An instructor stepped through the doorway, into the wind tunnel, and took off in flight. In a blink, he zoomed 40 feet straight up in the air, then floated back down, his arms out like wings. Then he hovered, upside down, eight or 10 feet above the wire net, and spun himself like a top. Wearing a bright red flight suit, goggles, and plastic helmet, he made human flight look effortless, graceful even. The way it is in our dreams.
As a kid, I was enthralled with the idea of flying. Thinking of Peter Pan or Superman soaring above the world, escaping some problems, solving others, I imagined what I’d do if I could fly. I could get away from any bully. I could fight crime, rescue neighborhood cats, become a star athlete. I could travel the globe, unencumbered by that oppressive drag of gravity. So when the nice people at the new iFly indoor-skydiving facility in Frisco offered to let me try out their new wind tunnel, I couldn’t resist. (Actually, the editors here volunteered me not because of my childhood predilection toward flight, but because they thought the image of my long hair and scruffy beard in 130-mph winds would make for entertaining photos.)
The three-story building, next to the Stonebriar Centre mall, was finished just before Thanksgiving. The wind tunnel itself rises 48 feet over a wire net. The wind is generated by four massive fans at the top of the building. The air is sent down the sides, then cooled with water before being forced up into the 14-foot diameter, glass-enclosed flying chamber. This is the 27th facility iFly has built worldwide, the 11th in North America. The company won’t say exactly how much it cost to build, but Shelly Jackson, the director of sales and marketing, assured me that, though the initial investment is substantial, the company expects to make it back “within a few years.” She said there were more than 5,000 fliers in the first three weeks of business alone. They come from all parts of society: 5-year-old adrenaline junkies, middle-aged adventure seekers, retired great-grandfathers, anyone who ever wanted to feel like a bird in the wind. It’s safer, easier, and, at about $50 for two minutes of flight, more affordable than jumping out of a plane.
I was told to wear tennis shoes and loose, comfortable clothing—no collars. When I arrived, I was asked to sign a waiver saying that I understood that this was not a “ride” and that I wouldn’t sue the company if anything bad happened. Jackson says there hasn’t been a single customer injury in the company’s history. A quick search found only one incident: an instructor in Singapore who injured his back and shin performing a stunt.
I was taken upstairs, to the base of the wind tunnel, where a young couple was taking 60-second turns flying. I was introduced to my instructor, Bill, one of 12 people on staff certified to teach by the International Bodyflight Association. He showed me a short video explaining that I should keep a relaxed posture while flying, with my arms out and my knees and elbows bent. I reviewed the four hand signals Bill would use with me in the tunnel: lift head, bend legs, straighten legs, relax. Then I was given a flight suit, goggles, ear plugs, and a snug helmet.
When it was my turn, I leaned through the doorway, into the roar of the cool air, and I was off. I wasn’t soaring around, doing flips like the instructors, but I was floating, my feet three or four feet off the ground, the wind whipping my body, facial hair violently askew. Bill stood in the chamber—learning to keep your feet in the wind tunnel is a skill by itself—guiding me, making slight adjustments as I hovered awkwardly.
“Tiny movements,” he’d told me earlier. “When you’re on the highway and you want to change lanes, do you move the steering wheel a little or a lot?”
With the wind and the noise and the chaos of discombobulation, it’s easy to forget the instructions and the signals. Bending your legs an inch or two can be the difference between floating and spiraling toward the ground. Straightening one arm faster than the other can get you diagonal in a hurry.
While Bill guided me from inside the tunnel, another instructor sat in an adjacent booth, controlling the air speed and manning the high-definition cameras. That person is the “driver”; the instructors rotate positions.
They let me fly for two sessions of two minutes each. The four minutes of freefall time is the equivalent of a jump of eight miles. The time doesn’t pass peacefully, either. The whipping air stings the exposed parts of your hands and face, and the wind resistance provides a decent workout. Just maintaining a flat footing for that long is enough to make the lean, toned instructors break a sweat. I was told I would be sore the next day, “in muscles you didn’t even know you had.” (It’s true.)
On my second time through the doorway, Bill grabbed the handles attached to the back of my flight suit and spun me through the tunnel. I could see strangers on the other side of the glass, watching me go around and around. One or two broke out cellphone cameras to capture the moment. (My editors were right: the sight was interesting. Like a hippie in a giant blender.) As I spun, I saw the people getting farther and farther away, and I realized Bill was flying me higher and higher. When the glass turned to metal, I realized I was at least 10 feet over the net. I tried hard to resist the natural urge to reach for the ground, or to kick my feet until they made contact with something solid.
It was the probably the most unnatural, most foreign thing I’ve ever experienced. At times I felt like a confused fish, bouncing around an aquarium. I kept telling myself, even as the air beat most thoughts from my head, that this was actually happening. I wasn’t Peter Pan or Superman, but every so often, I’d move and drift upward in the cold air. For a moment, I wasn’t thinking about bills or traffic or deadlines. I wasn’t thinking about any of the problems waiting for me back on earth. I was flying.