By Jeff Clemetson
When I was 9 years old, my favorite TV show was “The Greatest American Hero.” The premise of the show went something like this: Aliens give a high school teacher a powerful suit that turns him into a superhero. But he loses the instruction manual on how to use it and so all his powers are performed with less than perfect finesse — especially the flying, which resulted in comical crashes and wobbly takeoffs.
That’s a lot like how I felt in the iFLY San Diego indoor skydiving center in Mission Valley — like I lacked the knowledge of how to use my flying suit. It’s not that the pre-flight class with instructor Nick Flo was inadequate; it was that my body lacked the learned discipline to stay aloft within the wind tunnel.
The first time I went in the wind tube, I spent the better half of the 2-minute experience on or near the floor, struggling to keep my body in the preferred position for maximum resistance. The iFLY instructors use a system of hand signals to direct you on how to position your legs and body: index and middle finger extended like a hippy peace sign means the instructor wants you to extend your legs; same two fingers bent like someone giving air quotes means to bend the legs; and extending the thumb and pinky out like a surfer giving the “hang loose” sign means to relax.
The idea is that through straightening or bending the body, you can increase or decrease wind resistance and give you more or less altitude in the tunnel. Considering the number of times my belly bumped the floor that first run, I felt that what I should really be decreasing is my calorie intake.
Despite the fact that I didn’t fly with the cool ease of the instructors, who put on quite the aerial acrobatic demonstration before my flight, I couldn’t wait for my next chance to try it again.
My next session started out a lot like the first, struggling to keep enough wind below me to hover above the floor. Just as I started to feel like I was getting the hang of flying around the wind tunnel, it started raining from the ground up. Not real rain, since this is an indoor skydiving facility, but there were water drops coming from beneath me.
Flo pulled me to the exit and the turbines that blast the air were shut down while a crew went to investigate what was going on. I could hear the instructors and machine operators bemoaning that this, of course, had to happen when the press was there. They assured me that replicating skydiving in a thunderstorm was not a normal part of the experience and that these kinds of bugs would be worked out of the system by the time iFLY held its official opening.
The water issue turned out to be nothing serious, so I got to go in the wind tube a third time. This time around, I managed to stay off the ground and was even able to fly over Flo’s reach. As I drifted back toward the ground, I suddenly felt Flo grab my suit and at the same time the operator increased the wind speed. He flew us to the top of the tunnel, spinning in circles on the way up and on the way down. We did this a few more times, spinning our way up and down the tunnel to the fluctuating speed of the wind.
It was thrilling! And for those brief moments, I knew what it was like to fly with that instruction book. As I left the iFLY building on my way back to the office, I couldn’t help hearing the theme song to “The Greatest American Hero” in my head: “Believe it or not, I’m walking on air. I never thought I could feel so free-ee-ee …”
—Write to Jeff Clemetson at email@example.com.