Rigging: Flying for Christmas

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

The Christmas holiday season is often the most exciting and busiest time of year at Christian houses of worship. Members of the congregation have been trained to expect fabulous décor and exciting activities. The managers of the facilities make significant efforts to create excitement as part of the holiday festivities not only by decorating both the interior and exterior of a facility, but often by creating spectacular performances. Many of you have seen or at least heard about the flying angels that were part of the Crystal Cathedral holiday performances, and some of you wish to duplicate that level of spectacle. You are congratulated for your enthusiasm—however this article is to warn you of the dangers of flying people.

Yanked, pulled, hoisted or dropped, the human body is not resistant to pain, injury or death. Flying of people should always be left to entertainment professionals who make flying people their profession. Whether you are lowering Santa Claus down a chimney, flying angels from heaven or lowering the Heavenly Host to a Nativity scene, any of these visions ultimately involve performers. Each performer has a personal life, parents and perhaps children: you certainly don’t want to be responsible for shortening someone’s life, damaging their body, causing an irreparable brain injury or causing their death. As proven by the wrestler who was dropped and killed at the opening of a match in the Midwest a few years ago, even a professional rigger can cause this to happen.

You have been warned, but I suspect some of you will not be deterred: you will fly someone above a stage or even above an audience. Here are some basic rules:

Thou shalt not Gerry-rig to fly a person
Use only professional grade equipment. Remember, someone’s life depends on your decisions. If you cannot afford professional grade equipment, you cannot afford to fly a person. This must include every pulley, loft block, lift line and harness to be used in the “gag”.

Thou shalt not use damaged equipment
Inspect every piece of equipment when it is selected, when it is installed, after it is installed and before each use. Pulleys jam, lift lines get caught and/or wear. Fiber goods such as harnesses and ropes become abraded and worn. Check the smallest detail. Be sure the Carabineers are not damaged or distorted. Assure that every clasp, every snap, every fastener closes firmly and locks. If something is damaged, throw it away. Don’t save it. Dispose of it.

The person being flown shall inspect each part of the flying rig to their own satisfaction
The person(s) flying must be confident in the flying rig. If they feel insecure, their performance will be affected, and the audience will be more concerned about the performer than about the performance.

Thou shalt have a second person inspect everything before every use
Everything should be inspected in detail by the person (the flyman) responsible for managing the fly-rig. Once that person has completed the inspection to their own satisfaction, a second person with ‘fresh eyes’ must independently inspect the rig again and, if necessary, make any adjustments, repairs or replacements. If a change is made to anything, complete inspection by the person flown, the flymaster and the second set of eyes must be repeated before the system is used.

You may find this extreme, however, it is based on industry experience flying people. Accidents happen, errors occur and machinery fails. Start secure so everyone can be safe.

A quick story
At a performance several years ago, a young dancer was in a harness and was flown above the rest of the characters. On cue she was flown out of sightlines into the loft of the theatre. She traveled up and out of view as she had at every rehearsal and performance in the past. When she reached the top of her planned travel the hoist lifting her did not stop. She was pulled past the dismount platform until the hooks on her harness jammed against the winch suspending her. Repeated efforts were made to stop the motor on the winch from which she was suspended. The hoist motor did not stop. It would not reverse. It could not be turned off. The winch pulled on her lift line, a wire rope, until the cable shredded and broke. She fell to the floor where her arms, legs and spine were crushed. She now lives as a paraplegic.

This event changed the way our entire industry wires emergency stop circuits. All motorized hoists used in the performance industry are now designed so the E-stop button will instantly remove power to the motor of the hoist. Before this accident, E-stops simply removed power to the controller. Better hoist systems are engineered so that they will not function at all if there is any fault in the motor circuit, including “welded contactors”.

You are strongly encouraged to plan your seasonal spectacles without flying people. If for some reason you are compelled to fly a person(s), first choice is to hire a professional company to do the flying. Second choice is to follow the commandments above.

Have a safe and joyous holiday.

Dr. Harvey Sweet is an ETCP Certified Rigger – Theatre, Certificate No. 1055. He is currently the Product Manager for Theatrical Rigging Systems at ETC (Electronic Theatre Controls), in Middleton, Wisconsin.