The twists and turns of amusement park rides, especially roller coasters, trigger a variety of feelings for the riders, from excitement and anticipation to bone-chilling fear. Many wooden roller coaster enthusiasts, as they travel the country seeking the ultimate adrenaline rush, would probably give their right arm to switch places with Robbin Finnerty, Vice President of Engineering at Great Coasters International, Inc.  (GCII). Finnerty, the only female engineer at GCII, was not herself an enthusiast before joining GCII, but she is an enthusiast about her job.
Finnerty (pictured above) was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Santa Cruz, California. She was working as an engineer on underwater remote-operated vehicles in Silicon Valley when GCII, a roller coaster design and engineering firm based in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, wanted an engineer to join their Santa Cruz office. "They were looking for someone who had an engineering degree and a lot of computer skills, especially in programming," Finnerty says. So she took a $15,000 pay cut to move back home. "The office is near the yacht harbor and has a casual environment. It turned out to be a very good fit for me."
Finnerty's path to her current job was anything but typical. Her fascination with building things started during her teenage years when she worked at a machine shop at age 15. This is also when she passed the California High School Proficiency Exam, and left school to enter the job market. She worked in a junk yard and with an insulation company before joining the operating engineers' union for heavy equipment. She then spent the next 12 years doing construction work before going back to school for her engineering degree. "I completed the first two years at a local [two-year] community college in Santa Cruz and then transferred ... into the UC system," says Finnerty. "At the time, the University of California at Santa Cruz had a degree program in computer engineering, but I wanted to do either mechanical or structural [engineering], so I chose the University of California at Santa Barbara, another beach town."
Great Coasters International, Inc.
Because GCII is a small firm, staff members have multiple responsibilities. Finnerty's typical day varies, depending on whether GCII has a coaster design and construction project under way. If they do, she reviews construction drawings and structural calculations with one of the in-house structural engineers. "Building coasters is a team effort, and everyone has their role," she says. "The designer says how high [the coaster] should go and what the radius is, and I make sure it stands up. It's the structural aspect that comes after the design that I'm in charge of." These structural aspects are essential because GCII roller coasters are made of wood. That means that connection details--how the wooden structure is connected to the coaster's concrete foundation--are especially important. Also important is how the coaster is anchored to the ground; she often works with other specialists--geotechnical engineers--to make sure the coaster is properly "grounded."
GCII's Thunderhead at Dollywood Park in Tennessee is a good example of the complex engineering that goes into building a roller coaster. (Photo courtesy of Joel Styer.)
Finnerty's job has an important communications aspect; she is also responsible for disseminating building information to the field crew, and making sure they understand exactly what needs to be done. She also interacts with construction partners; for example she may have to identify a local concrete company or talk to concrete vendors to order a special mix.
When GCII has no construction project on the go, her role becomes to monitor the computer network in the office and to make sure all company communications are up and running. "I'm like the IT department and the senior engineer [rolled into one]," she says.
Safety is always first, but to Finnerty the real challenge is creating something new or a little different to make the ride worthy of the coaster enthusiasts who travel the country seeking excitement. One of the most intriguing aspects of what Finnerty and the other members of the GCII team do is that, while it's an engineering challenge, it's also an exercise in psychology. GCII doesn't want their patrons to say, "That was just one curve, two bunny hops, and a small drop," says Finnerty.
Designing a satisfying coaster involves manipulating the rider's perceptions. "If the structure is low to the ground and you are moving very quickly through it, it actually seems like you are going faster than you are, due to the proximity to your reference points," she says. Other tricks that keep the rider in suspense include intertwining portions of the structure so the rider doesn't know what's going to happen to next. "They won't know what it feels like until they actually ride it," she says.
Interested in Building Coasters?
Roller coaster design and construction is a small industry. Finnerty estimates there are about 20 wooden roller coaster designers working in the country now, with each designer working with three to five supporting engineers to support the actual construction. And coaster work is likely to remain a small niche; Finnerty doesn't foresee jobs in the industry growing in the future, and the companies that are operating now have to endure a regular cycle of feast or famine. "This coming year we have two jobs defined already and may get a third, but there have been years when we might not get anything and others when we may have one. The most we've done [in one year] is three."
There may not be many such jobs out there, but it's good work if you can find it. Finnerty loves attending her coaster's openings. "It's nice to go and see one of our brand new rides," she says. "There could be hundreds or thousands of people waiting to get on and they come off smiling and laughing. It feels good to create fun for people."
Finnerty's best advice for those interested in a career in roller coaster design and construction is to get practical experience and an engineering degree. She is in the process of hiring a junior-level engineer now, and says she would consider someone without a degree if they can do the job. "I've seen people without degrees that can do the things I do," she says. "The piece of paper means nothing to me as long as they can do the necessary calculations." Still, she warns that many companies will automatically dismiss an applicant without the appropriate educational background.
Finnerty also stresses that communication skills are critical for any job, and says you should never limit your options. It's rare to finish school and land a dream job, so if you have to take something in the interim, find a job that will be a stepping stone towards your long-term goals. A good example of such a job in the roller coaster field is a concrete test engineer, which provides experience with the materials of the trade.
The roller coaster industry is dominated by men, and Finnerty says that being a woman has caused problems on occasion, but she has learned to handle these situations by staying professional. "Park personnel or engineers call my office, but when I answer the phone, I hear dead silence or a slight gasp on the other end when it becomes evident that "Robbin" is a female," she says. "It occurs at least once per job, but I'm actually amused by it."
Finnerty and other female engineers have proven that gender is irrelevant. All that matters is whether a person possesses the skills to do the job. Oh, and you also have to be able to find the job...
Robin Arnette is editor of MiSciNet and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .