15 Secrets of Commercial Divers

Boris Horvat, AFP/Getty Images
Boris Horvat, AFP/Getty Images

Imagine some of the most physically demanding jobs available—supply line installation, construction, welding—and then imagine doing them underwater. That’s the life of a commercial diver, a rigorously trained professional who undertakes everything from bridge repairs to oil line maintenance. To get a better sense of this often difficult and dangerous work, Mental Floss spoke to several commercial divers for their thoughts on everything from the perils of decompression to swimming in sewage. Here’s what they had to say about a life in flippers.

1. DIVING DEEP CAN PRODUCE EUPHORIA (AND A WEIRD VOICE).

Commercial divers receive specialized training—either in the military or at diving instructional schools—to learn how to function hundreds of feet below the surface. The lower a diver goes, the more water pressure increases, and the greater the challenges. Jeremy, a commercial diver out of Louisiana who repairs and installs equipment for oil companies, says that working in such conditions can lead to physical exhaustion, pulled muscles, and a feeling of pressure on the lungs.

Plunging to a depth in excess of 100 feet can also result in nitrogen narcosis, which some refer to as "raptures of the deep" or the "Martini effect." It's caused when divers receive a higher concentration of nitrogen from their air supply due to the effects of the water pressure on the gas. (The air systems that commercial divers use allow them to breathe normally by providing air at a pressure equal to that of the water, but the lower they go, the denser the gas gets, and thus the higher the concentration.)

“It makes you feel drunk or euphoric,” Jeremy says of the narcosis. “The solution is to switch from a nitrogen-oxygen supply to helium and oxygen.” That cures the over-inhalation of nitrogen, but when a diver comes back to the surface or to a decompression chamber, their voice will be altered. “It’s an Alvin and the Chipmunks thing,” Jeremy explains. Some diving teams will use voice augmentation to de-scramble the high-pitched squeals when divers are communicating with the surface.

2. ABOUT HALF A DOZEN OF THEM DIE EACH YEAR.

A diver works with a cable on an underwater construction job
Boris Horvat, AFP/Getty Images

Most commercial diving is centered around underwater construction—often repairing or replacing infrastructure that facilitates water, oil, or electrical supplies. Divers are frequently charged with digging trenches to bury electrical lines using high-pressure water blasts to excavate the ocean floor. If these trenches collapse, it can result in a catastrophic situation; the cave-in can trap and bury a diver, clogging their regulator or causing them to take off their helmet in a panic, which eliminates their air supply. Jeremy says a number of divers die every year in such cave-ins.

If divers can avoid that fate, they still have to worry about a number of other ways they can meet an untimely end. “We use cranes and those can fall or drop their load on you,” Jeremy says. Cutting into “live” pipelines can also cause explosions, as can using tools that displace hydrogen from the water. In an enclosed space like a ship or supply pipe, that collected hydrogen could catch a spark and explode. “That could blow your helmet off or into pieces,” he says. All in all, 25 commercial divers died on the job between 2011 and 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; another 310 suffered nonfatal injuries or illnesses.

3. THE DEEPER THEY GO, THE MORE THEY EARN.

Diving jobs vary in pay according to risk, duration, and other variables, but generally, a diver’s base pay is usually supplemented with “depth pay.” The further down they go, the more they can make.

“It’s basically about a dollar a foot,” Jeremy says. “After 150 feet, the price can double to $2 a foot. Added on to regular pay, a 12-hour day can add up.” A diver working at 300 feet might net $1000 in a shift. Saturation divers, who can go 1000 feet down and are required to live off-shift in a chamber pressurized to the surrounding water in order to avoid decompression sickness, or the “bends,” can make even more.

4. SOMETIMES THEIR SUITS ARE HEATED.

Going deeper into the water means enduring more frigid conditions. To offset plummeting temperatures, divers need a way to keep their suits warm. “Below 80 feet, it gets cold,” Jeremy says. “We either pump water into a wet suit or wear a hot-water suit.” The former allows water to come in and make contact with the diver's body, typically from a heated source at the surface; the latter has water channels throughout the suit that branch out and keep divers from getting too cold. Because hot water suits can maintain a more consistent temperature than delivering warm water from above, they are most often used at 200 feet and lower depths.

