Flight instructors Scott Levesque and Steven Straley train together in the wind tunnel. Both instructors take turns pretending to be flight students who need help. The instructors go through worst-case scenario training.
Time remaining on the clock, five, four, three, two and before my feet could reach the door, it sucked me in and had its way with me. In what looked like a giant fish tank, for a solid two minutes, my weightless body was flung around like a sad little rag doll. I was free falling and falling fast. Trust me when I say that indoor skydiving is no joke. The experience gives new meaning to the term adrenaline rush.
Indoor skydiving, or better known as the Vertical Wind Tunnel, is just the latest attraction to add to the list of many heart-pumping activities at the Perris Valley Skydiving Center located in Perris, Calif.
The tunnel itself is in a pressurized room that consists of a flying chamber and an antechamber. The flying chamber has two doors, one for entering and another for exiting. The wind in the flying chamber is created by the use of five fans blowing air at 150 mph. It can accommodate up to four people; the antechamber, or otherwise known as the waiting room, can hold 14. A typical session runs between one and two minutes. As the session is finishing, flyers exit while new flyers enter. Normally the pressurized chamber is opened every 30 minutes to alternate groups.
To say I was excited about experiencing the Wind Tunnel would be a big fat lie. Skydiving indoor or outdoor—was not high on my list of priorities. I was terrified. In an attempt to subside my nerves, I visited the center’s Web site www.skydiveperris.com, making sure to note all the risks involved. I found that taking precautions is very important in the Tunnel. Simple movement in the Tunnel can be dangerous if not done correctly. It is suggested that you should not attempt maneuvers such as front loops, back loops and barrel rolls to evade a broken neck or back. After reading that, it was safe to say that my fears were growing. Needless to say, for the sake of writing a good story, I tucked in my lip and made a reservation, and three days later I was off to Perris.
Where the coastal plains meet the desert, lies the quaint city of Perris. Up until the early 50s, it was known as a small agricultural railroad town. But with the construction of Lake Perris in the late ‘60s, the small city has become a breeding ground for extreme recreational activities. Adrenaline junkies everywhere, old and young, flock to Perris to see what it feels like to live life dangerously. It is a beautiful place: clear blue skies, open fields and tall green trees greeted me. Sarcastically, I thought, if I’m going to die today, at least it will be in a nice place.
The center was exactly how I imagined: a big open field with a few buildings and a small runway. Every so often I would see a little speck in the sky attached to a parachute. I had no trouble finding the Wind Tunnel. It looked like a giant Campbell’s soup can on top of a cement platform, and the sound of ghostly winds surrounding the structure could make you believe you were standing in the center of a tornado.
I met Mayra Santini, the Perris Valley Skydiving Center’s marketing director, at the sales desk. With a short introduction, she quickly handed me some forms to read. As I read half way through the first page, I began to realize that these papers with tiny black print were release forms. I immediately started to zero in on the content because I figured, if I’m going to sign my life away, I better read carefully.
Santini wished me luck and directed me to the Tunnel. For a few minutes I watched the class before mine take turns in the Tunnel. A few of them hit the wall a couple of times. I could not tell whether they were hurt or just laughing it off because they knew people were watching.
It was 2:30 p.m., and my class was about to begin. Two young women, a young man and a middle-aged gentleman joined me in a small classroom. Our instructor Steven Straley showed us a short introductory video and in five minutes went over the five-hand signals we needed to know in order to communicate with him. For instance, a peace signal means to straighten your legs. A peace sign with both the middle and index finger bent means to bend your legs.
Feeling very rushed and scared that I would not remember the hand signals, I quickly suited up. Skydiving suit on, with added, kneepads, elbow pads, helmet, earplugs, goggles, I looked like a deranged exterminator. Still nervous, I asked Straley what’s the worst thing that could happen? “Nothing serious, maybe a bruised elbow,” Straley says. “Ego is the biggest thing that bruises here.” My instructor told me that I would go third. I watch the two men go before me. Watching them made me feel somewhat at ease. They seemed to have great control over their bodies and balanced themselves effortlessly, not like the others I had seen earlier who just flopped about. The instructor pointed at me, and I knew it was my turn in about five seconds. I watched the clock count down, stood up and, as if someone had pushed me, I literally flew into the tunnel. The skin on my face was being pulled back and I could see my reflection in the glass walls: I looked like a Warner Brothers cartoon character. Breathless and scared, I desperately tried to keep my eyes open to avoid hitting the Tunnel walls. I kept telling myself not to worry about that and to focus on the instructor’s face. My instructor Steven, smiling and jokingly sticking his tongue out at me, gave me the thumbs up and signaled me to relax. His care free attitude seemed to lower my heart rate a little until he decided to grab a hold of one of my arms and legs and spin me around. I spiraled out into the air like a Frisbee and splat, hit the wall. I felt like a fool; everyone saw me.
I tried to laugh it off, but at that point I just desperately wanted to get out of the Tunnel. Once I could see that I only had a few seconds left, a sigh of relief surged through my entire body. I pried myself out of the tunnel. Feeling exhausted, I crawled to a bench to have a seat as if I was a shipwreck survivor who had finally reached land. Once I caught my breath, I asked one of the young women in my group what she thought about her flight experience. “It was amazing,” says Tiffany Harris. “This was my first time and was actually a birthday gift from a friend. I’m overwhelmed because I had no idea we were coming here, but I can’t wait to do it again.”
“It’s like being reborn,” says Chris Santacroce, a hang glide instructor, explaining the Wind Tunnel experience. Santacroce, a frequent flyer at the Perris Valley Wind Tunnel, cannot get enough. “I had to slow down a bit because I started racking up my credit cards like crazy.” Originally, Santacroce was drawn to the Wind Tunnel to work up to skydiving. “It’s one of those things in life that is really captivating. The Wind Tunnel is like an endless skydive because there is no plane, no parachute.”
After our Wind Tunnel session was finished, I had the opportunity to watch the Russian pro skydiving team take a turn. To perfect their skills, the team trains at the Perris Skydiving facility. They did flips and turns. Every trick and even the simplest movements were synchronized. You could see that the team takes this sport seriously. What a joke, I thought to myself. This wasn’t a sport. With a little practice anyone could do this.
Not even a day after my flight, I noticed soreness in my arms and legs. I felt like I had just spent a day at the gym pumping Iron. The pain continued for almost a week. Maybe I was too quick to judge the Russian team. Through my aches and pains I realized that this type of activity takes a lot of strength, and for me courage. I’m not sure whether I would ever want to try the Wind Tunnel again, but it was defiantly worth the experience. Because in truth, how many people can say they know what its like to fly?
Perris Wind Tunnel: (951) 940-4290; e-mail: email@example.com. The sales office opens daily at 8:30 am. Adults $50. The experience equals two skydives from 13,000 feet. Children (5–12 years of age) $45.