Matthew Burnett of Roland Park nervously dons a black-and-blue suit, goggles and a helmet. On the outside, he appears ready to go, but on the inside, his stomach churns.
The 10-year-old steps into the entrance of the 60-foot wind tunnel, his hands up as if surrendering. Then, he falls forward onto a cushion of air, and for a minute, with the help of a certified instructor, he's flying — and he didn't have to get on a plane to do it.
Indoor skydiving company iFly opened its first Maryland location this month in White Marsh. It sends aloft date-night couples, birthday parties, corporate gatherings and individual adventure-seekers on winds of 100 mph or more. The tunnel offers the "dream of flight" to various ages and abilities — all "without jumping out of that perfectly good plane," said Matt Ryan, the president and chief operating officer.
"It was terrifying the first time," says Matthew, who came with his friends and his father, Jeff Burnett, 50. He compares moving through the winds to how it must feel being in a tornado. "But then the second time I did it, I was really excited to go. I wanted to just keep going and going."
Burnett was inspired to bring Matthew and their friends after spotting a billboard. He didn't fly this time, he notes — getting his son to go into the tunnel "was a full-time job" — but seeing him overcome his fears and work with the instructor to balance his body in the air is reward enough.
"When your child is petrified, and they're going to do it, but they're scared to death, and then they go in, and they come out — that's an accomplishment, and when you see that on their face, it's great," he says. "Now he's totally comfortable with it. That's a big achievement for these kids."
Matthew's advice for those thinking about indoor skydiving: "Try it."
So I do. Three times.
I enter the tunnel, falling into my instructors' arms belly-first. Kris Reynolds, White Marsh's lead instructor, alternates between positioning me in the air and leaving me to my own wobbly devices. I am in flight — my weightless body propelled into the cool air by four fans wider than I am long, my face rippling in the wind. (There is a little drool.)
I try my best to remember the instructions — body horizontal, arms out, legs straight and wide — but as a beginner, it's easy to forget in all the excitement. I am flying, sometimes high (about six feet), and then low, drifting to the bottom net like a feather, lightly pushing off the glass sides of the tunnel when I get too close. (More experienced fliers can go 15 feet or higher.)
Reynolds, always an arm's-length away, is there to reel me back in. All I can hear is wind, so he gives the hand signals he taught in the introduction course before the flight. Thumbs-up means "good job," a peace sign means "straighten your legs" and a fist with the pinky and thumb fingers extended is a signal to relax.
In between flights, he gives me pointers on how to turn my body by leaning an arm to one side. Baby steps.
For the grand finale of each flight, Reynolds takes hold of my arm and leg and spins us in a riveting series of circles from the bottom of the tunnel to the top. He leads me to the exit, where we conclude the flight each time with a congratulatory high-five.
The Austin, Texas-based company, founded in 1998, has flown more than 7 million people. It has locations worldwide, including 23 in the U.S, Reynolds said.
The company strives to be inclusive, according to Jim Braun, iFly Baltimore's general manager. Its slogan says it will fly anyone "ages 3 to 103," though Braun notes a 108-year-old once took to a Texas wind tunnel years ago for a successful trip. The air is adjusted to accommodate every flier's body weight, with one restriction — fliers under 6 feet tall must be less than 230 pounds and those over 6 feet must be under 250 pounds. "All Abilities Nights" are also held for those with special needs.
It's not nearly as dangerous as outdoor skydiving, but it can present some hazards: Texas state records show seven reported injuries last year at the Austin site, most of them possible shoulder dislocations. Ryan said iFly stresses the importance of safety, enlisting instructors to closely assist fliers in the tunnels. All instructors are certified by the International Bodyflight Association, he said.
Reynolds, 37, has been working with iFly's wind tunnels for the past 13 years. He's traveled to Dubai, Russia, Singapore and destinations across the country to teach and occasionally to compete in skydiving competitions, which are hosted three to four times a year at different iFly locations.
Some people come to iFly to train for indoor skydiving competitions, while others come to practice for outdoor skydiving, Reynolds said.
When Alex Lupson, 31, is not instructing at iFly, he's in the wind tunnel, vertically scaling the tunnel in loops with his body and doing splits midair.
"I love it, and I'm addicted to it," he said.
Lupson, who has competed in outdoor skydiving competitions and has a little over 3,000 skydives under his belt, said the wind tunnels are a perfect place to learn new tricks for less time and money than outdoor skydiving.
The views are unmatched in outdoor skydiving, but one session requires at least a 20-minute airplane ride and 20 minutes to pack a parachute, and offers only about 50 seconds of free fall, Lupson said.
"It could take all day to just get eight minutes of free-fly," he said.
In a wind tunnel, a flier can quadruple that in hours and learn "in six months nowadays, what it would have taken someone six years to do without the tunnel," Lupson said.
The basic indoor skydiving package — instruction, gear and two one-minute flight training sessions with an instructor — costs $69.95. A tandem outdoor skydive for one person, however, can cost upward of $200 and is typically done in warmer weather with clear skies.
The wind tunnel "is ready to go — day, night, snow or summer. It doesn't matter," said Reynolds, who also has outdoor skydived around 1,100 times.
The flight-serving company also aims to offer more than just entertainment.
A STEM education program exploring terminal velocity, the center of mass, drag, and turbulent flow is available at all facilities and for credit for community groups and students, Braun said. Instructors make the class engaging, incorporating water in the wind tunnel to show how droplets and other objects appear while suspended in air.
"That really affords a community, and students, an opportunity to learn in a fun, exciting environment," Ryan said.
For Kyla Drury, a student at Parkville Middle School with a passion for science, flying in the tunnel was a chance to have a last adventure before school began, her grandmother Kathi Drury said.
The 13-year-old, who has swum with dolphins and has gone go-karting, doesn't shy away from new experiences, but she was nervous at first, she said.
"It was fun. It felt like flying. When we did the high-flying thing where I was spinning around, it was so thrilling. I had to close my eyes," Kyla said.
But it's not scary, "unless you're afraid of heights. Then don't do it."
Her grandmother skipped out on the fun this time, but they might be back again.
"I'm trying to do for my granddaughter outside of the box," Kathi Drury said. "There's more to life. You gotta get out there and explore. You know — passion."
If you go
iFly Baltimore: Flight sessions come with instruction, gear and one-minute flying sessions. 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 8 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sunday. 8209 Town Center Drive, White Marsh. Sample prices: $69.95 for one flier, including two flights. $109.95 for one flier, including four flights. Family packages for up to five people start at $301.78 with video clips included. iflyworld.com/baltimore