RAEFORD, N.C. — For folks like Tim D'Annunzio a former jumper with the Army's Golden Knights parachute team, the desire to fly has matured into a lifelong fixation. Free fall isn't some piddling part-time hobby; it's lifeblood, man. This one-time staff sergeant spent $9.5 million to build Paraclete XP SkyVenture, a state-of-the-art vertical wind tunnel that opened late last year just a few miles from Fort Bragg, N.C. Now he can skydive anytime he pleases. And you can, too — even if you can't muster the guts to hurl yourself out of some rickety Cessna at 13,500 feet.
"Everybody wants to jump out of an airplane," D'Annunzio, 50, said, "but there are very few people who will get themselves to the point mentally where they can actually do it. [Wind tunnels are] a stepping stone. ... If you'd like to see what it feels like [to experience free fall], this is something that's there."
• http://www.militarytimes.com/indoorskydiving">See video of the bodyflight experience
Bodyflight, as this activity has become known, is not so much "flying" as it is riding a powerful beam of air. Only a handful of these wind tunnels exist worldwide — and precious few are in the States, according to
Bodyflight Network, http://www.bodyflight.net">http://www.bodyflight.net, an online reservoir of information about this "way of life." Although these facilities vary in appearance (and whether they're indoors or out), the product is the same: Once you're outstretched and floating, you feel like you've taken flight — and it's totally spellbinding.
Flailing, spinning, flying
Through the windshield of your Dodge minivan, these wind tunnels might as well be sausage-making factories; to the uninitiated, it's not at all apparent that simulated skydiving goes on inside of them. Outside Paraclete, for example, there is no noise, apart from the muffled purr of the four 541-horsepower fans that generate the tunnel's airflow.
But it's another story within a wind tunnel's flight chamber, where wind speeds range from 120 to 185 mph. That roar makes oral communication impossible and hand signals essential — especially for a first-timer.
The flight chambers at indoor tunnels are encased in transparent safety glass, so even curious walk-ins can watch what takes place before committing to suit up and jump in. Spend an hour or so gawking and you'll likely see a decent range of abilities, from major leaguers on down to bush leaguers.
Prior to your first flight, expect (or demand) a quick tutorial on the "stable body position," a belly-down, Superman-like posture that — after significant practice — allows you some manner of control over your movement up, down and side to side.
"You have to unlearn what you already know about being a walking human being," said John Suiter, an expert tunnel flier who owns Bodyflight Concepts, a consulting firm based in Tennessee. "Up isn't up anymore. You've got to think like you're lying down and orientate yourself to the ground so you have an awareness of which way you're moving."
Before you fly at Paraclete, you also get a rundown of the hand signals instructors use inside the tunnel to tell you to lift your chin, bend your knees or relax your body. Because the first experience is so foreign, your inclination is to tighten every muscle you have. Don't. It impedes your ability to move freely.
Round one won't be your most graceful moment. The tunnel rats able to execute back flips and fly upside down, as though they're balancing on the tops of their heads, have umpteen hours of practice. Like an ill-tempered colt, a rookie must be broken. You'll flail, spin and drift; it's the instructor's job to grab hold of your waist and settle you down if he sees that you're struggling to maintain proper form. Don't be embarrassed. Odds are that all the seasoned onlookers endured the same awkwardness their first few times.
"When you enter the wind tunnel, you don't know what to expect," said Glenn Bangs, 55, Paraclete's building manager and, like D'Annunzio, a former Golden Knight. He retired from the Army as a prior-enlisted captain. "But by the time our instructors are finished with you, they've let you go and you're actually flying your body from one side of the tunnel to the other. So when you come out of there, you're having a sensation of exhilaration that is impossible to duplicate in any endeavor on the ground."
Is it fun? That's an understatement. The term perma-grin comes to mind. And all the instructors have it, too. "We have the audacity to call this work," Bangs said.
But why do it? What's our motive for flouting the law of gravity?
As a kid in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., Suiter was an Evel Knievel wannabe, ripping around on his bike and launching off jumps just to experience the short-lived rush of catching some air. At 14, he went to work for Flyaway Indoor Skydiving, which opened a tunnel in 1982. Now 40, Suiter is one of the world's foremost authorities on bodyflight, with an estimated 20,000 hours of tunnel time at facilities across the globe. (Yeah, he's spent more than two years of his life in bodyflight.) To him, coasting on a column of air is an opportunity to live "in the moment," to completely relax and let life's problems just evaporate.
He works regularly at Appalachian Amusement Center, an open-air, outdoor tunnel in western North Carolina. Set against the Smoky Mountains, it's a spot where thrill-of-a-lifetime moments are amplified by the surrounding environment.
From inside the tunnel, he said, "I can see birds fly by. We had a swarm of bees come through one day. Vultures fly in the top of the air column; they just hover and spin." It's like the opposite of scuba diving.
Though he is an experienced skydiver with more than 500 jumps, Suiter prefers the safety and ease of flying in a wind tunnel. Injury risk is low, and getting a fix doesn't require the same exertion or equipment that parachuting does; there are no parachutes. And it's a family activity — Suiter's 13-year-old daughter has been tunnel flying since she was 3 — which heightens the appeal.
Bodyflight is not a substitute for skydiving. A wind tunnel will never replicate the expanse and adrenaline that define true free fall. But the sense of accomplishment is on par, according to Bangs. And with 8,200 jumps to his credit, he ought to know.
"Any endeavor like this," he said, "whether you learn how to fly, whether you learn how to rock climb, whether you learn how to whitewater kayak — it's an expression of your desire to expand your horizons, your capabilities and your experiences. To push the envelope, if you will."