I started to write up my inaugural flights at iFly Austin and unraveled into a description of my long time relationship with gravity. If you want the edited highlights, scroll down to where it saysÂ in a nutshell in red, and skip the tangents which don’t even include the digression into the sinus cleansing properties of a wind tunnel.
It’s in Austinville, if that means anything to you – to me it didn’t, but up by the Main Event near 183 and Anderson Mill gives you a rough picture of where iFly set up shop. You can even see the vertical wind tunnel’s base from the road, if you peer carefully.
So is indoor skydiving a cheap hobby? Not especially – it costs something like $250 for ten minutes of flight time. In that flight time, depending on your skill, you might learn the equivalent of a helicopter hover – to fly without an instructor grabbing any of the handles on your suit to bring you back from the brink of smashing your head into the wall of the tunnel. To learn, as it were, to not fly by the seat of your pants, but by the subtle movements of hands and feet.
Is it dangerous? Despite the waivers, I think you’d have to be a special olympian to really hurt yourself as a beginner – you have your hands in front of your face and a crash helmet and a man attached to your suit most of the time.
Many years ago, I took my first helicopter flying lesson. It was fruitful, and I realized that as much as I enjoyed it, and as much as I wanted to swoop around the skies making howling Airwolf noises, it was also fiendishly difficult. I’m not talking about all the book learning about which systems do what, and how to use a radio to tell the control tower people you’re flying between skyscrapers to shake off Blue Thunder’s heat seeking missiles. I’m talking about pure physical coordination – the kind of “peddle the bike while steering, not looking at the piece of ground in front of the front tire, and maintaining your balance” kind of stuff that is low cost when learning to pilot a bicycle, but incredibly expensive when the training wheels you need come in the shape of a helicopter pilot instructor who sits next to you and wrestles the chopper back to stability when you start to lose control of several dimensions of travel all at once. I realized that to attain something as seemingly simple as the ability to hover (which sounds like it should be relatively simple in a machine whose one defining ability is to hover) would cost me something like $5000 to master. Once I’d figured this out, I decided to wait until I was a millionaire before resuming my chopper lessons. There would be no point learning how to half hover before running out of disposable income.
I had paid around $60 for an intro package – all the gear and some instruction and a puppet master to keep me safe during about two minutes of flight time. That’s more expensive than a lap dance I imagine (well perhaps not a lap dance with all the gear) and at the end of my allotted time, I was asked if I wanted another minute for $20. It would have been very easy to say yes. And without some jaundiced yet athletic woman having to whisper it into my ear seductively. This was just my instructor Matt in an un-sexy jumpsuit gesticulating the question.
Now, the jumpsuit is not exactly unflattering, but as a beginner, you have handles placed strategically about your suit, so that you might be grabbed and manipulated. And the suit is a little baggy to allow you to get some decent surface area. But just as the beginner’s suit is flabby, so the tunnel veteran’s is sleek and form fitting. While I was standing there looking like a doofus, the resident svelt vertical wind tunnel trickster arrived. Her suit was tight and carefully contoured and colored in grey and black to accentuate her curves. Rather than flap about like a manic Thunderbird puppet way, she gracefully and effortlessly span in different shapes and patterns, swirling around like an impossible seductress, finally tempting in an instructor to do some synchronized sky dancing with her. They displayed an arrogant disdain for the theory of gravity.
True enough, as the helmeted stuntress (I made up that word especially for her) emerged from the jump pad, she removed her helmet and liberated her long blonde hair like that woman in the Zovirax advert. I expected the whole place to consent to slow motion as she whirled her hair displaying its natural body and bouncy curls.
Enough with the crush on the voluptuous body hugging suit, what about the big blow job? It was quite amazing really. For some reason, I was slightly terrified by the sheer height of the tunnel – around 47 of your American feet. Sure I’ve been higher, but generally I have something like a floor with which to resist the relentless onslaught of gravity. The idea of hurtling up and up out of control and then plummeting like a sharpened stone to the grill at the bottom, made me think about a machine that makes potatoes into french fries, and this led to my thinking of becoming meat fries in the basement of the building.
Once I forgot about this fear and set about the very real business of flying, I had a blast. The instructor and I had practiced a number of hand signals to help me position my body, and we ran through them all as I made every mistake known to human flight. Which is to be expected. The whole learning to fly takes a baby bird thrown from the nest a few flaps on the way down, and they’re practically designed for it. My species has evolved over hundreds of millennia to sit in a car in traffic for hours at a time looking at pictures of cats on their smartphones, not to soar on upward currents of air like a featherweight spoon.
For the most part, by head careened towards the transparent walls of the flight cylinder like some kind of dyspeptic minnow in a goldfish bowl. In an 850W microwave. Matt, the cool handed instructor would guide me back to a neutral position, and give me another instruction, invariably to bend my legs a little more. It was only on the second flight that I was encouraged to relax. Realizing then that I would have fun if it wasn’t for all the concentration, I started to smile, which had two effects. The first was that I was immediately more relaxed, and made a mental note that I was enjoying myself. The second was that I became aware of the drool spiraling away from my beard. The latter a common condition of the novice flier.
On the second flight, I was smiling away calmly aware of my puppet master tethering me to what I knew as stability. Suddenly I was hurtling towards the ceiling. A ceiling a long way up. Crazy stuff. Terrifying. Some 30 feet straight up. Somewhat alarmed, I became aware that my puppet master was still attached to me. So despite a few moments of feeling like I was having a schizoid embolism in the midst of some psychedelic misadventure, I relaxed knowing that my umbilical cord of reason could still provide a safe pathway down to my normal reality in which my feet stayed on the ground at will. So I was free to enjoy the sensation of being thrust up and down vertically without any real sensation of danger. Which can be described more succinctly as “fun“.
Especially fun was the actual return to an upright position. After swimming down birth canal you put your hands on either side of the entry door and from being totally horizontal, you pull yourself out of the wind and to the side of the tunnel in an effortless controlled descent. Without even trying. Into reality. Into a big ear to ear grin.
In a nutshell:
- It’s a little nerve wracking if you’re not used to flying without an airplane.
- I didn’t knowingly dislocate a shoulder
- As a beginner, you have an instructor holding onto handy little handles on your suit to be your training wheels when the going gets unstable.
- It’s fun to watch – and given a 360 degree fourteen foot tall transparent hollow cylinder at the base of the vertical wind tunnel, there’s plenty of room to see the pilots. And make videos of them, if you can suss out the lighting.
- Everyone there was extremely friendly, but not oppressively so
- It makes you tingle with excitement, and even though a flight lasts only a minute, it seems like much longer
- Keep your chin up. Bend your legs. Don’t do it if you’ve already dislocated a shoulder.
- The facility probably cost more than $10m, which makes it quite reasonably priced, though more expensive than lap dances or go karting – two good benchmark sports.
- I will definitely go again – once I’ve figure out the deal that you can get at Costco, or when the inevitable groupon appears. I think I probably need another 5 minutes to get to solo flying, but that’s just a guess.