar next to the X Scream for riders who need "liquid courage."
Many of them may need that kind of fortification, since the ride will dangle them more than 800 feet above the Strip.
Once it is installed at the top of the Stratosphere, the X Scream will be the world's third-highest amusement park attraction, after the Stratosphere's Big Shot and High Roller rides.
The X Scream is scheduled to be assembled over the next two weeks. Its projected opening date is Halloween.
"We are creating the most intense thrill ride in the world," said Val Potter, spokesman for Interactive Rides of Logan, Utah. "It is outrageous."
Potter, who also serves as mayor of North Logan, Utah, said milder ground-level versions of X Scream currently are operating at Knotts Berry Farm in Southern California and Playland Park in Rye, N.Y.
"We felt from the beginning that this ride was perfect for the Stratosphere," said Clay Slade, one of the innovators of X Scream and the engineer for the Big Shot that was installed for the Stratosphere's April 1996 opening. "It just took us a couple of years to convince the Stratosphere.
"What makes this ride so great is its high speed and g-force combined with people's natural awareness of the the high altitude. I was on a plane earlier today from Utah, flying at 32,000 feet and at 500 mph, but I didn't think anything of it because I was in an enclosure. With this ride, you feel like you are shot out over the Strip and dangling. Your heart will be pounding."
The ride features an open, eight-seat metallic orange and green carriage that slides on a 14,600-pound teeter-totter base. The riders are held in their seats by only waist restraints that are secured with ratchets.
The carriage slides on the base at up to 30 mph then suddenly stops as it reaches the end of the 45-foot expanse. Seconds later the base rises before plunging at a downward angle giving riders a momentary feel of plummeting to earth. Then it returns parallel to the ground and pulls the carriage back.
Magnetic brakes and a shock absorber system keep the carriage on its hydraulic base.
A 90-second to three-minute ride can be programmed in about 100 different combinations, so it is likely riders will get a slightly different experience each time, Potter said.
"Las Vegas already is known for having the world's best shows and some of the world's best restaurants, now it has the world's best thrill rides," said Mike Gilmartin, spokesman for the Stratosphere.
Gilmartin declined to release the cost of the new ride, other than to say it is "a multimillion-dollar venture." Resort officials project that it will take one to two years to recoup the cost of installing it.
The helicopter operation alone carried a "six-figure" price tag, Potter said. The high cost meant that they only had one chance to get it right, he said.
"I've been on pins and needles for weeks," Potter said.
"This (helicopter operation) was the unknown. We know the ride works. We just didn't know if we could get it on to the tower. Now it is there and secure and I feel real good," he said as the two-hour effort wrapped up on schedule at 9 a.m. today.
The last three pieces -- the track, control tower and carriage -- were the most nerve-wracking for poolside spectators as the helicopter maneuvered to within 13 feet of the Big Shot.
The final piece, the carriage, turned slightly to the left toward the building and away from the track causing some concern among the spectators as to whether it could be properly set in place.
The top four floors of the 24-story Stratosphere tower were kept empty and some roads in the flight zone behind the resort were closed during this morning's airlift.
It took three tries to finally get the carriage on the track. When the third try succeeded, there was another big round of applause.
"It was a matter of positioning the helicopter to place it (the carriage) within millimeters (on the track)," Potter said.
"It was just 100 percent concentration," said Janos Lakatos, Interactive Ride's crew chief who directed about a dozen employees on the top of the Stratosphere tower.
"The adrenaline was flowing -- you really didn't have time to be scared."
Lakatos said the rotor speed of the helicopter was 60 to 70 mph, but members of the crew were held by tether lines as they secured the pieces of the ride into place.
"Everybody had a rehearsed responsibility and since Friday we practiced (on the ground with a large crane) to make sure the load balanced perfectly and to check every single rope, chain and shackle was in perfect position."
"When the job was done, we were excited, very excited, giving each other the thumb's up," Lakatos said.
Lakatos said crews from Interactive Rides will be working in shifts 24 hours a day, seven days a week to put the X Scream back together. It had been in one piece at its testing site in Logan, Utah.
Lakatos said that between the ground, air and roof crews and hotel personnel about 100 people worked on the helicopter-lift installation.
The helicopter was provided by Siller Bros. Aviation of Incline Village, which has 40,000 hours of accident-free flying in high-profile airlifts, officials said.
The first of about 100 test runs of the X Scream will take place in about a week to 10 days, Potter said.
A ride on the X Scream is expected to cost $8, which is comparable to the Big Shot that costs $8 per ride and the High Roller that costs $5 per ride, Gilmartin said. About 500,000 X-Scream riders are projected during its first year of operation, he said.
Unlike a 510-foot roller coaster proposed by the Stratosphere in 2001, the X Scream has drawn no protests. X Scream was approved on April 10 by the Las Vegas Planning Commission amid no opposition.
The fate of the proposed roller coaster across the Strip is pending before the state Supreme Court. That ride, which had many opponents, including residents and nearby businesses, was defeated by the planning commission in September 2001. Weeks later it was turned down by the Las Vegas City Council.
District Judge Valorie Vega, in November 2002, ruled in favor of the city, denying the Stratosphere's petition to build the ride.
Gilmartin said before the X Scream project was brought before the council, resort officials met with area residents and explained that the new ride would not impact residents and would face away from the Meadows Village neighborhood.
Still, neighbors in the area of Tam Drive and Boston Avenue on Monday were not thrilled with the teeter-totter installation. Their reaction ranged from apathetic to mild opposition.
"I go to the Stratosphere to play card games -- that's enough excitement for me," said Ray Jones, 76, a Meadows Village resident of 12 years.
Diane Daily, a resident of the area for five years who goes to the Stratosphere on occasion to eat, said she does not oppose the X Scream, even though "it's just something else to add to all of the yelling and screaming we listen to from the tower."
Jill Chambers, who for 26 years has lived in the neighborhood in the shadows of the Stratosphere -- and before that Bob Stupak's Vegas World -- said she does not think X Scream is a good idea.
"If I'm walking along the street and look up and see that thing hanging out above me with people on it screaming, I'll probably have a heart attack," she said. "I grew up around Coney Island, so I don't mind people screaming and having a good time, but this just doesn't seem like a good idea.
"Instead of building the teeter-totter, I wish the Stratosphere would put in a bingo room."
Mary Duenas, a resident of Meadows Village for four years, said she fears that one day something will go terribly wrong with one of the rides on the tower.
"I just don't think it sounds safe," she said.
Potter said there are four levels of safety checks on the rides -- daily, weekly, monthly and annually.
"The daily checks range from the hydraulics to the restraints and the yearly checks include complete overhauls to some of the components," he said, noting there never has been a serious incident on either Stratosphere ride.
In 1996, there were incidents where parts of the High Roller broke, forcing a temporary shutdown and re-engineering of that roller coaster. Since then, there have been no repeats of such incidents, Gilmartin said.
The Stratosphere rides, however, are routinely shut down for safety concerns when winds kick up to greater than 45 mph, he said.