5. THEY CAN WIELD FIRE UNDERWATER.

Most tools meant for underwater use are hydraulic (involving the use of water or other liquids), since they’re largely unaffected by water pressure. Fuel-powered or pneumatic tools (those that involve the use of gas) don’t really work, but divers can still make use of jackhammers, chainsaws, and other devices you’d find in an above-ground construction job. Others, however, need to be adapted.

“In my opinion, the most interesting adaptation is the BROCO torch,” says Brian, a diver based in New England. The BROCO torch uses direct current to ignite a magnesium rod and oxygen mixture that burns at approximately 10,000 degrees and can cut through metal like butter, even underwater. (A/C, or alternating current, is what we use in our homes—but because the direction of the current reverses many times a second, Brian explains, it can freeze the diver in place while electrocuting them, making it too dangerous for underwater use.)

6. THEY MIGHT FIND DEAD BODIES.

A human skull sits half-buried in sand
iStock

According to Jeremy, many recovery dives for people suspected of drowning fall under the purview of local law enforcement. Still, commercial divers can encounter someone who’s wound up in a watery grave. “I’ve done helicopter recovery jobs,” he says, referring to crashed aircraft that can harbor passengers. Once, while working on an oil rig, he stumbled upon a dead scuba diver. “It was more of a skeleton in a scuba suit,” he says. If a diver does find a corpse, they're unlikely to ever know the history of how the body got there; such discoveries are required to be passed on to the Coast Guard for investigation.

7. THEY CAN WIND UP FEEDING FISH.

A school of fish swim in the ocean
iStock

“We encounter marine life all the time,” says Mike, a commercial diver who now works primarily in and around the Great Lakes. “When working the ocean, if we are cleaning off marine growth, sometimes you will get some fish that come up and eat what you are cleaning off.” Mike says that commercial divers frequently spot sharks, barracudas, and other potentially dangerous sea dwellers, but the animals generally don't care much about humans. They’re even less likely to approach if the workers are using torches.

8. THEY SOMETIMES SWIM IN UTTER FILTH …

A common component of commercial diving, HAZMAT (hazardous material) diving involves working in contaminated water. That could mean anything from a lake affected by nearby lawn chemicals to checking equipment at a nuclear reactor. If it could kill or poison you, a diver has probably swum in it.

This kind of work requires a special approach. Brian says that those who venture into higher-risk HAZMAT diving usually wear a positive pressure diving helmet; since the pressure inside the helmet is greater than the pressure in the water outside, the helmet helps keep hazardous material from entering. HAZMAT divers also wear a rubber dry suit that fully seals the diver's entire body, unlike normal wet suits, which allow water to make contact with the wearer. Support staff will also decontaminate the HAZMAT diver after the job, scrubbing their suit free of harmful materials before the diver undresses.

9. … INCLUDING SEWAGE.

An overhead shot of a sewage treatment plant
iStock

Those stories you may have heard about people diving into sewage treatment plants to repair equipment? Those would be commercial divers, who occasionally brave the psychological challenge of being submerged in poop. Because it's usually impossible to see in a sea of feces, divers will study reference photos of empty tanks before going in. They'll suit up in sealed dry suits and typically will weigh themselves down in order to sink through the dense liquid; once they're in position, they work by feel. “Both the sewage jobs I dove on, it was repairing a masticator blade,” Mike says. “Picture a giant blender that makes solids less solid. I don't do it anymore because of the health risks.” A rip or tear in a diver's suit can introduce a litany of dangerous bacteria into their body: In addition to your standard Salmonella and Cryptosporidium parasites, such vile muck can also harbor hepatitis, Norwalk virus, E. coli, and assorted fungi [PDF].

10. DAWN SOAP IS A LIFESAVER.

Dawn dishwashing liquid is a must-have on diving expeditions. It can get diving suits and skin free of oil, and can even help divers cope with parasitic pests. When Jeremy was working on a mile-long pipeline near New Orleans, the shallow water resulted in workers getting infested with parasites carried by nutria, a semiaquatic rodent. “The hookworms will dig into your skin, die, and leave a big red mark,” he says. Splashing Dawn soap gets rid of the itch immediately. (If irritation persists, divers might need to seek anti-inflammatory treatment from a dermatologist.)

