Astro Spiral: Revisiting the greatest car stunt of all time

Publicity stunts are the unsung heroes of science. Isaac Newton’s falling apple, Benjamin Franklin’s key and kite, and Watson, the IBM computer that creamed the human competition on Jeopardy!—all popularized scientific concepts that shaped the modern world. But as important as gravity, electricity, and artificial intelligence are, those stunts weren’t as spectacularly cool as the Astro Spiral Jump.

Even if you don’t know the name, you do know the stunt. The Astro Spiral is a ramp-to-ramp car jump with a full 360-degree barrel roll in between. It was performed first in the Houston Astrodome, hence the name, and it was prominently featured in the 1974 James Bond film, The Man with the Golden Gun.

It was 1968, 50 years ago. The kernel that would grow into the greatest car stunt of all time was planted inside the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory (CAL) in Buffalo, New York. Already renowned as the place where the first scientifically useful crash-test dummies were developed and where the efficacy of seatbelts was proved, CAL was pushing forward with a radical idea: Crashes could be simulated inside a computer so accurately as to be predictive of how such events would occur in the real world. The jump was designed to demonstrate the scientific validity of a computer crash-simulation program.

“We were writing in FORTRAN,” recalled project leader Raymond McHenry, in 2011. “We had a roomful of IBM 360 computers with punch cards. We’d submit a stack of punch cards and wait overnight to see what the results were.”

McHenry was a young scientist working under a U.S. government Bureau of Public Roads contract to develop the three-dimensional simulation program. The ultimate goal was to design and build safer roads.

“On our highways we have everything from minicars to tractor-trailers,” McHenry explained. “Slope changes, guardrail designs, and highway obstacles all affect how a vehicle behaves in a crash. But we can’t afford to crash an infinite number of different vehicles into an infinite number of different road obstacles.” A computer simulation, however, makes testing thousands of variables and theoretical scenarios possible in a virtual world.

Early computer simulations, written in FORTRAN, showed the jump in cyberspace before a human got behind the wheel.
Early computer simulations, written in FORTRAN, showed the jump in cyberspace before a human got behind the wheel. McHenry Software

Proving that what a computer simulation predicts will actually happen in the real world is, however, challenging. “We had impressive correlation,” said McHenry, recalling his testing of the software’s validity around 1970. “At about that time, the Joie Chitwood Thrill Show came through Buffalo. I hired some of Chitwood’s drivers to expand our range of validation. I had them driving on two wheels, spinning, reversing, and jumping, doing more and more violent maneuvers driving our instrumented 1963 Fords. The spiral jump was an extension of that.”

By 1971, McHenry and his team were ready to demonstrate the validity of the CAL simulation software. So McHenry called JM Productions, a company in Hamburg, New York, that was running stunt shows at fairgrounds around the country. McHenry arranged a meeting with owner W. Jay Milligan, and together they came up with the idea that CAL develop a 360-degree jump to perform in Milligan’s thrill show.

Milligan had a promotional agreement with American Motors, and the job of doing the twirl was soon given to AMC’s sportiest and newest car, the Javelin. Milligan also had connections at General Motors, and a Javelin was taken to GM’s laboratories and measured exhaustively. “We measured everything on the spiral car,” said McHenry. “GM had to pull Chevys off their machines so we could measure that AMC.”

With all the parameters of the jump car known, the stunt could now be designed using 18th-century mathematician Leonhard Euler’s equations for the motions of a rigid body in three-dimensional space. This is going to get dense, so hang on.

“You define a reference coordinate system for a vehicle within the sprung mass,” explained McHenry, referring to a computer model of the car and its weight, “and a second coordinate system for space. Then you can measure the two coordinate systems rotating within each other. The differentials can be coordinated into milliseconds.”

So, imagine two boxes—with one box flying through the other—and determining where the edges of each box are relative to the other. The goal is that they never collide.

“We integrate the degrees of freedom—six to define where the body is in space, plus yaw, pitch, roll, and Z, or downward motion,” McHenry continued. “You place the reference point—the center of the sprung mass—and you rotate it to the final yaw, final pitch, and final roll. That’s 10 independent variables. And to solve for those simultaneously we use matrix algebra.”

