Fun With Gravity

By Anita Huslin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 4, 2006

ELYSBURG, Pa. Even from here on the ground he can feel its pull, the dips and curves of the roller coaster broken down in his mind into mathematical certainties. For John Fetterman, it's as reassuring as a sunny day.

He knows every inch of the Twister because he created it. From its peak more than 100 feet up to its 72-foot drop and swooping underground tunnel, he designed it to pin riders to their seats and make them feel as if they're going to sail into space. It's like that in his head sometimes with the numbers flying around, crashing together. He has to focus hard to bring them back into line, smooth and clear and melodious.

At 52, he is used to this. His mustache is graying now, and his shoulders slump a little under the forest green T-shirt he wears tucked into his shorts.

He learns more from listening to a roller coaster than riding it. The sound of the chains clanking as the ratchet teeth under the cars catch the links and slowly haul them toward the summit. The steel wheels clacking across the track.

The Twister is the marquee ride at Knoebels, an amusement park set among the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains that beckons with yesteryear charms: bumper cars and carousels under the pines, next to the Swiss Christmas chalet and Haunted House. In between are kiosks where you can buy battered fries, Jell-O salads and home-made fudge. An hour north of Harrisburg, it's the "largest free-admission, free-parking amusement park in the United States," says owner Dick Knoebel. "You can come here and enjoy the park and not spend a dime. But you better not want an ice cream cone." It'll set you back $2.20 to catch a thrill on the Twister.

Its old-fashioned atmosphere is what makes this place exotic. Its quirkiness is what makes it right for Fetterman. It's a place he can pursue his obsession. Maybe the only place.

Professionally speaking, Fetterman has called Knoebels home for the past 30 years. He lives about a mile down the road and drives his old S-10 pickup to the gravel lot on the edge of the park six days a week. It's about as un-Disney as you can get. While other parks were going for bigger, taller and faster, Knoebels didn't. Fetterman's newest coaster, under construction, is the embodiment of that resistance.

"It's the culmination of a dream," he says, standing before the rising wooden form of the Flying Turns, a $3 million replica of a ride first constructed nearly 80 years ago. "It's built on a human scale. I could certainly design something extreme, something stultifyingly stupid, but I won't even consider doing it. It's too easy, and ultimately disappointing."

He is determined to show the amusement world that you can provide a thrill with more than brute force. While the top steel coasters can soar 400 feet and higher, the Flying Turns will be all of 47 feet tall, with top speeds of maybe 25 mph.

Earlier in his career, Fetterman thought perhaps the industry would sit up and take notice of his work. He gave up on that long ago. But when the Flying Turns is done, it may just be what he has been quietly aiming for all along.

In a world of fast and furious, he wants to build the thinking man's roller coaster.

An Affinity for Wood

Pinball machines were his first love. He was obsessed with the clatter of the steel balls, the geometry of the mechanical actions, the melodic chimes of the games. It spoke to the part of his brain that sets him apart, "the semiautistic half-wit with a crazy math ability," he says, shrugging.


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