11. THEY WORRY ABOUT BEING SUCKED INTO A VACUUM OF DEATH.

Divers are frequently in violation of the laws of nature. Humans, after all, were never meant to thrive (or survive) underwater, particularly at more pressurized depths. Many divers fear encountering Delta P, or differential pressure—a vacuum that’s far higher in pressure than their current environment, and is created by intersecting water bodies as a result of opening a channel like a pipe. “Delta P is vacuum-like suction much like you would imagine from when the cabin of an airplane ruptures, but at a much greater magnitude,” Brian says. “It can be very difficult to detect until you are already too close, and can trap the diver at depth or even kill them instantly.” The unfortunate crab in the video above is an example of how differential pressure can ruin your day.

12. THEY SOMETIMES GO DIVING INSIDE WATER TOWERS.

Those water towers you see in populated areas that stand on stilts hundreds of feet up in the air? Townships need to periodically check them for sediment levels to maintain water quality. That’s when they call in a commercial diver, who needs to add "not afraid of heights" to their skill set. “You have to climb all the way up, get into your wet suit, measure the sediment with a ruler, and clear it out with a [suctioning device called an] airlift." Jeremy says. And that's not the only lofty prospect for a diver: Jeremy notes that some oil rigs stretch 100 feet in the air. Divers without seniority may be expected to carry out repairs or work at or near the top, instead of actually diving.

13. THEY CARRY KNIVES.

A diver straps on a knife
iStock

No, it’s not to duel with sharks. “While diving, I carry a razor-sharp knife for emergency purposes only,” Brian says. In an urgent situation, it could be used for "cutting anything from old fishing line to my own dive umbilical—the air hose and lifeline.” The latter rarely happens, unless the diver gets it snagged or it becomes compressed. In the event of a hose failure, divers have a "bailout bottle," a supplemental tank they can switch to in case of emergency.

14. THEY CAN BE UNDERWATER BUT NOT ACTUALLY IN THE WATER.

A diver works with a torch underwater
iStock

Not every dive requires divers to swim while working. For jobs that require meticulous attention to detail for repair or where welding is required, diving teams can set up positive pressure habitats that isolate the problem area and allow the diver to work out of water. “You use air pressure to push water out of the habitat, which is in two pieces,” Jeremy says. Inside, a diver would trade their helmet for a welding mask. Because it can take a day or more to set up the habitat for a job that might take only one or two hours, habitat work is used only in cases where there aren't any other options.

15. THEY STILL GO SWIMMING FOR FUN.

Like anything done recreationally, diving can begin to seem routine if it's performed on a daily basis. While some divers get their fill of water by working 12-hour days for weeks at a stretch, some still enjoy going under in their free time. “While my career has definitely diminished the novelty of being in such an alien environment, I still love to dive recreationally,” Brian says. “Commercial diving is exhausting work, typically in dark, low-visibility water with a particular task in mind, while recreational diving is often more about exploration and sight-seeing. I would argue that the difference is not unlike a professional runner going on a beautiful hike in their free time.”

11 Secrets of Storm Chasers

Drew Angerer, Getty Images
Drew Angerer, Getty Images

Every year, people around the world board up windows, stock up on essential supplies, and flee their own homes in anticipation of severe weather events. But for storm chasers, tumultuous weather is an invitation to move toward the danger. Some endure precarious conditions during hurricanes, tornadoes, and other storms in order to take readings that might later prove useful to meteorologists. Others are simply attracted to the beauty of the storms, capturing nature’s violent expressions in what could be considered an extreme form of landscape photography.

There's no shortage of opportunities for storm chasers. The U.S. each year sees an average of 1253 tornadoes—a massive column of spinning air borne out of thunderstorms and creating winds up to 250 miles per hour. Hurricanes are fueled by heat from oceans and threaten coastal regions with heavy rain and wind. Though it doesn’t have quite the same reputation, even a simple, raging thunderstorm can produce enough hail and high winds to cause chaos. Each is dangerous, devastating—and, in the eyes of storm chasers, beautiful.

To better understand what motivates these individuals to seek out cataclysmic events, Mental Floss spoke to three extreme weather specialists. Here’s what they had to say about airborne houses, armored trucks, and why you won’t usually see any of them wearing a helmet.

