When work is a thrill ride

The gig: Tim Burkhart, 54, is corporate vice president of maintenance and construction for Six Flags Entertainment Corp. , the parent company of Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia and 17 other parks in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

Burkhart's resume is pretty short. He has spent his entire career at Six Flags, starting in 1977 when he was in high school and worked as a ride operator on Revolution, the first looping roller coaster. It was meant to be a temporary job to raise money for some senior-year fun. Instead, Burkhart said, he fell in love with the park and its employees.

"I've never left," he said. "I've been here since March 21, 1977."

Although he doesn't have an engineering degree, Burkhart has led the team that designed and built nine of the park's 17 roller coasters. A few months ago, he was promoted from director of maintenance and construction for Six Flags Magic Mountain to overseeing maintenance and construction at all Six Flags parks.

"I walk through this park and I look at all this iron standing in the air, and I think, 'I put it up,'" he said.

The biggest perk: After each ride is built, Burkhart is the first to ride it. On most roller coasters, the experience has been thrilling. But Burkhart said that when he first rode the $10-million roller coaster X, a thrill ride with seats that rotate 360 degrees, he told his bosses that the ride was too rough. The opening of the ride was delayed six months for further work. It has since been redesigned with special effects and lighter vehicles and was redubbed X2 in 2008.

A rock 'n' roll nerd: Burkhart doesn't exactly fit the profile of a corporate suit. He has a degree in psychology from Cal State Northridge, and the ring tone on his smartphone blasts Volbeat, a Danish band that plays a fusion of rock, heavy metal, punk and rockabilly. The father of two daughters, he attends heavy metal rock concerts and enjoys riding in 100-mile bicycle road races.

Battle for the title: Six Flags Magic Mountain has long battled Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio, for the title of "Roller Coaster Capital of the World." Six Flags currently holds the title with 17 coasters, while Cedar Point has 16. Burkhart calls it a friendly competition and said he is cordial when he meets Cedar Point executives at industry conferences. "What's cool is that we trade the title back and forth," he said.

Bad times: Six Flag's most recent fatal accident was on April 4, 2004, when an employee was struck and killed by a train of cars on the Scream roller coaster during a test run before the park opened. Burkhart, who was director of park operations and maintenance at the time, said he takes maintenance and safety very seriously. "Any time someone gets injured, it's a bad day," he said.

Getting a reaction: Burkhart likes to hang around the park to see the reaction of visitors as they get off a new ride. He said parkgoers have hugged him and shaken his hand after surviving one of his thrill rides. Burkhart loves seeing the emotion. "Best day of the year is opening day," he said. "I am there to watch the first trainload of people get off that ride, and I have not been let down yet."

Getting creative with maintenance: When the park needed to replace the seats on the Superman roller coaster because of wear and tear, Burkhart said, he wondered whether it was an opportunity to upgrade the ride. Instead of simply replacing the seats, he said, he and his team designed new symmetrical seats, made of lighter material. Because of the change made two years ago, the seats were flipped around so that passengers can ride the coaster facing backward. "What a remarkable ride that turned out to be," he said.

The flying beast: Burkhart said his toughest challenge so far has been the construction of the thrill ride Tatsu, the park's longest steel coaster, at 3,603 feet long. Its cars travel up to 62 miles per hour and simulate the sensation of flying by being below their tracks. What made the job an ordeal was the size of the coaster, the weight of the vehicles, the rotation of the seats and the torrential rain that fell in 2006 during construction. The park lost four acres of parking because of erosion that year. "Of all the rides I've put up, Tatsu is my favorite," he said. "It was without a doubt the most challenging construction project I've been involved in."

And when Burkhart rode Tatsu for the first time, he admits, he "screamed like a girl."

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