When I returned home with my son — Henry, age 11 — from an outing at SkyVenture New Hampshire, my wife greeted us at the door. “Did they let you do the jump with the thunderstorms and all that rain?” she wondered.
I looked at Patty closely: “You thought I was going to take Henry jumping out of an airplane? You were going to let me?”
It occurred to me that after years of living with all the strange adventures I pursue, she either trusted me profoundly or had been desensitized to a worrying degree. There may well be companies that for a minimal amount of fuss will take you into a small twin-propeller airplane, fly you and your young family to approximately 10,000 feet, and let you jump out. Thankfully, SkyVenture isn’t one of them.
SkyVenture offers the experience of a jump (what it calls “the sport of body flight”) in a controlled environment — a recirculating vertical wind tunnel, humming loudly at 160 mph. It’s state-of-the-art, safe, and minus skydiving’s most anxiety-producing element: that little thing called terminal velocity. Not that there aren’t hazards.
“Why is it so important to keep your chin up?” asked a fellow student during our 20-minute preflight training class.
“There are technical reasons that have to do with body mechanics, but I’m not going to get into them,” said our flight guide, Nick, a pleasant Aussie. “But mostly it’s so you can see the walls before you hit them.”
Because there’s an art to flight — not to mention those hard walls — Nick took us through several important training points. “When you’re flying, you’re pushing air around,” he began. “The important thing to remember is that big, fast movements have big, fast consequences.”
We practiced the baby-step introductory flying form called the “arch.” In this modified “Superman” position, your belly’s out, your legs are spread wide, and your arms are bent overhead as though you’ve been told to surrender. Nick emphasized that he’d be with us in the tunnel, offering signals such as wringing his hands (relax) and bending two fingers (bend your legs).
Just before we put on our flight garb (elbow and knee pads, one-piece flight suit, helmet, goggles, ear plugs), he gave us perhaps his most reassuring tip: “The air is lighter up higher, and the tunnel has a diffuser, so don’t worry. You’re not going to go shooting up through the roof.”
And so we stepped into the 12-foot cylindrical flight chamber. Imagine something like a glass-enclosed funnel turned upside down, blowing with the sort of wind you might get in January atop Mount Washington. Nick took hold and tilted us into proper position. He let go, held on, flashed signals — and all the while, we swirled, rose, and dropped.
At first I must have looked like some newborn creature introduced into a world it didn’t know. I was stiff and clumsy — a baby loon flapping and fluttering in an attempt to lift off. But then, with just a few moments to go in my 60-second flight, Nick grabbed hold of me and we shot up together past the big picture windows and into the netherworld of a manmade thermal. Up and down we rose, as the first crack of a smile leaked out of my wind-bubbled face.
On our second flight, I noticed how stiff Henry looked as he walked into the chamber — but how he was transformed as he soared. Each time we gained our best flight, Nick was assisting us as he gave the thumbs-up signal to the wind operator and winged us upward to that lofty place where humans feel like birds. Of course, it would be nice to fly like Nick, who at the end showed us some breathtaking swoops and flips. Besides catering to rank beginners, these wind tunnels are the practice playground of some of the world’s best skydivers.
Frankly, after seeing Nick’s gymnastics, I was a little glum that I was “stiff as steel,” not supple enough, not letting myself surrender to the experience. Maybe I was more of a sinker than a flyer. But Henry turned to me on the way home and said, “Why do you think they let you go up so high?”
“I was high?” I asked.
“Yeah, Dad, you were way up above the windows.”
I’m still smiling when I think about that. Maybe I can fly.
SKYVENTURE NEW HAMPSHIRE
3 Poisson Ave., Nashua, NH. $48 (two one-minute sessions, including training and equipment). 603-897-0002; skyventurenh.com