Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Great Flying Saucers Who-dunnit?

Artist's Renderings of both patented designs

There are a couple of important points which are often overlooked in th story of the Flying Saucers; The first is the identity of the gentleman riding in the saucer in this picture;

Ed Morgan, developing his flotation skills.
May I have the pleasure of introducing... Mr. Edgar Allen Morgan, one of the four co-founders of Arrow Development. This photo shows Ed testing one of the prototype flying saucers at Arrow's facility in Mountain View, CA.

Here is another pair of shots of a couple of other interested parties trying out their flotation skills:

Karl Bacon, and a fellow named Walt, contemplating levitation.

These two images are from US Patent Des 192,932, Amusement Ride Car, filed June 29, 1961 and issued May 29, 1962 to (Imagineer) Robert H. Gurr of Costa Mesa CA.  In the description it claims "The ornamental design for an amusement ride car, substantially as shown."



For those who may be unaware of the differences between the types of patents issued in the United States, the DES in the patent document name may be obscure. What this means is that the things being patented are the visual or "design" elements - in other words; the appearance of the object; its' size, shape and contours, as opposed to its functions. That is also why the word "ornamental" appears in the title.

This becomes significant when considering the roles of the patent applicants.  In this case, what Bob Gurr is being credited for is the styling of the ride vehicle.  For the design of the rest of the ride system we have to look elsewhere. Fortunately we have a clue; the name of the firm that did the design engineering on the ride system; Arrow Development.

US Patent 3,251,595, filed May 11, 1962 and issued May 17, 1966 to E. A. Morgan et al for Air Car and Supporting Apparatus, fills in the blanks. ("et al" means "and the rest")

In 9 pages, containing 17 figures and 11 claims, covering the Flight Deck and Ground Structure, Automatic Valves, The Air Car, Directional Control, Loading and Unloading and Plenum Chamber Pressure, Edgar Allen Morgan and Karl W. Bacon, the inventors, laid out all the details of Disneyland's Flying Saucer Ride. It is a true work of engineering art utilizing air cylinders, poppet valves and huge blower motors to levitate the cars, which worked beautifully in Mountain View, but based on the photographs also went thru some changes, including dropping air assist steering the position of the valve plates from on top of to below the platform.

US Patent 3,251,595 - Air Car and Supporting Apparatus

Flying Saucers Air Valve

This multi-port air valve was designed to open and close based on the pressure above and below the disk. What no one realized at the time the ride was built in Anaheim, was that the size of the air chamber below the show floor was smaller in Mountain View. That difference in size caused a problem in Tomorrowland; the air in the bigger chamber would start to oscillate and throw off the pressure balance across the cylinders. As that vibration increased, eventually all the valves would open, letting out all the air and effectively shutting the ride down. This was called "dumping the table." Although they tried to adjust and correct the problem, there was no easy way to dampen the oscillations and stabilize the pressure. Changing the chamber was out of the question. Karl and Ed did try putting damping springs on the 18,000 valves, but nothing they did corrected the problem fully.

There is another detail in one of the patents; The rider was supposed to be able to steer the saucer with air jets, as shown in the following illustration. The small arrows represent pressurized air coming upwards from the middle of the Car Plenum Chamber and passing thru two valves, one on each side of the car, into tubes which exhausted the air sideways, supposedly propelling the vehicle laterally. Its an interesting idea, but based on how it was built at the park, it probably didn't work well. Bob Gurr reminded me recently that the original concept for the Flying Saucers, which had propellers under each vehicle and a gasoline powered motor, was scrapped because it was too noisy and dangerous.


The air flotation idea would lay dormant for nearly fifty years, until the opening of Luigi's Flying Tires in Cars Land at Disney's California Adventure in June of 2012. That had much larger vehicles which had problems of their own, and that ride closed in less than three years. To this day, many people have fond memories of the Flying Saucers and their bumper car qualities.

The Flying Saucer patent is one of eight issued to Karl and Ed for rides developed for Disney between 1955 and 1965. The earliest, US 3,006,286; Amusement Vehicle Apparatus, issued in 1959, was for the track and guidance system used on most of the early dark rides which Arrow developed for Disneyland and which are still in use today on Alice in Wonderland, Snow White's Scary Adventure, and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.

Chris Pais tells this story of the end of the Flying Saucers and their replacement;

"I was with Walt the day he decided to close the Flying Saucers. When I arrived at his apartment on Main Street he asked me what I thought of the attraction. I told him that it seemed to break down a lot. I asked him about how it worked and said I believed that they didn't get enough lift...not enough air pressure was helping to move them. Next, I asked about how deep the chamber below the saucers was. Walt replied that it was almost like a swimming pool and I replied that maybe they could fill some of the area in.

Walt asked me to follow him over to the attraction, which was closed, again. He climbed over the metal railing and I started to follow him in, but he told please not to, as he thought it was dangerous. 

Walt began examining the flapper valves and stepped backwards onto one, which twisted his ankle and caused him to fall backwards, landing on his back and striking his head. I was stunned and asked if he was alright. He told me of course he wasn't. 

I told him to lay still and went to find help. I found a security guard who radioed in what happened. Soon an ambulance and several security men arrived. Walt was put on a gurney and taken to the ambulance. I held his hand until they closed the doors. He told me he'd call me later, which he did. 

The next time I saw Walt at the park he told me he had decided to shut the attraction down. That he'd been promised a lot by the guys that created it, but it had been a major let-down. He told me that he wanted another 'space attraction' to replace the saucers. We discussed an attraction where guests could fly through outer space. I pointed to the Matterhorn and commented how the guests had really embraced it. He liked the idea of a second tubular coaster. 

The end result was an attraction that he called The Space Port. A futuristic airport in space where guests could blast off into the galaxy. He wanted it inside a building with planets and stars whizzing about. Today we now know that as Space Mountain which sits exactly where the Flying Saucers had been."

Even tho the saucers are gone, there the memory is carried on in the fluted cone of Space Mountain, which is a reflection of the detail around the seats of the Flying Saucer vehicles.


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