19 for ’99: Afterburn at Carowinds

As we mentioned last week, 1999 was a big year for new roller coasters in the United States. We’ve selected 19 of our favorite roller coasters that are celebrating their 20th anniversaries this year, and will profile them every other Thursday for the next several weeks. We’re going to start alphabetically with a coaster that even after 20-years, is widely regarded by coaster enthusiasts as one of Bolliger & Mabillard’s best designs: Afterburn at Carowinds.

However, when the inverted coaster originally opened in 1999, it had a different name. When Carowinds was owned by Paramount Parks, the B&M invert took its name from the 1986 Paramount Film Top Gun and given the moniker Top Gun: The Jet Coaster. It was the fourth coaster built at a Paramount-owned park to receive the “Top Gun” theme, following installations at Paramount’s (now California’s) Great America (1993, now known as Flight Deck), Paramount’s Kings Island (1993, later Flight Deck, now The Bat), and Paramount’s Canada’s Wonderland (1995, also known as Flight Deck).

Despite considerations of several other themes, including a tie-in to the 1998 Godzilla film, while conceptualizing the new roller coaster, Top Gun is a theme that fit the coaster perfectly, according to Steve Jackson, director of Maintenance and Construction for Carowinds.

“When looking at it as a roller coaster, it had all of the aircraft moves in it, and it did them perfectly,” he said. “It’s got all of the forces naturally that you’d feel in an F-14. It made sense to do it that way. You could make Godzilla look pretty, but as far as the music and getting people involved with[the coaster], you’ve got all those elements you can do in an F-14, it drives the theming and overall experience of the attraction.”

When Top Gun: The Jet Coaster was announced in 1998 at a cost of $10.5 million, it was considered the biggest investment in park history. It would be Carowinds’ 8th roller coaster, and second from Bolliger and Mabillard.

“We expect it to become our park’s signature attraction,” then-General Manager of Carowinds Watt Burris said in a statement to the Charlotte Observer in 1998. “Top Gun will give us a state-of-the-art inverted coaster that compares with any in the country.”

But according to Jerry Helms, Carowinds’ long time Vice President of Operations, Burris had grand plans for the coaster, even before it was constructed.

“Watt Burris had this vision,” Helms said. “He said, ‘We’re going to tell Walter [Bolliger] that he can build this ride up there, but we’re not going to cut down any trees. He has to work through them.’ The other thing we wanted to do was maximize the height in the field of vision. We only had so much money in the budget for steel, so we located the coaster at the highest point in the park, on the hill. That’s the highest elevation. We turned the hundred and something feet into a lot more, and the fact that we did leave the trees in gave an amazing sensation.”

The location of Afterburn also helped Carowinds “show off” to visitors traveling south on interstate 77.

“One of the things that Watt and I talked about was that a lot of our people come down I-77 from Charlotte and from way up the road, you can see the park,” Helms continued. “What Afterburn did was give definition to the park. On one side, we had the Drop Tower, and Xtreme Skyflyer as it was called, and that defined that side of the park. Then we had the Skytower in the middle of the park, and in the distance, you could see the new coaster, and people could see that Carowinds was growing.”

Helms described the feeling surrounding the opening of Top Gun to be “electric.”

“I can remember when they started bringing the coaster track in in 1998,” he said. “We cordoned off the back part of the back parking lot, and every time we brought more track in, one of the coaster enthusiasts would show up and be out there looking at it!”

Complete with a replica F-14 Fighter Jet out front of its hangar-like station, the theming for Top Gun/Afterburn is top notch!

But what about the overall ride experience? I could go into detail, spouting off facts and figures from Wikipedia or RCDB, but I feel that the description from the Charlotte Observer‘s Dean Smith in his report from March 19, 1999 is the best way to describe it.

Designed by Bolliger & Mabillard of Switzerland, this inverted steel coaster grabs your attention before you’re in the gate. Its tubular stilts straddle the park’s [South] entrance like a giant spider’s legs. As you pass beneath, you get dramatic views of the ride’s twists and turns. Then a train rushes toward you and dives beneath the sidewalk.

