Even as I approached the iFly complex in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood, the very newest of 18 American "Indoor Skydiving" sites, I was unsure whether the strange and perhaps slightly stupid thing I was about to do qualified as sports. The building's aspirational, monolithic, technocracy-invoking appearance didn't help me much on this front; it brought to mind the family-friendly, glossily futuristic aesthetic of Disney's Big Hero 6 more than it did anything like a gym or arena or field or anything I'd previously associated with sports. This was undiscovered country. People flew in there.
"The EPA branch in Illinois asked us, 'are you going to be generating power, with whatever it is you're building here?'" iFly general manager Dave Janossy told me. "They thought it looked like a nuclear reactor. We said, 'No, but we are going to be using a lot of power.'"
Janossy, for his part, is unconflicted about whether Indoor Skydiving is Sports. "One-hundred percent it is," he says. "It's called Body Flight. We tag it as Indoor Skydiving, but that's just to align it with something people are sort of familiar with. If we call it Body Flight, who out there knows what the hell we're talking about?"
The differences between going up and down in one of iFly's science-experiment tubes—essentially a vertical wind tunnel that simulates free-fall, starring you—and jumping out of a plane tens of thousands of feet above the earth are obvious, if only in the sense that one evokes less visceral horror than the other. But the safety net of the tube offers virtually identical physics while also providing fliers the opportunity to take new chances, and do all sorts of balletic, majestic, synchronized things while levitating, and to accumulate these tricks into routines like those seen in figure skating and skateboarding medleys. Look at it that way, and indoor skydiving is sports.
Another thing in the This Is Sports column: it's very hard to do all this. A debut experience in Body Flight is about rapidly re-learning basic high school physics and trying to achieve some stability, but mostly it is about flailing and finding new ways to embarrass yourself. My personal time in the tube saw me careening into the walls repeatedly, struggling to interpret the four key hand signals that my guide and teacher imparted to me from his spot inside the tube with me—bend your legs, straighten your legs, put your chin up, and, of course, relax.
Since I am bad at relaxing and also at having any physical mass, I was basically a crumpled-up ball of paper whipping around in a very stiff breeze. I dragged left and right uncontrollably, lacked momentum, fell on my butt, and generally did not achieve a satisfying sense of flight. iFly provides all customers with videos of their experience, and I can only hope they destroyed mine after I left, and are not still using it for chuckles around the office. For comparison, please watch a parent guiding their baby through a swimming pool. For contrast, here is what professionals look like in the tube:
I had imagined my time in the air as a trampoline of incalculable dreaminess; a place where I could backflip, spin, and execute all kinds of elegant and hilarious physical comedy, free from the annoyances of gravity. And for people that master Body Flight, it indeed appears that the tube can become such a place.
But there is a ton of tough body discipline between the average person and that particular brand of transcendence. Learning to "let the wind do the work," as my teachers suggested, did not come easy. It's an unnatural thing, and that tenet likely frustrates many an iFly pilgrim as it did me. More than anything, I felt distinctly uncool as I fell short of a certain Zen bar—the "relax" hand signal was the one I saw in my face most often—and at odds with gravity, even though I was in a space that manipulated it into a bourgeoisie novelty. My perpetual dragging also made for a disorienting series of pats and gestures from my teacher as I spun and crashed, and I was rarely sure what I was supposed to be doing.
The tube, of course, was made in part to address these failings. "When you jump out of a plane, before you open your parachute, you're drifting left and right pretty significantly," Janossy says. Before taking up work with iFly's parent company, SkyVenture, he was with the United States Air Force for ten years. He explains that the first vertical wind tunnel was built at Dayton, Ohio's Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in the sixties, for training purposes. That tube's initial purpose was to test how the re-entry capsules of Apollo rockets would react to terminal velocity conditions, and to make sure astronauts would not bash around recklessly and die. Vertical wind tunnels went on to operate at much slower speeds so that parachutists could learn to "track" in the wind successfully, the better to avoid dragging and so they could fool enemy radars.
"The majority of parachutist accidents happen because of bad tracking," Janossy says, smashing his fists together to suggest two bodies crashing into each other, shortly after leaping out of a plane. If twenty of me went skydiving together, there is no doubt that such collisions would occur between them; given that I couldn't keep from slamming into the walls of the tube, somewhere between 18 and 20 collisions would seem likely.
"Tracking is all about lateral control," Janossy continued. "That way, we can avoid hitting each other, but also appear basically as birds on radar. Just little static dots. During SEAL missions, parachutists will track until the last moment possible, opening their chutes low to the ground and quickly taking care of business." One such SEAL operation is a 2012 doctor rescue in Afghanistan that made the news cycle.
The original use of the tube for less tactical, more recreational purposes was in 1965. An engineer working on the NASA training project "got a little squirrely one day," as Janossy tells it, and jumped into the synthetic wind for fun. While his act of hubris doubtless inspired many other men of science to take to artificial flight in vertical wind tunnels over the following decades, the first tube constructed for explicitly commercial use was made by SkyVenture about 15 years ago in Orlando. The activity has since taken off worldwide much more dramatically than it has domestically; the Middle East, especially, has emerged as an unlikely hotbed of Body Flight hobbyists.
Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai, the Minister of Finance and Industry of the United Arab Emirates, reportedly has his own tube—as you know by now, Novak Djokovic has taken a spin in it. It would take a man of Minister Of Finance In Dubai-grade wealth to get one, as Janossy estimated the production costs of a vertical wind tunnel at around $10 million per unit. Beyond that, the regular use energy fees are staggering to imagine. The hand signals administered while flying are necessary because of how loud it is in there—ear plugs are provided and recommended at iFly—and my interviews needed to be conducted in offices adjacent to and sealed off from iFly's main congregation space; even that area, some distance from the tube, is awash in white noise.
This is mammoth machinery. As such, entry fees are as steep as the learning curve; several minutes in the tube cost around $70.00. To be fair, several minutes is a lot, and I was sore as hell after that much time. For those who get hooked, the expense is worth it. Janossy tells me of a 92-year-old client who does ten minutes in the tube every Monday, at iFly's Naperville location. This senior citizen is a World War II veteran pilot, and it's easy to see how that experience would help him with Body Flight. Getting good at this is essentially getting good at repurposing your body into an ergonomically shaped wing of a plane. "There's nothing like it," Janossy says. "A lot of people who get into it start pursuing a job here pretty fast, though, because for them it might be the only way to afford it."
The jumpsuits iFly distributes summon memories of another Disney CGI affair, in The Incredibles. Mine was particularly floppy—maybe in an attempt to remake my body into that of a flying squirrel and increase my surface area so that I could grab me more of those gusts of air, or maybe because they didn't have any slim fit suits available.
It's no accident that Disney properties have come up twice in this report, and here they arise for a third time: walking out of the tunnel on your own two feet, surrounded by all that swirling wind, is like nothing so much as walking out the tailchute of Cloud City, where Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker talked family values in Empire Strikes Back.
Because it is flight, and because of the other uncanniness of the experience, there is an undeniable cinema to all this. But the feeling, as I left, was more meta-cinematic than expected—the amount of learning and struggle, and the overall vibe of artificiality, amount to a lot of production value for a brief bout of role-playing.
It was less like watching a movie, in other words, than like being on the set of one, waiting hours for everything to align so that a 30-second shot could come together. If I ever felt like a superhero, it was only for a matter of seconds. I did not ever believe I could fly. Body Flight is a hard, complicated new thing, and it demands hours of work, fistfulls of dollars, and acreage of bruising before it grants its participants the wild freedom it promises. Which, come to think, is just another way in which it's like any other sport.