Stunt driver Chick Galiano entertained a packed house in Houston. To aid the roll, a piece on the end of the ramp’s left side fell away once the front tire had passed over it.
Stunt driver Chick Galiano entertained a packed house in Houston. To aid the roll, a piece on the end of the ramp’s left side fell away once the front tire had passed over it. J.M. Productions

In layman’s terms, once the edges and substance of the car are known, the computer calculates where it is at any point as it rotates through the air, assuming, of course, no variable has been overlooked or miscalculated and the laws of physics aren’t revoked midflight. All that’s left to do is design a ramp that meets the car’s wheels at the right point in the flight to guide it through the end of its rotation and return to the ground.

Those calculations in hand, CAL concluded that with a 40-mph takeoff speed and a 1.5-second flight between the ramps, the cars would need about 200 degrees of rotation per second. So the CAL team calculated the takeoff ramp shape and ran 32 simulated launches. After that, they designed a landing ramp to catch the car in mid-rotation—about 270 degrees later in the rotation—and gently bring it back down to level ground. They ran another 12 simulations to prove that.

A few tricks were applied to make it all work. The final bit of the left side of the takeoff ramp, for instance, dropped down after the front wheel passed over it since the rear wheel was already rotating down by the time it reached that point. And there was a steel wheel mounted on the Javelin’s rear differential to pitch the tail of the car up enough to complete the jump.

By November 1971, it was time to risk the Javelin in an unmanned test. It was a success. After two more unmanned shots, on December 22, Chick Galiano, a 34-year-old stunt driver, guided the Javelin through a nearly perfect test. In January 1972, after two more manned jumps, the ramps were shipped to Houston, where the first public performance of the stunt would take place in the Astrodome in front of a huge crowd.

Spectators went crazy as the AMC bounded onto the stadium’s floor, made its planned roll, landed, and exited the building. It wasn’t a perfect jump—the Javelin was a touch slow due to changes in terrain, according to Milligan. But it was close enough for a crowd looking for death to be defied. Milligan’s crew would perform the stunt around the country about 70 more times through 1975.

At some point, the stunt attracted the interest of Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, who with his partner, Harry Saltzman, owned Eon Productions, which makes the James Bond movies. Always on the lookout for a glamorous stunt, Eon hired Milligan as a stunt coordinator on The Man with the Golden Gun (the second Bond picture to star Roger Moore), and the Astro Spiral Jump became the centerpiece of a chase staged through Bangkok and Thailand’s countryside.

By the time of the 1974 movie, the Javelin was leaving production, so an AMC Hornet was recruited for the job. The stunt went off in one take using ramps disguised as an abandoned bridge. Why there were any AMCs at all in Thailand is unexplained in the movie. And the sound editor, who inserted a slide whistle on the soundtrack during the stunt’s execution, will be doing extra time in purgatory for that sin.

In 2011, former pro skateboarder Rob Dyrdek resurrected the stunt at Six Flags Magic Mountain to publicize the then-new Chevrolet Sonic. The resulting video was a YouTube hit.
In 2011, former pro skateboarder Rob Dyrdek resurrected the stunt at Six Flags Magic Mountain to publicize the then-new Chevrolet Sonic. The resulting video was a YouTube hit. Chevrolet

Stunt shows run on a shoestring, and Milligan’s was no exception. The Astro Spiral Jump needed long laces. “It involved 13 people, and it took five trucks to carry it around,” said Milligan. As spectacular as the jump was, it made little economic sense to haul it around the country.

“What are you going to do after you’ve been a stunt director for a James Bond movie?” continued Milligan. “The goals of a lifetime were accomplished in a very short time.” The novelty of the stunt had worn off, the point about the reliability of simulation software had been proved, and there wasn’t much money to be made. Plus, of course, the jump could destroy a lot of AMCs. So the original ramps were stowed next to Milligan’s offices in Hamburg, and there they sat for at least the next 36 years.

“They weren’t in great shape when we went to see them,” recalled Mike Ryan, the Hollywood stuntman and large-truck racer hired to re-create the jump in 2011. “But there they were. And we measured everything.” This time the stunt would be performed in the parking lot of Southern California’s Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park, with MTV’s Rob Dyrdek driving and a throng of video cameras recording the event to market Chevrolet’s then-new Sonic subcompact to the youth market.

