19 December 2018
Written by: Al Hodgson
The first wind tunnel I ever flew in was Skyventure Orlando, I was on a skydiving trip with some friends, jumping at two drop zones in Florida, DeLand and Zephyr Hills. We were excited to try out this vertical wind tunnel thing that we'd heard of, and to see what all the fuss was about. People were saying that the future of skydiving will be different if these contraptions ever catch on, so we had to check it out for ourselves. If the rumours were true, then wind tunnel flying could be the catalyst for a giant leap in the evolution of our sport. It turns out that those early pioneers were bang on the money. Wind tunnels changed the face of skydiving forever. People started doing things that were never thought possible before and it was all down to what really began as a fun activity for tourists, who were looking for more excitement and adrenaline than the usual theme park entertainment.
Did I mention fun? Wow! Who would have thought jumping into 120+mph winds surrounded by a glass tube would feel so amazing? Probably everybody and they'd all be right! Was there a downside to discovering iFLY wind tunnels? Well yes there was, it's a bit of a trek to Florida every time you wanted to go practice your freefall inside that crazy invention. But I guess it's a testament to how great it was that my friends and I did just that and quite a bit more too. Those early days were so funny. Watching yourself and your skydiving friends bouncing around and being totally outclassed by six year olds and grandmothers was highly amusing. It was worth all the expense just for that. I just wished we had one in the UK!
Wait, what? Yep you already know, iFLY did come to the UK, first at Milton Keynes in 2005. It was still a bit of a journey for me living in Cumbria but a sight easier than flying to Florida that's for sure. Twice yearly wind tunnel flying was now a thing of the past. Any excuse to head south seemed appropriate. Prior to the tunnel in Milton Keynes, the south was a scary place. The folk living there had funny accents, could afford wifi and beer was the price of diamonds. Wind tunnels were becoming more accessible, all we needed now was someone to see sense and build one in 'God's Country’ i.e. the North!
iFLY Manchester, which opened in 2009, is my own personal iFLY! Well maybe not on paper but it definitely belongs to me, ask anyone! Why else would they build one so close to me? This meant I could now use the tunnel for proper training. Me and my wife Pixie had just formed a freestyle skydiving team. As well as skydiving at the weekend, we now had a facility close to home, that we could use anytime, come rain or shine. We could even skydive and tunnel fly in the same day! iFLY helped us to win six consecutive British Freestyle Skydiving Championships, two bronze medals and a silver medal at the World Skydiving Championships. What a fantastic training opportunity it was for us and just the best fun ever!
You can probably tell that I quite like flying in the wind tunnel. I even ventured as far south as Basingstoke to fly (I didn't need to take my passport after all, weird, maybe that will change after Brexit) following the opening of the third UK iFLY tunnel there in 2013. The training, the learning and the laughing aside, I have witnessed so many awesome people get so much from the freefall experience. That's the thing about iFLY. It's a fully inclusive activity. You don't have to be strong, you don't have to be an athlete, your age barely matters, nor does your physical ability. Can you tell I'm heading somewhere with this?
I have a unique and very personal insight into the iFLY ethos. In 1992 I lost both my legs in an explosion while serving with the armed forces in Northern Ireland. The wind tunnel is perhaps the one place where my loss of limbs really doesn't matter. I have a little friend Tess who can vouch for that too. She's five years old and is missing both legs and one arm. My friend Glen, an 84-year-old Grandma with aggressive MS, my soldier pals Justin, Ryan and Tom all three not one leg between them, are just the same. All these people and many more that I have met through the iFLY family, share a love of indoor skydiving. I find that amazing but also strangely normal. I have only ever been given encouragement at iFLY. Not once have I been told that I couldn't do one thing or the other. Truth is when I have asked the instructors if I could learn to do this move or that they have always said in one way or another: “I don't know. Probably. Shall we try?”