New Zealand awarded a $330,000 grant to create a human catapult
By COLIN BERTRAM | Bloomberg | Published: August 11, 2018
In Queenstown, New Zealand, the stakes have been raised in the adrenaline experience market. There's now a "catapult" that launches participants almost 500 feet into the air at a speed of up to 60 miles per hour.
It's not for the faint of heart, or those with a fear of heights, necessarily.
On a bungee jump, it's your decision when and how to step off the elevated platform and let the thick elasticized cord yank you back up-requiring you to push past your nerves. But once you are secured into the Nevis Catapult "you're kind of committed," says Henry van Asch, co-founder of A.J. Hackett Bungy New Zealand, the company behind the new thrill ride, and which first introduced commercial bungee jumping 30 years ago.
The idea for the catapult, has been on van Asch's mind for longer. Before he and Hackett became the bane of nervous parents everywhere, they were bungee jumping through France. "At one point I stretched the bungee out between two big bridges and did a similar thing," says van Asch of the inspiration for today's mechanism.
"We started designing it in earnest three years ago," says van Asch. "First, it took about a year to work through what we wanted people to experience in terms of emotional, physical, and intellectual processes. Then two years ago we really got into the technical and mechanical design of it."
After after year of testing the machinery, first at an accredited facility in the city of Christchurch and then out on the actual valley site, van Asch and team unveiled the Nevis Catapult to the public on Wednesday, with local tourism leaders, along with friends and family being among the first to buckle in. The technology was partly funded by a NZD $500,000 ($330,300) grant from the government.
"People who didn't know anything about it came and tried it and they all came off with a big grin on their face and eyes wide open," he says.
Named for the river the new ride floats above, the Nevis Catapult is not a simple fling and catch. Once outfitted with a harness, thrill seekers are secured to a computerized winch system strung with a bungee cord. Before expulsion, riders are lifted off the platform into a horizontal position.
As time surely must appear to stand still, the other end of the bungee "shoots out across the cables in front of you and the tension is then increased," says van Asch.
Anticipation grows as computers decide on the correct amount of weight-based pressure. Once achieved, a magnet is then released which in turn releases the cord and the rider, pulling both almost 500 feet out into the air over the valley. (So, no, it's not a catapult in the traditional medieval weapon sense.)
"You go from naught to 60 miles per hour in one and a half seconds with a force of around 3G maximum acceleration on the body, which is the number we set as being a good, safe amount," van Asch says. To compare, high-speed roller coasters can push riders up to about 6Gs in the most extreme cases, with such force bearable due to only lasting a few seconds, while jet-fighter pilots endure up to 8Gs while wearing pressured suits.
For the first one and half seconds you are under heavy acceleration, van Asch says of the catapult experience, "then you sort of do a big bounce and then there is another weightless phase and then a couple more bounces before you are retrieved back to the pod." Overall, the experience lasts a few minutes depending on your weight and velocity.
Self-branded the "Adventure Capital of the World," Queenstown sits on the shores of Lake Wakatipu on New Zealand's South Island. Set against the backdrop of the Remarkables mountain range, it's a haven for outdoor adventurers with ski fields, hiking, sailing, and extreme sport experiences such as jet boating, skydiving, and bungee jumping.
A.J. Hackett-the company's motto is "live more, fear less"-operates three bungee jumps in the area, including the country's highest, as well as the Nevis Swing, another thrill ride which now shares its launch pod with the Nevis Catapult. During peak attendance in the summer months, van Asch estimates more than 100 people will be catapulted into the air each day of operation. Participants must be at least 13-years-old and weigh between 100 to 280 pounds. The experience costs NZD $255.
Already a major international tourist destination, the New Zealand Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment forecasts visitor arrivals into the country to grow 4.6 percent a year, reaching 5.1 million visitors in 2024 from 3.7 million in 2017, with total international tourist spend to reach NZD $14.8 billion by 2024.
"When we started bungee off 30 years ago, that really brought Queenstown into the global awareness as somewhere you can do amazing things on any day, and we've seen that go from strength to strength," says van Asch, who admits to being delighted with the initial reaction to the Nevis Catapult. "And it's great to still be innovating and at the forefront of that movement,"
Ideas for other extreme experiences are jumping around van Asch's brain. There's also the possibility of taking this latest venture global, but right now he's happy to settle back and enjoy the current ride, admitting he took a few catapult jaunts himself on launch day, with many others prior to that.
"On the first day we had a few people who did all three," says van Asch of those daring enough to do the bungee jump, the swing, and the catapult in the same 24-hour period. "They went to bed early, or they may have gone out for a lot of beer."