I'm free, free-fallin' ... at five feet
I've never been one to think it would be fun to parachute out of a plane. I'll confront my fears right here on the ground, thank you very much. But the chance to experience a free fall without the falling part? Sign me up.
One week after SkyVenture New Hampshire opened up in Nashua, near the Massachusetts border, my fiancé, Zia, pulled the car into the parking lot with that look of little-boy excitement on his face. He'd seen a vertical wind tunnel in Orlando, Fla., a few years back, but this was the first one in New England – and the first time I'd heard of such a thing.
We spent a few minutes watching experienced flyers strike poses in midair in the glassed-in flight chamber. Two weeks later, on a rainy Thursday evening, we were back, ready to fly.
Actually, there's nothing you can do to get ready – that's the beauty of it. They suit you up and teach you what to do. Beginners as young as age 3 can try it. There's no "Fear Factor" vibe in this simple, clean space, painted in shades of calming blue.
The calm is balanced by the exciting sound of air rumbling up from the force of four propellers above the flight chamber – 1,200 horsepower total.
Confronted with all that wind – close to 100 m.p.h. for beginners my size – I wondered if I would have some semblance of poise. Or would I tumble into walls, making use of my mandatory helmet?
Our affable, tie-dye clad instructor, Selwyn Facey, made it easy to relax. One of eight instructors there, he hails from the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea. His joy lit up the room as he talked about why he prefers flying in the tunnel to skydiving out of a plane: There's no need to worry about the weather, and it's a "never- ending free fall!"
In the small classroom, Selwyn flipped onto his stomach on a carpeted stand to demonstrate the "neutral position" we'd be striving for: head up, arms lifted slightly above shoulder level, a gentle arch in the back, and legs straight back and just slightly bent at the knees.
After class, we emptied our pockets and put on jumpsuits, helmets, earplugs, and tight-fitting goggles. Then it was my turn to fly.
Standing in the open doorway of the 12-foot-wide chamber with a wire-mesh floor between me and the air stream, I took a deep breath and tipped myself in as I'd been taught.
Selwyn guided my lower half into the room as I concentrated on making my body obey. I got the "chin up" signal a few times, and when I couldn't see him he was probably adjusting my legs – "body awareness" isn't easy in all that wind.
He soon let go and gave me a big grin and a thumbs up. I couldn't believe it – I was already in the neutral position, the air pushing up on my arms as if I were coasting on steady wings.
It was nothing like my fantasy of flight. No bird's-eye view of scenery far below. No clouds. And I wasn't going anywhere – just hovering. But it was a different kind of thrill.
Every tilt of my hands or knees made me move in unpredictable ways: sometimes toward the wall, where I could push off gently with my arm, sometimes up a few feet and then down, like an elevator that didn't know which way to go.
I learned to tilt my shoulders as if turning a big steering wheel, which made me spin slowly like a disc.
One by one, the people watching slid past my view. Their smiles made me feel I must be doing something right.
I barely had a chance to rest while Zia took his turn. But it was enough time for my delayed reaction to kick in: THAT WAS REALLY AMAZING! THAT WAS FUN! Those blurbs on promotional materials sound like clichés, but they're truly the first words that come to mind.
Describing it is like trying to describe swimming to someone who's never been submerged in water. The wind is an invisible force, but instead of feeling blown away by it, you learn to relate your body to its resistance.
Once Zia assumed his neutral position, Selwyn decided to give him a little taste of what a more experienced person can do. He grabbed hold of Zia and flew the two of them high up into the tunnel, spinning them in fast circles.
After we had both finished our turns, Selwyn motioned for the control person, or "driver," to crank up the wind speed so he could demo his cool moves.
He pounced into the wind in a vertical position – not on his belly like us beginners. Up he shot, like a fast-forward version of Mary Poppins, without the parasol.
Back at our eye level, he popped back and forth toward the window as if riding a unicycle. ("We call it stalling," he explained later. The "we" refers to people who do this as a sport – there are even wind tunnel competitions.)
Then, suddenly, he was upside down, smiling at us and turning himself like a top.
"What does it feel like to fly on your head?" I asked him later, while the imprints of the goggles still decorated our faces.
"Awesome. It's wonderful," he said. "It's kind of scary, but when you have control of it, there's no better feeling in the world."
I have just an inkling of what he means.
Vertical wind tunnels are growing in popularity but have been available to the public since at least the 1980s. They use a variety of technologies. Some are outdoors, even portable.
SkyVenture, one brand of indoor tunnel, first opened in Orlando in 1998. There are currently five SkyVenture locations open in the US (Orlando, Fla.; Nashua, N.H.; Eloy, Ariz.; Lone Tree, Colo.; and Perris, Calif.) Another eight are in the planning or construction stages in the US. SkyVenture also operates near London and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Prices vary. At SkyVenture New Hampshire, instruction and two minutes in the flight chamber costs $48 ($43 for kids ages 3-12). Four minutes costs $85.