Really handsome, it’s a photographer’s dream. As you study its rails, you notice hallmarks of the best coasters being built today: Six upside down inversions, suspended trains that let your feet dangle, a compact route that packs the coaster events one after another. Also, lots of screams.

At the top of a steep flight of stairs, you enter the “hangar” that evokes the Tom Cruise movie on which the ride is based. With two trains of 32 passengers operating, lines move at a good pace.

Once you’re strapped in, the floor drops out: Hint, hint.

Up you go, cresting at 113 feet, then hesitating ominously as the train eases over… then leans right… then DOWN, DOWN, DOWN toward the parking lot below before whipping out of that Space Drop and on to six inversions.

When you hit the Vertical Loop, you loose sight of all machinery and get your first sense of free flight. Then a diving loop called an Immelman gets your ears spinning in the other direction before a Zero G Roll spins the train in a cork screw in one smooth motion.

Then it gets really brilliant as you hit a Batwing, two loops angled at 45 degrees with a plunge underground in between. In the tunnel, you hit a blinding mist before sliding into a 360 degree Flat Spin and a final dizzying Spiral.

At about two minutes, it’s a dense ride with just one static moment, between the last two events. You get a good feel for the speed, which hits 62 mph, and sense several moments of weightlessness, especially in the Zero-G Roll. At other times, the full weight of four G’s tugs at your feet and legs.

According to Jackson, Afterburn was a roller coaster that put Carowinds “on the map.”

“Our attendance jumped significantly after Top Gun opened,” he said. “It put Carowinds on the map as far as regional amusement parks go. Usually when you get a new coaster, there’s an attendance bump, and it goes back down, but we opened the coaster, saw the bump, and kept it. It was the ‘We’re here we’re here to stay. This is what we’re doing. Buy your season pass, and let’s go.’ moment.

When Cedar Fair purchased the Paramount Parks, nearly all of the Paramount-themed attraction branding and names had to be changed. While many of the other Top Gun-themed coasters were renamed to Flight Deck, Carowinds’ version was renamed Afterburn. That said, many locals (myself included) will still call it Top Gun when talking about the park. One of my favorite “Easter Eggs” is actually a nod to the attraction’s former name, written on a star atop the ride’s station.

But where is the best seat on the coaster? The results are mixed.

Helms prefers the front, while Jackson split his answer depending on time of day.

“I like to ride about anywhere on the train,” he said. If I had my druthers, I’d ride in the front during the day. You can see so much more in front, and when you ride in the middle or the back on an inverted coaster, you can see side-to-side, but not in front of you. At night, when there’s not as much to see, I’ll ride in the middle or the back of the train.”

In his report in 1999, Smith offered three distinct seating locations.

“The back row offers the smoothest ride, as rest of the train pulls you through loops. If you’re afraid, start with a middle row with people around you.

To get the most urgent effect, you have to try the front row. With the full weight of the train pushing at your back, the front gives the most violent ride, the truest sense of free fall and the most startling views of nothing between you and the ground.”

Regardless of seat location, Smith has one piece of advice that still holds true 20 years later.

“Don’t close your eyes. You’ll know when to scream.”

Afterburn is still proving to be a fan favorite at Carowinds, giving rides to more than 750,000 riders in 2018. We asked Jackson what it meant to him to have a roller coaster that was still so popular after 20 years of operation.

“It gives you bragging rights!” he said with a laugh. “It is the best invert. Everything is right. They got that one 100% right!”

Carowinds opens for the season next week, on March 23. At the ACE Winter Warm-Up Event last month, Carowinds representatives mentioned that there is a 20th anniversary celebration planned for Afterburn, and details will be released at a later date. For more information about Afterburn, be sure to visit the Carowinds website, and we’ll see you in two weeks for our next “19 for 99” coaster, Apollo’s Chariot at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. 




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