With Chevrolet’s backing, Ryan had two brand-new Sonics on hand at the theme park—one hero car that would be driven by Dyrdek in public and one sacrificial Sonic for testing. Aside from being a car, the Sonic is almost completely unlike the old Javelin. It’s not just that the Sonic is a front-wheel-drive, five-door hatchback with a 99.4-inch wheelbase, whereas the original Javelin was a big rear-drive two-door with a 110-inch wheelbase. “Any little difference has a ripple effect,” explains Ed Fatzinger, an engineer with Momentum Engineering of Torrance, California, the accident reconstruction firm hired by Mike Ryan to help design Dyrdek’s flight. “Anything changes everything.”

But it’s radically easier to change everything today in a simulation than it was in the early 1970s. Using commercially available simulation software, the digital great-grandson of McHenry’s Highway Vehicle Obstacle Simulation Model developed in the early ’70s, Fatzinger could vary everything from ramp twist rate to the Sonic’s spring rates and fine-tune Dyrdek’s jump. It was much easier to collect data from each test jump as well, since the Sonic’s factory-installed airbag module generated and stored much of the data.

In fact, after one test jump at Magic Mountain in the Sonic, GM’s OnStar communications system automatically reported to the California Highway Patrol that the car had rolled.

Ryan’s ramps had clean welds and smooth tire surfaces, professional pieces of show biz equipment. But their basic design was almost identical to that of the original ramps built in the 1970s. On the takeoff ramp, the final bit on the left drops down after the front tire passes over it, and there’s a center portion for the fifth steel wheel mounted on the center line of the Sonic’s torsion-beam rear axle.

Except for safety equipment, the Sonic that Dyrdek used was practically stock. It hit the ramp with an alto-pitched thunk, initiated its counterclockwise twist, and flew into the air. During the flight, there was almost no sound at all, and it was nose high for about 1.5 seconds. Then, with a thick clank, the Sonic’s left rear wheel hit the landing ramp, and the front of the car levered down hard. For the first time in 36 years, the Astro Spiral Jump had been performed again.

When introducing the new E-Pace, Jaguar called its stunt a “barrel roll.” Just as with the Astro Spiral Jump, the ramp dropped away, and a fifth wheel kicked the rear end skyward.
When introducing the new E-Pace, Jaguar called its stunt a “barrel roll.” Just as with the Astro Spiral Jump, the ramp dropped away, and a fifth wheel kicked the rear end skyward. Jaguar

Time moves on. Cornell sold its aeronautical lab in 1972, and it has been the privately run Calspan Corporation ever since. Jay Milligan passed away in March 2017 at the age of 85. The World’s Largest Demolition Derby was run in his honor at the Erie County Fair last June. The modified 1974 Hornet used to perform the jump in The Man with the Golden Gun was sold from Milligan’s estate in a September auction for $110,000. Maybe that’s a reasonable price for movie history, but it’s an awful lot for an old AMC.

The hold the Astro Spiral Jump has on the automotive imagination isn’t gone yet. When Jaguar introduced its E-Pace compact SUV last July to the world’s assembled press in London, the new car performed a “barrel roll.”

Whatever they called it, it was the Astro Spiral Jump, down to the ramp design and the fifth kicker wheel welded to the rear axle. Ultimately, the true worth of any publicity stunt isn’t measured by how many people see it performed at a fairground stunt show or on a movie screen. Or by how many Chevy Sonics or Jag E-Paces are sold because of the stunt. What the Astro Spiral Jump did was help prove the value of computer simulation software, and that did, in fact, ultimately lead to better and safer vehicles and better and safer roads.

In 1968, when Raymond McHenry started on his software and the population of the United States topped 200 million people, nearly 53,000 Americans died on the nation’s roads. In 2016, as the population passed 323 million, highway fatalities were down to 37,461.

The Astro Spiral Jump did its part to make that happen.

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    i was in the astrodome for the first stunt.
    i forget now what the main attraction was but i vividly remember the astro-spiral and all the flash bulbs!

    I live 2 miles from Milligan’s office and remember the ramps sitting there forever. I participated in the demolition derby at the Erie County Fair run by the Milligans 15 times.

