I went on an offsite this evening with co-workers: "indoor skydiving," a.k.a. a vertical wind tunnel, at iFly over in Union City. I've been sorta curious and interested in this activity for a while, but never got around to actually trying it.

Turns out it was a whole lot of fun.

I have no interest in actual skydiving. Jumping out of a plane? Falling? No, thanks. But this didn't feel like falling; it was in a safe, controlled, enclosed environment, and there was a competent and self-assured instructor right there holding onto me.

Some details:

When I first arrived, they had me fill out a form to say (among other things) that I had never dislocated a shoulder, that I weighed less than 250 lbs, and that I absolved them of all responsibility in the event of my injury or death. I would've been more scared by that form if I hadn't had to sign something similar for a horseback riding offsite years ago; I think it's pretty much a standard disclaimer.

Then there was a lot of standing around. We'd arrived at 5 p.m., but they were having a staff meeting and told us we wouldn't be doing anything 'til 6. But there was another group that was finishing up when we arrived, and watching them was really useful: gave me a pretty good idea of what to expect.

The wind tunnel is a vertical tube, maybe 15 feet across. The floor is a wire mesh with roughly one-inch-square holes (I think?), strong enough to walk on, so even though the tunnel goes down quite a ways below the floor, there's no sense of being way up off the ground. (And the flyers usually never touch the ground inside the tunnel anyway.) The walls of the tunnel, in the section of the tunnel that goes through the main room, are glass, so observers can watch. The tunnel also extends up above the main room, where the walls are opaque; see below for more on that.

The instructor stood upright in the wind tunnel, on the wire mesh. One member of the group at a time would enter the wind tunnel, by sort of falling forward into it, ending up in a more-or-less horizontal position. The instructor guided them, grabbed handles on their flight suits as needed, maneuvered them away from the walls, kept them from hitting the floor, and generally exuded an air of calm competence. At the end of that group's session, the instructor showed off his own abilities, leaping around in an astonishing display of aerobatics. I guess the idea was to get the group to want to come back so they could learn to do that stuff. I don't expect to ever get to the point where I can do that kind of stuff, but I would pay to watch people do it.

Eventually, they were ready to get my group started. Another instructor took us into a side room to show us a short instructional video. It introduced the basic pose (though it said to keep your arms at a "90° angle," by which they must have meant something other than what I mean by that phrase, since most people's arms in the video and in real life were more stretched out in front of them) and the four hand signals that the instructor might give: straighten your legs, curve your legs, lift your chin, and "relax" (i.e., be still and don't wiggle around so much). Also thumbs-up "okay."

We had split into two groups of five; I was in the second group. So we got to watch the people in the first group go through two two-minute flights apiece. I recommend watching other people before you go into the wind tunnel yourself; that helped me a lot.

Unfortunately, the instructor who led our first group of five was kind of offputting. He had previously demonstrated a lack of facility with verbal descriptions of things and an annoying nervous laugh; that would've been okay, 'cause you can't hear someone talking in the tunnel anyway, but when the wind tunnel was on, he did not look calm or confident or competent. He spent a lot of time during people's flights fiddling with the front zipper of his flight suit, which seemed to keep sliding down or something. He didn't move smoothly, and he had to jump around a lot to keep people from running into the floor. Worst (from my point of view), he didn't display that air of being in control and knowing what he was doing; his presence made me less, rather than more, confident. People in that group had fun, but I started to get a little unhappy and nervous about the whole thing.

Then it was my group's turn. We put our jewelry and everything from our pockets into a set of plastic drawers provided by the staff, put on elbow pads and knee pads and a flight suit. Then goggles, which made me even more apprehensive: a staff guy said that if I could see without my glasses, I shouldn't wear my glasses. I said I pretty much couldn't (usefully) see without them. The staff guy said that I should try putting the standard small lightweight goggles on over my glasses; he said if that didn't work, there were other goggles designed to fit over glasses, but "they're not very good." I managed to squeeze the standard goggles on over my glasses, but it was pretty uncomfortable, and not as snug a fit around the edges as the staff seemed to be suggesting the goggles should have, and I got very nervous about the possibility of the wind tearing them off my face. (Later, I heard one of the instructors say to someone in the group after us that it's best not to wear glasses in the wind tunnel 'cause if they come off, they'll blow into the vents or the fan or something and will be destroyed and/or irretrievable. I'm glad they didn't say that to me; it just would've worried me more.)

Then they gave us earplugs, which I put in, and helmets. I was surprised that my helmet fit at all--I have a big head, and most hats don't fit me--but it only fit by folding the tops of my ears down over the rest of my ears. I did my best to straighten out my ears, but the helmet made the goggles even more uncomfortable. So by the time we got into the booth area (next to the wind tunnel) and ready to go, I was pretty uncomfortable and worried about things that might go wrong.

On the other hand, we didn't have the same instructor as the first half of our group; we had another guy who did have that competent/confident look. So that made me feel better.

The other people in my group went ahead of me. Most of them had, I think, picked up useful tips from watching the others, and our instructor was definitely better. The people in my group mostly had an easier time getting comfortable with the flight; and with the person ahead of me, the instructor actually left the ground--instead of standing next to the flyer and maneuvering him around, the instructor went horizontal so they were both flying together, with the instructor controlling things. That was really cool to watch.