1. For storm chasers, a hurricane can feel like an acid trip.

A satellite image of Hurricane Irene in the Caribbean Sea in August 2011 is pictured
Hurricane Irene is shown over the Caribbean Sea in a satellite image from August 2011.
NOAA via Getty Images

With just 13 hurricanes hitting the continental U.S. since 2010, chasing hurricanes requires a passport and a willingness to spend days making connecting flights to international destinations. As a result, hurricane hunters are a small subgroup of the storm chaser demographic. Why do they do it? For Josh Morgerman, a hurricane chaser based in Southern California and star of the Science Channel’s upcoming Hurricane Man, being exposed to hurricanes on Long Island in his youth created an association between a severe storm and excitement. “My whole life is hunting that feeling again and again,” he tells Mental Floss. While he still pursues that rush, Morgerman's chief objective is to measure air pressure and log observational data that can assist meteorologists in analyzing storms. (Chasers can also measure factors like humidity, wind speed, and temperature.)

Unlike tornadoes, which have a very clear visual identity as they spin in a cone shape over land, hurricanes just look like a fierce concentration of weather. That combination of heavy rain, wind, and flying debris can be hard to explain unless you’ve experienced it firsthand. As fierce weather rages in the area known as the eyewall, the eye, or center, inside is peaceful. Morgerman says that jarring contrast is a little like an acid trip. “In a severe hurricane [the eyewall] is quite incredible,” he says. “Some sound like a train or like wolves howling. Hurricane Michael, the building I was in was shaking. The windows were breaking. With storms like that, you can’t see anything. Everything just turns white. You just see flying wreckage. It’s an unbelievable spectacle to behold." In the eye, though, "It gets calm. The sky is blue ... There’s something very acid-trippy about that.”

2. The movie Twister influenced a lot of storm chasers.

A publicity photo from the 1996 film 'Twister' depicts actor Bill Paxton looking at a tornado
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1996’s Twister, Bill Paxton plays a tornado chaser who braves a series of severe weather events. For many chasers, the movie was a milestone, prompting a lot of people to get into the field themselves. “It’s the reason I got into it,” says tornado chaser Greg Johnson, who now collects footage to sell to news outlets. “There was this romantic notion of storm chasing. There are a lot of things the movie got right."

There was one exception. "One thing it didn’t get right is the human toll. The damage associated with these storms. The movie underplayed the destruction and death. In real life scenarios, it’s far worse than anything they show in the movie.” A chaser’s first priority, he says, is to stop and help anyone who might need assistance.

3. Storm chasers don’t spend much time actually inside the storms.

Support scientist Tim Marshall stands outside of a vehicle to observe a supercell thunderstorm in Lamb County, Texas in May 2017
Drew Angerer, Getty Images

The life of any storm chaser is supposed to be thrilling, and it is—for a few minutes or hours at a time. Most chasers spent the majority of their careers traveling toward a storm, either by driving toward it or, in Morgerman’s case, flying. He might be in a hurricane for hours; a tornado might touch down for just a few minutes. Johnson also says he spends much of his time traveling. “When you see videos on YouTube of incredible tornado events, recognize what you’re seeing is the 1 percent of the time,” Johnson tells Mental Floss. “You’re not seeing countless hours at truck stops sleeping on the hood of a truck doing nothing.”

4. The real danger for storm chasers isn’t the weather. It’s the traffic.

Traffic is redirected during a tornado in Linwood, Kansas in May 2019
Kyle Rivas, Getty Images

Severe weather can cause high winds and flooding, but it’s not always nature that winds up being physically threatening, especially because chasers spend so much of their time traveling. (In fact, there’s been only one fatal incident as a direct result of a tornado, when chaser Tim Samaras, his son Paul, and colleague Carl Young were trapped in their vehicle and picked up by 200 mile-per-hour winds during the El Reno tornado in 2013. All three died.)

According to Montana-based storm chaser and National Weather Service meteorologist Cory Mottice, experienced chasers know to fear traffic more than the weather. “In a more highly populated area, you have to worry about traffic congestion,” he says. “A storm might be coming down through Oklahoma and you might be out of danger initially. But as the storm is getting closer, people are worrying and start panicking. They’ll pull under overpasses and get stuck on the road with a tornado coming at them.”

