Harmless fun

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 December, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 December, 2002, 12:00am

PAYING MONEY for the privilege of being jolted around by machinery at scary speeds, then spun upside down to induce collective screams, is not everybody's idea of a safe day out. But for those with a desire to sneer at fear, those thrills and illusory spills are all the fun of the fair as tens of thousands flock to the World Carnival at Kai Tak, starting on Saturday.

So when Dave Geary, the man in charge of ensuring the safety of each ride, leans back and gives a wry smile when asked about any potential dangers, I take his knowing grin as a sign of assurance. 'If you look at spending two hours in your own home, or two hours in an amusement park, you are actually safer in an amusement park, statistically that is,' says the 45-year-old English-born safety engineer. Titan-like metal structures have been sprouting on a section of the old airport for the past two weeks to form one of the largest travelling fairs in the world. Attractions include a 140-tonne Big Wheel, two versions of the popular 'G-Force', a state-of-the-art roller coaster and a dodgems circuit specially made for the Hong Kong event. The bulk of the equipment has been transported via two roll-on-roll-off ferries from Europe.

For the next eight weeks, show men and women from 12 countries will be out to emulate the success of the previous holiday event at Hunghom, which stretched into the Lunar New Year. The Kai Tak event is 30 per cent bigger than the one at Hunghom and will feature about a dozen new rides, says Geary.

Behind the scenes will be the watchful eyes of a platoon of government inspectors as well as Geary, one of Britain's foremost fairground safety consultants. As every bolt is tightened to its correct torque to ensure the rails and poles don't buckle, experts from the government's Electrical and Mechanical Services Department (EMSD) make numerous other checks.

Hair-raising rides, such as the Booster, are not for the faint-hearted. But as screaming thrill-seekers transform themselves into weekend warriors, show owners hope they'll step right up and have another go.

It may disappoint the daredevils among us, but the funfair G-Force experience - such as on the 'Tower' or a roller coaster - is a brief one. It is also a force of gravity just less than that which can play havoc with the body of a jet-fighter pilot who violently ascends or descends at high speed. Fighter pilots may experience surges in the range of 6 to 8 G-forces. While the sky is the limit for amusement park ride designers, European Union officials have limited fairground rides to a G-force of 4.2. Ride operators here abide by that. Geary says: 'The designers produce work based on three things: safety, safety, safety - and then afterwards comes their creative efforts and the attention to the ride experience.

'The safety restraints on such rides are duplicated, triplicated, tested and monitored constantly. The safety restraints do thousands of tests. What really brings people to the brink of fear is the illusion that it is dangerous. It's a unique experience. The fairground has a magic, and it's the magic that causes the attraction, not only the rides but the whole atmosphere.'

Geary has been intrigued by travelling fairs since he was a child. The interest took him from a technical apprentice in the lift industry in his native Northamptonshire, in the English Midlands, to checking technical safety at leading British and European theme parks such as Alton Towers in Staffordshire, also in the Midlands. With more than 20 years of study and training towards advanced aspects of ride safety and engineering, he is now a travelling consultant required whenever and wherever the fair comes to town. Postings have included Brazil, Costa Rica and the Middle East.

As well as a huge amount of paperwork related to SAR ordinances, safety manuals and inspections, Geary's team will be on constant lookout for tell-tale signs of danger. 'What we are looking for are such things as defects in the paint which can warn us of other problems,' he says. 'We also have to ensure the rides are properly assembled, commissioned and, of course, everything such as hydraulics and electrics are properly tested.The EMSD is one of the most stringent in the world and certainly one of the better codes to work to. They have been very thorough and have co-operated greatly with us.'

With the knowing grin absent this time, he adds: 'If necessary, I can take action to force a ride that I have reservations over to shut if the rules and regulations are not observed. It has happened, but it's very rare.'