Your feet are at the edge, knowing there's a long wait until the ground. You're told not to look down, but to keep your chin up and your arms in front.

… And you're off.

For some, the adrenaline - heck, the anxiety! - is too intense to jump from an airplane. However, thanks to iFly, located in Ashburn and Gaithersburg, you can have that same experience but from a wind tunnel!

The premise arose from skydivers who wanted to refine their craft in a controlled environment. There's no need for a parachute here, and the tunnels keep the divers in suspense to emulate free-falling.

Everybody starts by calling in or registering online for a certain time and the kind of flight experience he or she wants. The instructors then introduce themselves, asking the flyers to empty their pockets and put on the flight suits and goggles. They hold small class instruction with a video to demonstrate how to fly safely. Then, everyone's off for two flight sessions that last about two minutes each. (For comparison, an average time a skydiver spends in free-fall is 45 seconds.)

The instructor also evaluates the flyers' skills and will hand them certificates to show what they accomplished successfully and safely during their experience.

The key word is "safe." Many who attend think that they will immediately fly independently, doing tricks in the air and going upside down. The instructor, however, will guide the first-time flyer along the way and partially hold on to him or her, though nobody feels the contact when in the air.

Chris Navarez, a flight instructor for iFly, has been a professional skydiver for four years. He says his favorite customer interactions are with those who are "stoked" to fly, to make their day better.

"If you practice sports like baseball, this is where you become really good at skydiving," Navarez says. "In here, you have endless amounts of time to keep working on the same body position, and you have other people who can help you fly in the right position."

Sales manager Matt Owens says iFly engages with the community to encourage people to try out this unique experience. Owens attends community events, talking to scout leaders for example, and disseminates marketing materials to spread awareness about its ease and accessibility.

He also notes how the facility preserves energy, such as the energy for the wind tunnels also keeps the building cool during hot months.

"Doing as much as we can to keep our carbon footprint to a minimum," Owens says they participate in energy saving days during those peak periods, "making sure that every minute our tunnel is in operation is accounted for."

Owens repeats that anybody can fly. iFly has hosted an all-abilities night where, for example, children with any disability can fly with the help of an extra instructor. All one has to do is notify them about their child so they can accommodate ahead of time.

Navarez referred to one flyer, an 11-year-old named Parker. He has been trained from the ground up, and professional coaches come from all over the country to develop him. Since he cannot legally skydive, he comes to iFly to practice and develop routines similar to figure skaters.

iFly encourages retention so returning flyers can further develop their skills. Sales manager Owens says the aim is to get returning flyers to continue learning how to maneuver their body in mid-air.

"We really take pride in what we do here," Owens says. "We meet some of the most passionate ever, who are as excited about the sport of skydiving as we are."


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