Johnson agrees, adding that injury from storms can often take a back seat to traffic accidents. “The thing that keeps me up at night is the driving, not the tornado,” he says. “The tornado will generally go from point A to point B along a defined path. It’s very well-behaved. The quickest way is a straight line. It’s very visual. You can see where it is and you can avoid it. Driving is a completely different story. Put enough miles on and you’re bound to see a bad accident.”

5. Storm chasers drive armored vehicles.

A reinforced vehicle is pictured near a tornado
Courtesy of Greg Johnson // @tornadogreg, TornadoHunter.com

Driving in pursuit of a tornado requires a little more than simple guts and a willingness to get close to a massively powerful weather event. Chasers need their version of a Batmobile. According to Johnson, professionals usually opt for an armored truck to help insulate them from the destructive power of the storm. “We’re not just driving around in a pick-up truck,” he says. “I have a roll cage to prevent it from being crushed. It’s designed to go off-road. It’s heavier than a normal truck. The steel roll cage adds weight. There’s exterior coating to prevent punctures in the vehicle.”

While the roll cage is heavy, the goal isn’t to make the vehicle heavier so it's harder for a tornado to pick up. “At the end of the day, if you’re caught in a tornado capable of throwing the vehicle, a weight difference of 500 or 800 pounds won’t matter. Tornados can pick up combiners. Those things do happen. I’d rather the truck be lighter and easier on gas.”

6. Storm chasers have seen flying houses.

A weathervane is mounted on the roof of a house
Lobro78/iStock via Getty Images

Storm chasers don’t want to drive directly into a tornado or other severe weather event. They just want to get close enough to obtain readings or to take photographs. Johnson tries to get within 200 or 300 yards to snap photos, which is still close enough to see how intense wind speeds can be. “I’ve seen a house flying through the air,” he says. “I saw a truck flying across the road 50 yards in front of me.”

7. Storm chaser equipment can take a beating.

Jan Dutton of WeatherBug.com tracks Hurricane Isabel in Ocean City, Maryland in September 2003
Mark Wilson, Getty Images

Most chasers hit the road with doppler radar, laptops, cameras, and other equipment to help them analyze data and capture images. If you’ve wondered how they can do that without putting themselves at risk, the answer is simple. For still photography, Mottice puts the camera on a tripod outside while he remains in the truck. That keeps him out of danger—but his equipment is another story. "I have my camera and gear on a tripod. I’m in the vehicle taking remote pictures. The hail can hit the camera. Wind is an issue.” Some chasers bring back-up equipment in case their gear gets pummeled.

8. Storm chasers know they should wear helmets. (But they usually don’t.)

A storm warning sign is pictured
arcady_31/iStock via Getty Images

With flying wreckage cutting through the air, it would stand to reason storm chasers should equip themselves with helmets. Few do, however. “I’m embarrassed to say I don’t wear a helmet,” Morgerman says. “Fans have been pushing me to wear one for years … the whole [television] crew is wearing helmets. I don’t want anything to encumber the experience.”

9. Storm chasers can suffer physical effects.

Hurricane Ike is seen over Cuba in a photo taken by the International Space Station in September 2008
Hurricane Ike is seen over Cuba in a satellite image taken by the International Space Station in September 2008.
NASA via Getty Images

An experienced chaser knows how to plan routes that keep them safely away from tornadoes. For hurricanes, they scope out buildings able to withstand the force of the storm. All that planning, however, doesn’t mean they always walk away unscathed. Morgerman says the violent winds of a hurricane’s eyewall can leave enduring effects. “The intense gustiness can cause rapid pressure changes that can really hurt your ears,” he says.

10. Storm chasers know that thunderstorms can be incredibly destructive.

A storm chaser drives a car with a smashed windshield
Courtesy of Greg Johnson // @tornadogreg, TornadoHunter.com

Most people assume hurricanes and tornadoes represent the pinnacle of danger when it comes to storm-chasing. But according to Mottice, a severe thunderstorm can match or exceed them in destructive power. “Some people think a severe thunderstorm warning with 80 mile-per-hour winds is no big deal, that the tornado is the big deal,” he says. “But winds produce more damage than some tornadoes. In Montana, a storm produced 120 mile-per-hour winds. They can do a lot of damage.”

