08/01/2012 12:44 pm ET

Roller Coaster Error? Superman: Ultimate Flight May Have Malfunctioned Due To Computer Glitch

If you are of a certain age and temperament, you probably spent a sizable portion of your youth designing and operating roller coasters on your computer in the game "RollerCoaster Tycoon."

You may not have realized it, but real roller coasters -- not the absurd, pretzel-twist sidewinders of your childish imagination, but honest-to-God, magnets-and-steel coasters that you can ride in real life -- are also run by computers. And just like your iMac or Ultrabook, these coaster-controlling computers are apparently susceptible to the occasional hiccup or slow-down, too.

In what is just the worst story ever to share with your friends who are afraid of roller coasters, the Los Angeles Times is reporting that the Superman: Ultimate Flight coaster at SIx Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, California that got stuck at the top of a hill last weekend could have become stuck due to computer error.

"This was not mechanical whatsoever," Discovery Kingdom spokeswoman Nancy Chan told Fox40 in Sacramento. The ride stranded 12 riders atop a 150 foot hill for about 90 minutes, according to the Times, and park officials are tentatively citing a computer glitch as the cause, pending further investigation.

And you thought your computer's slowness was annoying.

Modern roller coasters have been primarily operated and run by computers for well-over a decade now; a New York Times story from way back in 1998 compared present-day coaster operators to flight attendants instructing you to buckle your seatbelt, and profiled the switch from manual brake-and-lever control to monitoring and operating via PC. Verne Kopytoff describes one such system:

The heavy lifting [of the Riddler's Revenge at Six Flags Magic Mountain] is left to two Allen-Bradley PLC-5's, which are the size of encyclopedias but serve as the brains of a massive control system built primarily by Rockwell International's Allen-Bradley unit. Sitting in an air-conditioned room under the station platform, they provide a full set of instructions to the massive control system built around them every 20 to 40 milliseconds.


Built to focus on their assigned task, these systems are designed to operate without rest and always with utmost precision, Ms. Carter said. In contrast, she said, personal computers and mainframes may pause momentarily if given new instructions and are more susceptible to temporary failure.

Advanced as they are, however, these roller coaster systems are still susceptible to infrequent mishaps. If Vallejo's Superman is found to have failed due to computer glitch, it will be at least the second high-profile roller coaster this year to have been temporarily stalled by technical error: "Revenge Of The Mummy" at Universal Studios partially derailed due to computer failure in January. No one was injured.

As for Superman: Ultimate Flight at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom: The ride should be back open as soon as engineers can discover the root of the roller coaster malfunction that suspended 12 passengers up among the clouds for an hour and a half. We think we'll stick with the spinning teacups for now, thank you very much.