In Focus

May 7, 2014

Air-raising Adventure

What could be more fun than relaxing in 200-mph winds inside an indoor sky-dive simulator?

No one warned me about the drool: that it would be pouring forth from my mouth like water from a busted fire hydrant, soaking my chin, dripping onto my shoulder.

No one warned me that the first thing you must do when sky diving — even this indoor variety that I am currently attempting — is to shut your mouth. And keep it shut.

I have traveled to iFly, an indoor sky-diving facility that opened in November in Frisco. Part of a growing international chain, where you can approximate the experience of sky diving in the controlled environment of a man-made, vertical wind tunnel, iFly is designed to appeal to both seasoned sky divers eager to practice their midair flips and jumps, and complete newbies like myself — folks too timid to go sky diving in real life but who have always wondered about the experience.

The technology has been around since the 1960s, when the U.S. military used these kinds of tunnels to help train soldiers to jump from airplanes. In the 1990s, a group of professional sky divers further refined the technology for recreational use. The first iFly opened in 1999, in Orlando, Fla., and the company now operates 27 facilities in such far-flung locales as the U.K., Singapore and Abu Dhabi. The Frisco location is the second one in Texas, following iFly Austin, which opened in 2012.

According to Shelly Jackson, director of sales and marketing for the Frisco facility, the physics of the experience aren’t all that complicated. Air is drawn by chillers from outside the building and circulated through the 8-foot-tall cylinder at speeds of up to 200 mph. When a person enters the cylinder, the force of the wind counteracts against the gravity of his body to create a sense of terminal velocity freefall. Two instructors are on hand at all times, one inside the cylinder with the flier, another just outside, manually controlling the speed of the wind.

You have to weigh less than 250 pounds to fly — that’s the upper limit of weight that the instructors are able to handle while also maintaining their own balance inside the windy cylinder — but otherwise there are no restrictions. (The company boasts that it will fly anyone from ages 3 to 103.) Jackson says iFly has proved particularly popular with families looking for an alternative to the usual Chuck E. Cheese’s or bowling alley birthday parties.

So what’s the experience like? And is it any place for an accident-prone 40-year-old man whose trips to Six Flags invariably result in lingering back pain?

My first hint that this will be a challenge for me comes when I meet our group’s instructor, Nolan, a fresh-faced, compactly built young man who looks like he could contort his body into the shape of a pretzel. By contrast, I am capable of touching my lower thighs without bending my knees.

My initial worry turns to outright panic during our group’s 30-minute preflight training class. Nolan explains that the key to sky-diving success is body control: Keep your chin up; hands above your head; legs straight; hips thrust forward.

“The most important thing of all is to keep your body relaxed,” Nolan concludes — in that same tone that nurses use when they assure you that the giant needle about to be jabbed into your arm isn’t going to hurt at all.

Training session complete, I put on my jumpsuit, goggles, helmet and earplugs, all provided by iFly, and then head into the waiting pen. When it’s my turn, I step up to the entry door, hold my hands to my chest and — as instructed — fall into the cylinder and open my arms in order to commence my 60-second flight

And the first thing I discover is that it’s windy, windy as I have never experienced — whoosh, whomp, whish, whooooeee. The only sensation I can feel is wind slapping my body from every direction. The only sound I can hear is a sort of vague, high-pitched whistling.

Nolan occasionally flits around me, using the hand signals he taught us a few minutes ago — Keep your legs straight! Look up! Relax! — all of which I’ve since forgotten. After about 30 seconds, I finally manage to get myself aloft, without Nolan holding onto me, and I ride the air for about 10 seconds, until I go crashing helmet-first into the side of the wall.

And through all of this my mouth is wide open, my teeth are bared like a poorly socialized Chihuahua, and the drool is dribbling, and the wind is so strong against my face that I can’t actually close my mouth, and truly I had no idea that my salivary glands were capable of producing this much moisture.

Twenty seconds that feel like 20 hours later, I am launched out of the cylinder, breathless, exhausted — and, go figure, eager to try again. (I was just getting the hang of it!) After the other members of my four-person group take their turns, I get a second chance — this time taking care to close my mouth before stepping inside.

This second flight has its share of bumps into the sides of the walls, and at one point I fall to the mesh safety netting below and need Nolan to lift me back up. But I also manage to keep my legs straight for longer than before and float in midair as the wind flaps around me — an alternately jarring and exhilarating experience unlike anything I’ve ever done before. With my time in the cylinder coming to an end, Nolan grabs hold of my suit, lifts me about 20 feet into the air, and spins me around four or five times — creating a giddy head-rush like I’ve just mainlined two cans of Red Bull.

One caveat worth noting: It’s also not an experience for the faint of heart: The one thing everyone in my flying group agreed on was that the wind was much stronger than we were anticipating, and keeping one’s body straight in the midst of it proved physically exhausting. Indeed, for most of the next day, I felt like a zombie.

But for those of us who like our adventure sports without the threat of permanent injury — and who have always wondered what that rush of hanging aloft midair might feel like — well, iFly definitely is worth a whirl.

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