TheBlindJournalist Goes Flying

9 December 2019

Written by: Bethany Hughes: Marketing Executive, iFLY UK

On Tuesday 3rd December, we hosted All Abilities Events at iFLY Manchester, Milton Keynes and Basingstoke for National Disability Day 2019. We invited BBC Journalist Mohammed Salim Patel along to our event in Manchester so he could experience Indoor Skydiving. Salim was kind enough to do a write up about the event and this is what he thought of the experience...

"Ok, so by the title of this post you could easily assume I’m going to write about a fall or trip I had which sent me flying. That’s why you clicked wasn’t it to see me sprawled out ready to tell you how the blind man has damaged his handsome face yet again. Not this time I’m afraid. This is about me going indoor skydiving and how I found the experience from start to finish. 

So for me as a disabled person my experience begins way before the event itself; is the website accessible with my screen-reading software, how easy is it to find a contact number or email and how understanding are the staff when I tell them a blind man wants to make use of their services.

Come on in, iFLY Manchester. They offer indoor skydiving experiences. And it’s about that experience I’m writing today.

I had heard a lot about this place but never thought I’d be able to go. But then through work I fixed up a TV news report on a woman who was disabled but also an ambassador for iFLY and flew with them regularly. Ever the opportunist I got in touch straight away. And this is where my experience begins. Be prepared to get blown away...

Their website is pretty good when it comes to accessibility. I could access pretty much all the information and videos I needed. So as a blind person this is a big tick. If the website wasn’t accessible, and no matter how accessible the experience itself is, I’m not going to follow through with a booking if I can’t even get to a contact page through their website.

It was so I make contact with their sales team. I tell them who I am and how much of a nutter I am.

Usually I get a response from places to say sorry but we can’t accommodate you or they’ll say you can come but you need to bring two other people with you who will join in too. This is so that the responsibility falls on those two people for me and my safety.

iFLY however said nothing of the sort. They told me I’d be more than welcome to fly with them and wouldn’t need a carer or friend with me to experience the joys of flying.  This was actually really refreshing. There are a lot of things I’d like to do but simply can’t because I don’t have friends or family who share those interests. I was worried this would be the same for indoor skydiving.

So I make the booking, which was a very easy process as it was all done through email. 3rd December at 3pm you Mr Patel will fly fly fly. Bring it on.

Oh no but wait there’s an online declaration to fill in. I hope this is accessible to do - it was. I declare my functionality and all that jazz and it’s then time to fly.

I flew on the International Day of Disabled People as part of iFLY’s All Abilities session. I was inspired to fly by an 85-year-old woman called Glen Mills from Glossop, Derbyshire who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 50 years ago. She flies regularly, not only to inspire other disabled people to give skydiving a try but it also helps her to get pain relief.

I thought, well if Glen can do it, then so can I. I’m the biggest adrenaline junkie alive so it doesn’t take much persuasion!

I had liaised with Abbey and Bethany prior to my flight. They were extremely helpful and welcoming.

I travelled down with my dad. We get to reception and I let them know my name and time of flight. The receptionist informed me which class I would be in and who my instructor was. She then went on to explain the layout of the building. Now you might think this in itself isn’t a big deal. When you’re blind it is. She didn’t do the usual thing either of pointing at stuff saying it’s there. She gave directions to the toilets and viewing area. Is that a bowel movement coming? Nope just the excitement building for my first ever experience of flying. But even if I did at least I know where to go thanks to the directions given.

I make my way upstairs to the cafe and await class 19 to be called. At this point I could hear the wind machine and I was buzzing.

My instructor was called Jon and when he called out my class I stood up and looked in his direction. He came over and took me into the room. Again that’s a small act but a big one in terms of inclusivity.

It’s in this room that all the flyers in that slot watch an eight minute instructional video. This video didn’t have audio description but the narrator was fairly descriptive so it all made sense. That was until she started going through hand signals that the instructor would give you in the tunnel for positioning your body and limbs.

I’m thinking to myself at this stage what will I do? I didn’t need to worry though as Jon came over and said he would give me squeeze signals and re-position my arms or legs in the tunnel if I wasn’t in the correct position.

I was in a class with a handful of other lads. We all had some kind of disability. This was again nice because there wasn’t the risk of being the odd one out in the group.

Time to get suited for the flight. You have to wear a boiler suit over your clothes. Sometimes in these situations you’re told to all walk up and collect the equipment, which again as a blind person can just be really awkward. Thankfully I didn’t have to as my instructor came and gave me the suit, helmet, goggles and ear plugs. Whilst we were waiting to go in I was shown the position to hold my arms up when entering the tunnel and during flight.

We were then taken into the tunnel area. Jon guided me to a seat and said he’d come over once it was my turn. At this point I was really excited. I was second in line. It’s very noisy inside so when it was my turn Jon came over tapped my shoulder and took both my hands and we walked together to the entrance door of the tunnel. He went inside and from there got me to position my arms as he’d shown me earlier and then squeezed my hand to signal me to lean in.

He took hold of my waist until I was positioned correctly. He kept in regular physical contact with me so I knew where he was but he also ensured at various points that I had my legs and arms bent properly. This was all done through touch and gentle nudges so I knew what to do.

Here I was flying. Wow I can’t explain that feeling. You really do feel as though you’re flying through the skies. It is an adrenaline junkie’s dream. You do a few circular rounds first before going higher and lower. I had a massive grin on my face throughout and was obviously screaming in joy but nobody could hear that - probably a good thing.

As my flight came to an end Jon directed me to the door. He told me in the classroom that I should grab hold of the door and bend my knees so that they exit the tunnel first. Once my feet touch the ground I can let go and push myself out of the tunnel. Jon and another instructor helped me touch both sides of the door so I knew what to hold and I then got out of the tunnel. First flight over.

I was guided back to my chair but for at least five minutes after flying I was still laughing in joy and enjoying the adrenaline pumping through my body. This wasn’t the end though. We all had the option to do the high fly. This is where you spin to the top of the tunnel and back down. There was no way I was saying no to this no matter how much extra it was.

Same process for the high fly in terms of getting into the tunnel. For the high fly though, once you’re inside you have to do rotations to get higher. My chin was also facing down so Jon tapped my helmet so I looked up. He grabbed hold of my leg and up we went. The speed of the wind was 110mph and the cheer I belted out was glass shattering. I was truly loving this. I didn’t want it to end.

Everything has to come to an end though and so does this blog post. I was very sceptical before today about a place saying they welcome all abilities and also without a carer. I thought that it was too good to be true. I was wrong though. Every single aspect of my experience at iFLY was fully inclusive and accessible. I highly recommend all of my readers and followers to go regardless of which disability you have.

To top it all off, the very woman that inspired me to give indoor skydiving a go was there too. I got to meet Glen and her husband Brian. They were both really lovely people and were telling me how Glen had just come back from Abu Dhabi where she went flying in the world’s first 32ft diameter wind tunnel. Well, I guess that’s my next stop then?

Thanks for reading and do go to my YouTube channel to see the video. Happy flying!"

It was wonderful to have Salim flying with us, he's the perfect example of iFLY's inclusivity message; breaking down the barriers of preconceptions and limits, and delivering the dream of flight to anyone, of any ability or age! We hope to see you again soon Salim!