    Jay was a good friend and great conservator and driver of antique autos (I used to kid that it was to atone for all those destroyed in the demolition derbys..). Not noted in this article was the fact that the “AMC” was really a rebodied Chevy…that chassis was simply better suited to the dynamics of the jump.

    Your “good friend” is incorrect or simply mistaken. It was an AMC, not a Camaro. Watch the video below. Near the end you will see an under body shot of the car that clearly shows the Javelin suspension.

    Thanks for the interesting story. I recall seeing the stunt in the past, as well as in the movie, but had no idea of the tremendous amount of planning and preparation that went into it.

    I always knew my Javelin could fly, I just never had the cahonies to launch her, lol. They should have launched a Gremlin, that would have been something to see.

    You can see this car on the Buffalo Transportation Pierce Arrow museum’s Facebook page. I believe the Javelin is still on display there. Anyone with any interest in cars or any other form of motorized vehicle should visit. They have an incredible collection and I am surprised Hagerty has not found the time to visit or hold a Cars and Coffee event with them.

    Did a fair bit of Fortran programming back in the 80s. Never thought at the time that one class in college would be the basis for 10 years of enjoyable work in the satellite development and test field.

    He talks about having a “roomful of IBM 360” machines and waiting overnight for his output. Translation – the outfit had a single IBM 360 that was heavily used all day doing real work and he got to run his jobs overnight. That’s pretty much the situation for students at the University of Tennessee in the late ’60s.

    A 360 with a full set of period tape drives, disk drives, a card reader, and an IBM printer takes a huge amount of floor space. IIRC, the machine room at the old UT computing center was over 30′ square.

    Ah, good old Fortran. I remember in the mid-1970’s writing a simple program, seeing the punch cards, and waiting overnight for the results.

    This was a good story about the development of a great stunt!

    Puch cards. What a nightmare! If you happened to drop your stack of punch cards, you’d have to start all over again before you could run them through the card reader. Seems like the number 1620 rings in my memories of those bygone days…

    The last few spaces (8, IIRC) on each card were reserved for a card number. Intelligent programmers numbered their cards just to be able to put the deck back together if it was dropped. I think late models of the punch card machines did this automatically, but I’m not sure. I taught my last FORTRAN class in 1984 and tossed all my punch card decks around 1990.

    I remember the James Bond movie well–several friends thought the jump was trick photography but I knew better.

    I do, however, have a candidate for at least the second most spectacular car stunt in a movie: in the original Italian Job film, during one of the chase scenes, a Mini Cooper (the original variety) jumps through the open doors of a railroad boxcar–while the train is moving! From reading the computer programming that was required for the spiral jump in John’s story, I see how the stunt team did the calculations regarding the car’s speed and the train’s speed–but the key part was that the boxcar’s doors moved as the Mini was passing through the car, so the exit door was offset from the entry door as a function of the train’s speed. I’ve often wondered (1) how they calculated the proper door width to accommodate this and (2) how many Minis they wrote off getting it right.

    If the Mini were driven through from slightly behind the train (at an angle), then the second door would come into the correct position as the train moved forward. Again, it would be fairly easy to calculate; an old submarine TDC from WWII could probably do it easily.

    What a great story. The movie set folks did a great job of making the ramp look like old decrepit structures. This was the 007 era when things got a little campy, but it was great to see the AMC cars in the movie. Even today I still enjoy watching that stunt. Interesting about the computers. I was starting out in aerospace and transitioning from punch cards and IBM mainframes to CRT monitors and DEC miniframes. When I retired we were doing the same stuff on desktop PC’s with multiple monitors. We did the same amount of work with fewer people. Just glad I retired before AI arrived and the next round of job reductions.

    When I was studying for my Master’s, one of the profs was a real nut about AI (then just an idea) and was somewhat of a missionary on the subject. I told him I didn’t think much of spending all my time trying to make all us programmers obsolete. I don’t remember him ever speaking to me again.

    Layman here, but is the fifth wheel there to keep the centerline/axis of rotation on the correct path? The way I see it the car could start rotating on a second axis without it.

    Yes, I’m aware it actually is rotating on a second axis, but I think it should only do that minutely.

    Thanks for the writeup. I had seen the stunt in the movie and spotted the specialized ramp quite easily, but getting the basic history of it and the science behind it that drove its development is a nice treat.

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