Then it was my turn. I went to the doorway, and the instructor forcefully (but not unkindly) shoved my helmet down on my head by a couple of inches--I hadn't realized that it wasn't fully on. He quickly rebuckled it, then stepped back into the wind tunnel, out of my way. I lifted my chin, put my arms on my chest, and fell forward into the wind.

I expected it to feel like being battered by a strong wind, but it didn't really, except for the air rushing into my nose. It didn't feel like antigravity or like falling, either. I think it felt a little more like swimming than like anything else I've done, except that you're not supposed to move (and you're certainly not supposed to make swimming motions). I mostly remembered to keep my chin up, and my arms and legs in position, and to stay relatively relaxed. It was exhilarating and neat, and I pretty much completely trusted the instructor so I wasn't even scared.

I couldn't see the instructor 'cause I knew not to move my head, but at some point I realized that we were too high off the ground for him to still be standing on the mesh, so he must've lifted off.

I came out at the end of my two minutes feeling kind of stunned, in a glorious sort of way, and with somewhat sore arms. They have a one-minute time-delayed video monitor, so after you come out you can see yourself. (They'll also, for an extra fee, provide a DVD afterward of the whole group's flight experience.)

I watched the others in my group go through their second two-minute turns--everyone was a little better than they'd been the first time through--and then had my own second turn, which was even better than the first. We got up to the top of the glass-enclosed area--I was hoping we would make it up into the area above, but we didn't quite--and the instructor spun us around, and right at the end he flipped me 360° along my long axis.

It was a whole lot of fun.

I would probably go again, though probably not soon; I think I'll need some time to absorb the experience before being ready to try it again.

But it'll be cheaper the second time. The first-time packages are more expensive than the return-flyer packages--or to put it the way one of the instructors did, you get a $20 discount after your first visit.

A couple of recommendations if you go try it yourself:

They have various first-timer packages. I think in retrospect my ideal package (which they don't offer) would've been two one-minute sessions followed by a two-minute session; my first two-minute session felt a little long, but my second one felt just right. The basic package, of two one-minute sessions, definitely would've felt too short to me, so I would recommend the package with two two-minute sessions, though it's pretty pricey.

If you can manage to watch several other people doing it before it's your turn, it's definitely worth doing so. One thing that helped me, for example, was watching the instructor forcibly move several people's arms from the 90° position to a more out-in-front position. (Another thing that helped was asking our instructor ahead of time about the 90° thing; he said that it's a balancing act and everyone's different, so the instructors just try to get each individual into the right position for that person.)

If you need vision correction, wear contacts if possible. If you have to wear glasses, be prepared for the goggles to be uncomfortable over them--or else try the allegedly bad glasses-accommodating goggles; I don't know what was bad about them, as I didn't see them.

I was sorry to see that they had a weight limit. I think it was 230 lbs for people under 6 feet tall, 250 for people over 6 feet, but I'm not certain. Worth checking before going.

Most of the staff were neither attentive nor even especially friendly, outside of the wind tunnel. They weren't hostile, just didn't really seem to notice our presence. There's a sign that says tipping is not necessary but is much appreciated, but I wouldn't have considered tipping anyone except our instructor, which didn't occur to me 'til much later (and I wouldn't have known how much to tip him anyway). If you have questions or concerns, you'll have to take the initiative and ask, 'cause if tonight was typical (it may not have been), the staff will pretty much ignore you unless you address them directly. (Even if that's typical of this particular location, I don't know whether it's typical of other iFly locations or other companies that do indoor skydiving.)

Re clothing, the website says: "wear comfortable clothing including pants or shorts and lace-up athletic shoes."

I'd like to say "Be sure to pick a good instructor," but unfortunately you won't have any control over which instructor you get. I wish I'd thought to get my instructor's name, to ask for him again. I did get our first instructor's name, so I might try to request that I not get him, though that seems rude. Or maybe I'll call them tomorrow and see if I can find out who my instructor was.

Anyway. Much fun, well worth doing if you can afford it and if you fit their physical criteria.

And it makes me even more interested than I already was in trying beginner-level hang-gliding. Though that's obviously a lot less controlled. But still: flying. I've always wanted to fly. And now I sorta kinda have.

4 Responses to “Flying”

  1. Wayman

    I absolved them of all responsibility in the event of my injury or death

    I had to sign one of those for horseriding too. But here’s the crazy one: I have to sign one of those each time I get a haircut. I go to a school where the haircuts are extremely inexpensive because “we’re the advanced practice dummies” for nearly-graduated student hair stylists. And I guess since they’re un-graduated, they have to take extra precautions.

  2. Tom Galloway

    Just please tell me this was an offsite for a group you’re working with rather than for our common group (when I was there). I’m going to get ticked if y’all finally start having great offsites after I leave…: -)

  3. Jed

    Wayman: Wow–I think I would be reluctant to sign an injury-or-death form for a haircut; somehow that would make me more nervous than signing one for an event that I can more clearly see the dangers of.

    Tom: Yeah, different group. Though I think I suggested (in the offsite discussion a few months back) that our former common group go indoor-skydiving; as I recall, it wasn’t a very popular idea.


    Wow, now THAT is cool. If my workgroup signed up for that I would definitely go!


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