Mottice also tends to be wary of hail during storms. Once, he says, “I didn’t know a storm was blowing up behind the one we were chasing. We got caught in the core of that one. It threw golf ball-sized hail on us. The vehicles on the roads had broken windows.”

11. Storm chasers worry they might be setting a bad example for amateurs.

Hunter Anderson, a meteorology student at St. Cloud University, films a storm near Limon, Colorado in May 2017
Drew Angerer, Getty Images

In the storm-chasing community, there’s much debate over what separates a professional from an amateur. Generally speaking, professional storm chasers get paid for their work, whether that be compensation for footage or photography. But there's no licensing necessary to chase a storm, and anyone can pursue extreme weather. Morgerman, who has likely been in more hurricanes than anyone alive—he says the Science Channel verified the claim for his television series—believes amateurs who follow chasers on social media might get the wrong idea. “I remember being a 15-year-old weather nerd wanting to have these experiences. I worry I’m setting a bad example. I worry some kids will watch what I do and try to do it but without the experience and knowledge that I have.”

12 Secrets of Roller Coaster Designers

People ride a spinning roller coaster in the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Park
People ride a spinning roller coaster in the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Park
hanusst/iStock via Getty Images

Back in the early 20th century, engineers attempting to push the limits of roller coaster thrills subjected riders to risky upside-down turns and bloody noses. A century later, coaster designers rely on computer software, physics, and psychology to push the limits of the roughly 5000 rides in operation worldwide. To get a sense of what their job entails, Mental Floss spoke with several roller coaster specialists about everything from testing rides with water-filled dummies to how something as simple as paint can influence a coaster experience. Here’s what we learned.

1. Getting strapped in might be the most exciting part of the roller coaster ride.

Known as a “thrill engineer,” UK-based Brendan Walker consults with coaster manufacturers and parks on the psychology of riding the rails. In his experience, riders getting secured into their seats are at the peak of their excitement—even more so than during the ride itself. “The moment the lap bar is being locked down and you have that feeling of things being inescapable, that you have to suffer the effects of the ride, is the highest moment of arousal,” Walker says. “The actual ride might only achieve 80 percent of that excitement.”

2. Designers test roller coasters with water-filled dummies.

Bill Kitchen, founder of U.S. Thrill Rides, says it can take anywhere from two to five years for a coaster to go from idea to execution. Part of that process is devoted to the logistics of securing patents and permits for local site construction—the rest is extensive safety testing. “We’re subject to ASTM [American Society for Testing Materials] standards,” Kitchen says. “It covers every aspect of coasters. The rides are tested with what we call water dummies, or sometimes sandbags.”

The inanimate patrons allow designers to figure out how a coaster will react to the constant use and rider weight of a highly trafficked ride. The water dummies—which look a bit like crash test dummies, but filled with water—can be emptied or filled to simulate different weight capacities. Designers also sometimes use the kind of crash-test dummies found in the auto industry to observe any potential issues prior to actual humans climbing aboard.

3. Every foot of roller coaster track costs a lot of money.

Thrill seekers go upside-down while riding on the Mind Eraser roller coaster in Agawam, Massachusetts
Thrill seekers go upside-down while riding on the Mind Eraser roller coaster in Agawam, Massachusetts
Kirkikis/iStock via Getty Images

There is absolutely nothing random about the length of a coaster’s track. In addition to designing a ride based on the topography of a park site, designers take into account exactly how much space they’ll need to terrorize you and not an inch more. When England’s Alton Towers park was preparing to build a ride named TH13TEEN for a 2010 opening, they asked Walker exactly how much of a drop was needed to scare someone in the dark. “It was a practical question,” Walker says. “For every extra foot of steelwork, it would have cost them £30,000 [roughly $40,000].”

4. Rollercoaster Tycoon brought a lot of people into the business.

The popular PC game, first released in 1999, allowed users to methodically construct their own amusement parks, including the rides. As a proving ground for aspiring engineers and designers, it worked pretty well. Jeff Pike, President of Skyline Attractions, says he’s seen several people grow passionate about the industry as a direct result of the game. “I remember when the game first got popular, I would go to trade shows and there would be kids looking to get into it using screen shots of rides they designed. The game definitely brought a lot of people into the fold.”

