Terminal velocity feels a lot less peaceful than I’d imagined. I’m spread eagle, wind hitting me at 130 miles per hour, and I’m stiff as a board. Five minutes ago, my instructor, Shane, told me relaxation was the key to free fall. Seemed like a piece of cake at the time, but it’s easier said than done.
Shane signals for me to bend my knees more. The result: drifting not-so-gently into a Plexiglass wall separating me from the outside world. A woman in the crowd of onlookers takes pictures of me, her smiles immediately following the bright flashes of her camera. I probably have a cartoon face, my mouth billowing out like a parachute and my eyes wide open.
I’m here to try out Universal CityWalk’s iFLY Hollywood, one of the few skydiving experiences in the country where you don’t have to jump out of the plane. I’m kind of a wimp like that. I crave excitement but don’t want too much of it. I like extreme sports but only if I have helmets and pads — you know, in case I fall or something. I’ve wanted to skydive for a long time but never worked up the courage — or the money — to get on a plane and actually jump out of it. So when iFLY Hollywood opened, I took the opportunity to see what it was about.
For those who want an adrenaline rush, there are few attractions more worthwhile than iFLY. Whereas a tandem jump from an airplane would average $200, flight at iFLY costs about $40 for the same free-fall time. Plus, I don’t see anything peaceful about being strapped to a stranger — instructor or not — during free fall. I mean, the infamous question does linger at the back of my mind: What if the parachute doesn’t open?
No such worries here. iFLY is a 30-foot vertical wind tunnel with enough wind power for skydivers to reach terminal velocity. Using 800-horsepower fans on both the ground and ceiling, it’s safer and smoother than the real thing. And there’s more of that freedom veteran skydivers rave about; although an instructor is there for guidance, you’re pretty much flying on your own. No parachute, no tandem jumping and luckily for me, no standing at an open door of an airplane looking down at the ground far below.
I know all this, but I’m still nervous during my iFLY experience. The massive winds are disorienting and my hands and feet are doing funny things seemingly without my control. As an athlete, I’m completely humbled. It’s as if I’m learning how to use my body again. Hand here, foot there. No wonder the instructors make it a point to say that this is not a ride or a simulation.
Sitting on a roller coaster is passive in comparison. Here, there’s real skill involved. The slightest movement drastically changes your body position, hence the shakiness, the spinning and dipping. Needless to say, I’m having a little bit of trouble on my first run.
Then, something happens. Shane spins me around, guides my legs in the right position, and, for some reason, I just let go and relax. Suddenly, I’m floating.
I can’t think of anything else like it. Not surfing, not snowboarding. It’s a moment in a blissful, meditative state — up is down, gravity loses its hold, the air is lighter. In a strange way, you forget about your body.
My heart lifts as Shane goes horizontal and takes us up 20 feet in the air, down again, up again. We might as well be 3,000 feet above LA. I’ve never jumped out of a plane before, but this sensation — intense, liberating, overwhelming — ought to hit pretty close to the mark. Luckily, I won’t have to find out. I’m already flying.