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November 28, 2007 > Take flight- without an airplane

Take flight- without an airplane

By Shari Wargo
Photos By William Marshak

In the mid-1960s, the U.S. Military built wind tunnels to improve training techniques so soldiers could be better prepared for freefall. In the 1980s, tunnels caught on for general use, but did not accurately simulate the freefall experience, were hard to use, and thought to be dangerous. Bill Kitchen, the original owner of SkyVenture, spent three years developing a safer, more accurate system. In August of 1998 he opened the first SkyVenture wind tunnel model in Orlando, Florida. Since SkyVenture Orlando's opening day, wind tunnels have steadily improved. The tunnels have overhead fans and wall-to-wall airflow for smooth air. A net allows flight instructors to stand next to new flyers and help them gain proper form to remain in controlled flight.

Kent Sessions opened iFly SF Bay, formerly know as SkyVenture Silicon Valley, in Union City to bring an exciting and unique recreational sport to both the San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley. Sessions contacted Sky Venture for tunnel parts then began hiring staff and working with contractors for his new iFly franchise. The tunnel opened for business on Sept. 1, making it one of three wind tunnels in California and 14 throughout the U.S. The nearest wind tunnel to the Union City facility is SkyVenture Hollywood, which opened Nov. 1.

The iFly tunnel simulates the freefall experienced after jumping from an aircraft, but in an enclosed and safe area rather than from thousands of feet in the sky. A qualified flight staff member accompanies novice flyers in the tunnel, while another staff member customizes the wind speed in the tunnel, which can go up to 160 mph, based on the flyer's height and weight.

Travis Richards, iFly SF Bay instructor, said the tunnel experience allows for a two minute freefall, versus the 40 seconds during a Skydive, giving avid skydivers more time to practice their form and do better in the sky, and new flyers more time to adjust to the experience. iFly is also more cost effective than skydiving and a great way for those who are afraid of heights to experience freefall in a safe and fun way.

"Your average sky dive is about 13,000 feet, which is going to give you about 40 seconds of freefall time; that 40 seconds goes pretty fast. The real advantage for this is that you can sustain that 40 seconds and turn it into five minutes or even 20 minutes, meaning that you don't have to continuously go up into a plane, you don't have to pay the fees for that, worry about your gear, pulling the chute, landing and the whole heights factor. That's why our intro package is set at two minutes, because that's about three sky dives worth of freefall time," he added.

Richards told TCV a lot of Skydiving teams go to iFly SF Bay and train for competitions in the sky. Since tunnels are growing in popularity and becoming more respected because they improve the skill of skydivers, competitions are being held in tunnels now as well. Tunnels are incorporating the "points" system used by divers in competitions; competitors have 60 seconds to make as many touches with the hands of another diver as possible. Richards added that there are different ways for tunnels to hold contests, some of which are not even possible in the sky. He also noted that iFly SF Bay plans to eventually hold competitions, belly camps and kids' camps.

In the meantime, the new facility has already attracted a wide variety of customers. Families, high school football teams, fraternities, military personnel, skydivers, and Google personnel have already made an appearance. Wind tunnels fly ages 3-94. As long as you are in good health, weigh 250-pounds or less, and don't have severe back or shoulder injuries (because those are the primary points of pressure from the wind) you can fly.

Richards said the wind tunnel experience is very safe, "Any injuries that have occurred usually come from advanced skydivers trying advanced maneuvers at higher wind speeds."

For the safety of new flyers, flight instructors remain within the tunnel and at their side, gradually moving further away as a flyer progresses. However, the furthest an instructor goes is the doorway. Tunnels have also created a progression for flyers, which can be tracked at This progression starts with flying on your belly; once stable with belly flight, forward and back, and side-to-side movement is practiced. After mastering belly flight, flyers can learn how to use the back for stability, following the same steps as belly flight. Transitions and progressively more complex movements continue until eventually flyers can adopt a variety of positions and acrobatic maneuvers in the tunnel.

In order to maintain a goal or reach a certain type of flight, Richards said it is important to tell your instructor upon every visit what you would like to specifically work on. iFly allows customers to fly for as little as 2 minutes, and as long as an hour if one would like, and for each customer to work on a specific skill with their instructor during flights.

A 6-week training course through the International Body Flight Association gives all iFly instructors a highly competent working knowledge of the tunnels, and how to maneuver in them. "On completion of that 6-week training course you get signed off and certified to be a flight instructor," said Richards. He added that the course is about 26-28 hours of tunnel time, in which the instructors spend two weeks simply learning how to walk while in the tunnel. Instructors also learn how to "spot" and "read" every body type. Richards continued, "There are about 100 different spots that we can make, meaning that you can fall 100 different ways, and we need to know which way and how to move correctly in order to get there fast enough to make sure you don't fall and hurt yourself."

Every customer is outfitted with goggles, helmet, earplugs, and flight suit. An initial briefing and a short instructional video demonstrates four signals instructors use to communicate. Before you fly, the flight staff makes sure you are wearing flat shoes with laces, comfortable clothes, and that you have taken off all jewelry or loose accessories. The staff also asks customers to take everything out of their pockets and leave them in a locker so that the items don't fly out during flight. Richards told TCV, "If it does fly out, it goes through the fans up top and gets chopped up and spit across the property. So our lost and found is usually lost and never found."

A DVD of your flight is available to keepsake your body flying experience, but before you can get a DVD you need start flying. The "Earn your Wings" package is an introductory package at $49.95 for instruction, two minutes of freefall and all your gear. The "Spread your Wings" package ($79.95) gives you four single, or two double-length flights. A more extensive package called "Take Flight" starts at $164.95 and includes enough time for either 10 single-length or five double-length flights.

iFly has already hosted several group events in their conference center. In fact, Richards said iFly has received reservations for seven different Christmas parties in December. Group events (10 people or more) receive a discount and are offered options in facility usage and catering. "If you want to have the facility exclusively to yourself, we'll close it to the public for your private event. We are more than happy to accommodate," he added.

For more information, contact iFly SF Bay at (510) 489-4359.

iFly SF Bay
31310 Alvarado-Niles Rd., Union City
(Close to I-880 and Union Landing Shopping Center)
(510) 489-4359

Mon - Thurs: 2 - 10 p.m.
Fri: 2 - 11 p.m.
Sat: 9 a.m. - 11 p.m.
Sun: 9 a.m. - 10 p.m.

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