5. Paint makes a big difference in coaster speed.

A group of tin metal cans with colorful paint
scanrail/iStock via Getty Images

For all of their high-tech design—the software, fabrication, and precise measures of energy—a good coaster ride can often come down to whether it’s got too much paint on it. “The one thing that will slow down a steel coaster is a build-up of paint on the track rails,” Pike says. “It softens where the wheel is rolling and hitting the track, which increases the drag.” A good, worn-in track will have gray or silver streaks where the wheel has worn down the paint, making it move more quickly.

6. A roller coaster’s skyline is key.

Brian Morrow, former Corporate Vice President for Theme Park Experience at SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, says that the looming curvature of coasters spotted as guests drive toward and enter the park is very purposeful. “It’s like a movie trailer in that we want you to see some iconic coaster elements, but not the whole thing,” he says. “You approach it with anticipation.”

7. Some coasters arrive as giant model kits.

Whether a coaster’s theme or design comes first is largely left up to the end user—the amusement park. But for some rides, manufacturers are able to offer pre-fabricated constructions that designers can treat like the world’s biggest Erector Set. “Sometimes I work on rides that have already been built,” Walker says. “They’re produced by a company and presented almost like a kit with parts, like a model train set. There’s a curve here, a straight bit here, and you can pick your own layout depending on the lay of the land.”

8. Wooden roller coasters are weather-sensitive.

If you’ve ever been on a wooden coaster that seems a little shaky from one trip to the next, check the forecast: It might be because of the weather. Pike says that humidity and other factors can shrink the wood, affecting how bolts fit and leading to a slightly shakier experience. “The structure itself can flex back and forth,” he says. It’s still perfectly safe—it just takes more maintenance to make sure the wood and fasteners are in proper operating condition. A well-cared-for wooden coaster, Pike says, can usually outlast a steel model.

9. The time of day can affect the coaster experience.

“A coaster running in the morning could run slower when cooler,” Morrow says. “The wheels are not as warm, the bearings are warming up. That could be different by 2 p.m., with a slicked-up wheel chassis.” Coasters experiencing their first-ever test runs can also be slightly unpredictable, according to Pike. "Those first trial runs [during the testing phase] can be slow because everything is just so tight," he says. "A lot of coasters don't even make it around the track. It's not a failure. It's just super-slow."

10. Roller coaster designs can come from unusual places—like Jay Leno’s chin.

The twisting, undulating tracks of coasters can often be the result of necessity: Pike says that trees, underground piping, and available real estate all inform designers when it comes to placing a ride in a specific park. But when they have more freedom, coasters can sometimes take on the distinctive shape of whatever happens to be around the designers at the time of conception. “We had a giant piece of land in Holland that just had no constraints, and we were sitting around talking," Pike says. “And we started talking about Jay Leno’s chin.” The ride was a “loose” representation of the comedian's jaw, but “it is there.”

11. Roller coaster riders double as performers.

A woman taking a ride on a rollercoaster at Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany
A woman taking a ride on a rollercoaster at Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany
exithamster/iStock via Getty Images

For Walker, the best advertising for a coaster is having spectators watch riders de-board after an exhilarating experience. “It’s all about that emotion,” he says. “A spectator basically asks, ‘What’s making them so aroused? What’s giving them such pleasure?’ The line for the ride is the audience. Imagining yourself on the structure becomes a very powerful thing."

12. The future of coasters is vertical.

Biggest, fastest, longest—coasters are running out of superlatives. Because rides can only be designed with so many drips, rolls, or G forces, some companies are looking to the sky for their next big idea. Kitchen has been overseeing design of the Polercoaster for years: It’s a sprawling, skyscraper-esque ride that uses electromagnetic propulsion to carry riders upwards instead of across horizontal tracks. “We want to put it in places where land is very expensive, like the Vegas strip,” he says. “You can only do that if it takes up a lot less space.” The project is set to exceed the 456 feet of the current tallest ride, Kingda Ka at Six Flags in New Jersey. “It’ll be the world’s tallest—and hopefully the most fun.”

This list first ran in 2017.

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