What is Roller Coaster Airtime?

What's Up With that Butterflies-in-Your-Stomach Sensation?


Arthur Levine

Airtime is an expression that roller coaster fans, ride manufacturers, and parks use to describe the sensation that passengers feel when they rise out of their seats during a ride. For a true coaster fan, airtime is coaster nirvana; for roller coaster wimps, the experience can be unnerving.

G (short for gravitational)-forces help to explain the phenomenon. When we are not riding coasters and going about our daily lives, we experience the earth's normal gravitational force. Defined as 1G, it is the force that keeps us tethered to the ground. Without 1G, we'd lift into the air like a helium ballon (or like astronauts in orbit above the Earth).

Because of their design and elements, coasters exert both positive and negative Gs. Coaster riders experience anything greater than 1G (and some coasters briefly deliver bursts of 4Gs and more), as a heaviness or pressure on their bodies. These are known as positive G-forces or simply positive Gs. Anything less than 1G, referred to as negative G-forces or negative Gs, results in airtime.

Typically, coasters send riders rising out of their seats when a train crests a hill at high speeds. The train starts falling down the other side of the hill, but the objects inside of the train, namely the passengers, want to keep hurtling skyward. The upward forces momentarily overtake the earth's gravitational force, and riders experience airtime. Although they are identified as “negative Gs,” it should be noted that the actual airtime forces on a coaster usually fall in the range between 0G and 1G.

Some of the most pronounced airtime moments occur on coasters after the first drop, when the train ascends the second hill. This is often when the speed and forces are at their most intense. On especially tall and fast coasters, designers will often target the third and sometimes the fourth hills for airtime sensations as well. Towards the end of coaster layouts, elements such as “bunny hills” (a series of relatively small hills that follow one after another in a straight path) help promote airtime moments, albeit less intense ones.

Arthur Levine

Floater and Ejector Airtime

There are two general types of airtime: “floater” and “ejector.” Floater air refers to the more gentle variety during which riders slowly rise out of their seats and float above them. It is also described as a “butterflies-in-your-stomach” sensation. The more menacing sounding ejector air describes the sudden, somewhat violent burst of air that might send coaster riders slamming upwards into their restraints. There are fans of both. (We are partial to floater air.)

Two factors that can influence airtime on roller coasters are their height and speed. Exceptionally fast and tall coasters, however, do not necessarily deliver a lot of airtime. In fact, some of the world’s tallest, as well as fastest coasters offer relatively little in the way of airtime. (For example, the 300-foot-tall, 93-mph Millennium Force is relatively airtime-free.) The design of the hills and other elements have much more to do with airtime than sheer height and speed.

Examples of Coasters that Deliver Airtime

Steel hypercoasters (rides with lifts hills of about 200 to 250 feet and no inversions) are designed for speed and airtime. Three of the best, and ones that deliver glorious pops of floater air are:

El Toro coaster Six Flags Great Adventure
Six Flags

Wooden coasters are sometimes known for their ejector air. Two that offer plenty of airtime are:

The more recent category of wooden-steel hybrid coasters (which have wooden structures, but an innovative steel track known as IBox track) is also known to include great airtime moments. Two that pour on the out-of-your-seat sensation:

  • Twisted Colossus at Six Flags Magic Mountain
  • Steel Vengeance at Cedar Point. According to the park, it delivers 27.2 seconds of airtime over the course of its ride. That ranks it among the most airtime-producing roller coasters in the world.
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