Engineer bridges gap between telescopes and roller coasters

The path one takes in life is often more like a roller coaster than a merry-go-round, no matter how hard we plan for the predictable. Our journeys tend to start out in one direction, loop back upon themselves and take twists and turns that we would have never imagined possible. Such has been the life journey of David Halliday, who has somehow managed to successfully combine Rolls Royce, roller coasters, telescopes, Hawaii, bridges, Scotland, Disney, UBC, Universal Studios, the Canary Islands and the National Research Council.

Born in Inverness, Scotland, Halliday spent his youth building structures with Meccano sets. He retained this childhood passion for engineering by attending the Inverness Technical College where he received a National Certificate in Mechanical and Electrical Engineering from in 1964. While studying for this certificate, Halliday was trained as an apprentice at Rolls Royce/Ferranti; a company specialized in the design and manufacture of welding equipment used in both the aircraft and automobile industry.

Halliday continued his education by receiving a Bachelor of Science Honours Degree in Mechanical and Production Engineering from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. During the four years of completing this degree, Halliday continued his career at Rolls Royce/Ferranti by becoming a member of its research team where he was responsible for the design and development of friction welding equipment to be used for the joining of dissimilar metals.

Following his graduation, Halliday moved across the pond to Canada, where he worked for Canron as a project engineer for four years.

“That company specialized in the design and building of fairly complex structures, mainly related to bridges,” Port Coquitlam, B.C.-based Halliday said. “At that time in British Columbia there was a tremendous amount of activity in the natural resource end and also in the bridge end, so there was a lot of construction going on. That’s where I gained a lot of knowledge in looking at very unique erection or construction methods.”

Halliday’s life as an engineer took one of those roller coaster loop-de-loops 22 years ago, when he became a part of a team hired to design and construct enclosures to house optical telescopes.

Halliday explained the transition in his career from bridges to telescopes by admitting that “anything that was complex and interesting excited me.”

While at Canron, Halliday participated in the design and construction of four major telescope enclosures: two in the Canary Islands and two in Hawaii, including the W.M. Keck observatory in Mauna Kea, which houses the world’s largest telescope.

Since then, Halliday moved his special projects group to Costeel, which became Amec, which merged with Agra. They now work under the name Amec Dynamic Structures, for which Halliday is vice-president and director of special projects, and this is where his team has completed work on two Gemini structures in Mauna Kea, Hawaii and Cerro Pachon, Chile. Both of these projects were completed with the assistance of the National Research Council of Canada (NRC).

“Essentially all of these projects had an NRC sort of flavour to them. Somebody from the NRC was always active in most of these projects.”

Halliday, recently appointed to the NRC’s governing council, has had a strong tie with the council since the days when he first began building telescope enclosures.

“Most recently, we’ve been involved (with the NRC) in the long-range plan for Canada to look at astronomy for the future,” he said. “There are a lot of exciting things that have happened in the astronomy world in the last year or so. There’s a great desire to move forward and for Canada to become very active in building the next generation of the design of the telescope. This involves taking telescopes up to the 20 and 30 metre class size, which is a quantum leap from where we’ve been before.”

Halliday, a professor of civil engineering at the University of British Columbia, believes that the best work will come out of Canada will occur once the scientific community teams up with the government and academia.

“In the past, Canada has been inclined to take a back seat and have become involved in small partnerships with some of the large U.S. companies,” Halliday explained. “Unfortunately, that’s not altogether good because there’s a great amount of talent within Canada, technically and scientifically, and it’s only fair that if we’re to hold our people in Canada we need to give them the opportunity. We need to show them that they can be involved in building a large telescope, for example, and have ownership in it. That’s important.

“That’s why I teach at UBC occasionally. It is absolutely imperative that we can get out there and begin to stimulate enthusiasm at the student level and show them that we’re moving in a positive direction. That’s encouraged by getting them to think practically at a very early stage and not totally theoretically,” he said.

So where do roller coasters fit into this equation?

One of the project engineers working on the Keck Observatory in Hawaii went on to accept a senior role at Disney, and contacted Halliday when their Florida theme park was faced with a challenge over one of its rides.

“We went down and looked at the project and all of the problems that they had, and redesigned a structure that came up with a solution,” he said. “That got us started.”

Halliday and his team have designed, manufactured and constructed some of the most hair-raising rides you’ll ever stand in line for at theme parks on this continent and abroad. Halliday has worked on the Batman and Robin Theme Ride at the Six Flags theme park in New Jersey, the GM Test Track at Walt Disney World in Florida, the Suzuka Mad Cobra roller coaster in Osaka, Japan, the Islands of Adventure theme park for Universal Studios in Florida, and was involved in retro-fit work for Disney World’s E.T. ride.

Halliday and his team became involved in the construction of theme park rides because roller coasters, telescopes and bridges share complexity in terms of structure, and share similarities in that it’s all high tolerance and high precision work.

“Telescopes dimensionally need very high tolerance,” Halliday explained. “We need to protect the telescope. We need to worry about it and understand it from a dynamic point of view. We have to know how wind affects it. We have to know how vibration affects it. We have to know how heat affects the telescope’s performance. We need to get into a detailed level and understand all engineering aspects that can inhibit the performance of the telescope. The bigger the telescope and the further it sees back in time, the more sensitive and accurate it has to be, so we need to understand how to deal with all of these issues.

“Rides are very similar in kind,” he continued. “We have to worry about safety and the quality of the manufacture. We have to worry about fatigue, to ensure that the structure doesn’t fall apart. We integrate engineering with manufacturing, and are specialists in that area.”