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Stratosphere ride once again leaves 24 riders up in the air

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK
  • Star Tribune
  • August 24, 2012 - 11:12 PM

Even as its owner, an inspector and fair officials assured that it was safe, a 200-foot high State Fair ride stalled with people on it in mid-air on Friday for the second consecutive day, raising concerns about its operation,

The Stratosphere, an LED-laden swing ride that spins as it rises into the air, unexpectedly stopped while ascending with a full load of 24 people on it around 11 a.m. No one was injured and riders were returned to the ground before noon.

As workers hurried to figure out the problem Friday afternoon, fairgoers with tickets in hand occasionally wandered to the entrance, expecting a thrill and undaunted by the ride's now shaky history.

"It is the fair experience," said Sindy Griggs, of St. Paul, who said she likely would make her way to the ride when it resumed operation. "You go high and can see things. It's fast."

The Dutch-made ride is the only one like it and is described as the tallest portable swing in the world. It had a similar mishap on the opening day of the fair, stranding 24 people in the air for 40 minutes, but resumed operation later in the day. The second day of problems left the ride's owner and a third-party inspector scrambling to troubleshoot the problem.

The ride also malfunctioned at its debut at the Wisconsin State Fair near Milwaukee earlier this month.

Minnesota State Fair officials expected the ride to re-open Saturday.

The ride's owner, Tom McDonagh of Michigan-based McDonagh's Amusements, said the ride actually performed as it should on both occasions, shutting down as a safety precaution and insuring that no one was in danger. The ride has four main winches for lifting and bringing the ride down, and four brakes, with another back-up winch with two brakes.

"We've got this thing whittled down," said McDonagh, whose company also operates the Sky Wheel and the Fun Factory at the fair. "This isn't your normal Tilt-A-Whirl."

Fair spokeswoman Brienna Schuette said officials are confident the ride will pose no safety risks when it resumes operation.

Friday afternoon, operators quickly had the ride going again and were testing how it operated without paying customers, its seats swinging lifeless in the air.

Joe Bixler, an inspector with International Leisure Consulting, a Seattle-based company that specializes in inspecting amusement rides, said one issue may be that the ride was constructed with European voltage at 400 volts and 50 hertz, while U.S. circuits operate at 240 volts and 60 hertz.

All rides are inspected prior to the opening of the State Fair and are inspected again and the records documented each morning before the fair opens.

Bixler likened the malfunctions to working out the kinks in a new car equipped with sophisticated computer engineering.

"You're driving down the road with a new car and you get an engine light that goes on that tells you you have a problem. This is the same thing," he said. "There are layers of safety. If this has one little thing wrong, this ride stops. The idea of the State Fair is that they are very serious about safety."

Cole Watzke, of Morris, Minn., rode the Stratosphere Friday morning, knowing it had malfunctioned the day before.

"They were talking about it right before we got on. Then we walked around and came back and saw that people were sitting there," he said. "I'd go on it again."

The Thursday hiccup triggered the safety function and left riders stopped about two-thirds of the way up. The tower is comprised of four 50-foot sections that extend up and down like a telescope. Each section has four safety locks that engage when the tower extends and disengages so the tower can descend.

Schuette said Thursday that one of the safety locks failed to work correctly as the tower descended, triggering the safety mechanism to stop the ride. Operators lowered the ride about 3:20 p.m. There were no injuries.

Star Tribune staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report.

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434

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