Shakespeare wrote, “To sleep, perchance to dream,” and it looks like the Bard was on to something. An Amerisleep study found that 32.6% of people have dreamed of flying. IFLY offers a disability-inclusive experience that makes those dreams a reality for anyone aged 3 to 103 by simulating free-fall conditions in its patented vertical wind tunnel.
Only a tiny percentage of the world’s population is brave enough, or foolish enough, to jump out of a perfectly fine plane, said CEO Matthew Ryan. “You truly get to fly. It’s a one-on-one experience. And for those who have jumped out of airplanes, the free-fall portion at iFLY is almost identical.” Plus, it lasts more than twice as long as the average plunge from an airplane, “so you get the experience of flight, and after a couple of minutes, most people can fly a bit on their own,” Ryan added.
Families comprise 80% of the business’s core customers. However, the company prides itself on being an adventurous option for everyone, no matter their physical abilities. “It transcends culture, class, and ethnicity. When you are in there, you’re flying,” said Ryan. “And frequently we deliver an experience for an individual who may have a physical or mental disability that typically can’t participate with other family members or friends.”
IFLY makes the dream of flight come true for individuals in wheelchairs and those missing limbs. The CEO wants the public to know that “someone with cerebral palsy, for example, can fly because an extensively trained instructor is holding onto them. The instructor can make necessary adjustments and manage the wind speed. That makes it a great experience.”
Technology Makes It Possible To Be Disability-Inclusive
Ryan credits the company’s cutting-edge technology for making it all possible. “Behind all of that is the technology to deliver this experience,” he said. And it’s come a long way since the company created its first wind tunnel in 1998.
“When the technology first began in the late ’90s, it was simply a concept of pulling in air from the outside through the bottom of the chamber and pushing that air out the top,” the CEO explained. The concept worked, although it wasn’t the most comfortable experience since there was no way to control the weather. “The condition of the air was not great, and if it was raining outside, the rain got sucked in,” he said. It was also impossible to control the temperature inside the wind tunnel back then. “So if it was 100 degrees outside, you were flying in a 110 degree tunnel, and alternately it would only be 25 degrees in the tunnel if it was 30 degrees outside,” commented Ryan.
Luckily, those glitches are long gone for anyone interested in experiencing the dream of flight. Today iFLY has grown to 100 locations worldwide. Ryan said, “The technology has been developed over time to create an environment which is completely enclosed and can deliver that flight experience in a very comfortable manner. It’s hard to describe this thing. The best way to [understand] it is to experience it.”
iFLY Focuses on Inclusivity
Inclusivity and corporate social responsibility are essential to the company. “The company works closely with local family groups who have disabled children. We organize events for them and have built harnesses,” said Ryan, adding that the company “goes out of our way to support the community at our locations worldwide.”
In 2019, the company made Glen Mills, an 85-year-old from Derbyshire, England, iFLY U.K.’s first inclusivity ambassador. Mills has used a wheelchair since being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 35. She visits the vertical wind tunnel once a week, citing that the weightlessness during flight offers relief from constant pain.
“Since trying … for the first time three years ago — I’ve been hooked! Not only does it ease muscle tension caused by MS, but the sensation of flying has given me a whole new lease of life,” Mills said. “The instructors can make what seems impossible possible — so for anyone out there who is a wheelchair user or has another disability, I’d encourage you to give [it] a go. You won’t look back!”
Making Mills its first inclusivity officer is an excellent way for the company to spotlight the accessibility of the experience and eliminate the belief that the vertical wind tunnel is only for daredevils and extreme sports enthusiasts. Contrary to that misconception, Christopher Barrett, president of the retail division at iFLY, confirmed multiple centenarians enjoyed soaring inside the wind tunnel throughout the past six months.
The company also trains its instructors to support a variety of physical and mental disabilities so that everyone can feel what it’s like to fly. Ryan recalled, “On my very first day in this tunnel as an employee, there was a group of veterans, and they had organized a once-a-year get-together. One of the guys had lost both legs in Iraq. After flying, he said, ‘We’ve been [getting together for] this for five years. This is the first time I could go in and participate in the same way as my buddies.’”
Jessika Kattah calls the Davie, Florida, location “a second home” because it allows her to take wing way above her wheelchair down on the ground. “It’s an adrenaline rush,” Kattah told DIVERSEabilitiy magazine. “All Abilities Night at iFLY gives us freedom.”
Kattah continued, “We were told so many times that we can’t do things, that we’ll never be able to do things, and this affords us the opportunity to be included in everyday activities just like everyone else.”
According to Barrett, the company also has “a Wounded Warriors group that meets up regularly in Minneapolis, and they do an annual thing as well. So they’re all persons with disabilities to some extent.”
He continued, “This is not a huge part of our business, but it is something that the company is passionate about. Our instructors are passionate about it too. So we want to support both our communities and our team members. Our instructors love what they do. If they can help others, who perhaps never dreamed of walking again, learn flight — they just love it.”
Visit any of the locations worldwide to experience the thrill of flying for yourself and see exactly why people love iFLY so much.