Thrill Sans Chill
Indoor Skydiving Brings Airborne Quests to Earth
I stood on the wing of an airplane for the first time, 10,000 feet above solid ground, my heart racing, trying to remember all the training I received in order to perform my accelerated freefall skydiving jump.
If I could have felt anything other than sheer terror, it might have been a chill up my spine. Be-cause although I had two instructors on either side of me clutching my flight suit, there was no guarantee they’d be with me after I let go of the plane. And, in fact, I came off the wing in such a violent fashion, I almost shook them loose.
Accelerated freefall is a program in which the student tries to cram everything they need to know about skydiving into a few hours and then make a jump with the assistance of the instructors.
If all goes well, they will stay with you until you are ready to pull the parachute, the chute will open perfectly and the radio headset will not glitch, allowing instructors to guide you in for a landing.
But you can’t count on any of that and need to learn how to deal with a lot of “what ifs,” the most important being what if I freak out and can’t remember what to do? Fortunately for me, despite a few scary moments, I had a great sense of achievement when I finally landed safely on terra firma. However, I was so focused on not going splat that I didn’t really get to enjoy the freefall, which was my ultimate goal (or a close second to not going splat).
I was happy to discover that now there’s a way to experience the feeling I missed without having to set foot on a plane—or let go of one.
IFLY is an indoor skydiving venue originally developed in Florida by engineers who wanted a more convenient way to practice their aerial skills. The technology features a vertical, closed-loop wind tunnel that creates a smooth, temperature-controlled column of air. The company has more than 70 locations worldwide with the closest venue to Frederick being iFLY Montgomery in Gaithersburg. It opened last fall and is housed in a tall, slim building visible from I-270. Another iFLY facility is in nearby Ashburn, Va.
For competitive skydivers, it’s a huge timesaver and far more affordable than having to go up in a plane in order to get about 45 seconds of freefall time to practice maneuvers. For the rest of us, it is a far more accessible way to experience bodyflight.
I was curious to see how indoor skydiving measured up to what little I remembered of my flight experience. The gear is similar—a flight suit and a helmet, but the training session was a matter of minutes, not hours. And possible death was not part of the discussion.
The transparent wind tunnel is situated in the middle of a large room and non-participants are welcome to grab a seat and watch. The instructor brings students one at a time to the door of the tunnel. To enter, you simply lean forward into the wind and the instructor assists you into the space.
Just like true freefall, it’s loud and movement is slow due to the rush of wind over your body.
Therefore, instructors use hand signals to help you get your body into perfect position and guide you away from the walls.
If you decide to add the optional “high flight” to your session (about $10 and I highly recommend it), the instructor will take you for a brief ride high into the tunnel. My greatest disappointment with skydiving was that I did not get that “stomach-dropping feeling” of a roller coaster that I anticipated. As it turns out, skydiving doesn’t create that type of sensation, so you aren’t missing anything in that regard when it comes to a wind tunnel.
Scenery is another matter, but iFLY has a solution for that. You can add a virtual reality element to some of the flight packages, enabling you to skydive over Hawaii or the Swiss Alps.
Flight for All
One of the most exciting things about this technology is that it opens the door for all sorts of possibilities. Almost everyone can fly, from ages 3 to 103. “If you’ve been cleared for physical activity by a physician, you aren’t pregnant or haven’t had a shoulder dislocation, you’re pretty much good to go,” says Matt Owens, sales manager at iFLY Montgomery. “We’ve had birthday parties for people in their 60s and 70s. In fact, one of the first groups to visit our new facility in North Carolina was a retirement community.”
People with special needs are also welcome, but it’s a good idea to book an appointment in advance so the instructors can allow for extra time in the schedule. Some of the facilities host dedicated sessions called “All Abilities” night. For instance, the Ashburn facility recently worked with a group of quadriplegics to give them the experience of bodyflight.
“Our instructors go through a month of training and they learn how to safely work with any customer they may encounter. They take each situation on a case by case basis and determine what will work,” says Owens. “We want to deliver the dream of flight to as many people as possible.”
So, for all those people who had skydiving on their bucket list and thought their chance had passed, think again. Even though you are only a few feet off the ground, there is something exhilarating about the experience.
Flights start at about $60 and get less expensive as you add sessions. It is a good idea to do at least two flights to really get a feel for it. It takes several sessions before you start to learn tricks.
Flights do not have to be booked ahead, but it is a good idea, especially at peak times. For more information on flying sessions and other offerings, such as flight school for kids and customizable STEM programs, visit www.iflyworld.com.