Retiring a Legend

January 25, 2017

By Jennifer Sensenbaugh

18 years ago, the first SkyVenture Vertical Wind Tunnel was born in Orlando, FL. This is the story of how it all began, some of the Instructors involved, and what will become of it when the two new tunnels open in March 2017. 

Timeline:

1997: Mike Palmer designs the first vertical wind tunnel for Bill Kitchen, the owner of SkyCoaster, as another fun tourist attraction in the Orlando & Disney area. 

1998: in September, SkyVenture Orlando on International Drive opens its doors. It is the first patented wall-to-wall airflow wind tunnel, 12-ft in diameter with an decagonal shape. This original design has 5 fans at the top with no recirculating wind, no climate control, and no doors that could open and close during the flight session. Despite not having all of the bells & whistles the new designs have, this technology was innovative, revolutionary, and state-of-the-art for its time.

1998-2000: SkyVenture Orlando struggles to appeal to both the skydiver market and first time flyers. The skydiver community is skeptical.  

2000: SkyVenture Orlando starts to grow its appeal for 1st time flyers and gains some success from the busy tourist market

2001: Airspeed and Alan Metni create www.tunnelcamp.com. With this influence from the top skydiving teams in the world, skydivers begin to recognize the wind tunnel as a powerful training tool, and game changer for the industry.

2005: SkyVenture sells SkyVenture Orlando to a private company. It continues to operate as popular entertainment to both first time flyers, and skydivers utilizing it as a training tool.

2010: SkyVenture buys the Orlando tunnel back, and rebrands it as iFLY Orlando shortly thereafter.

2010-2016: As many more new facilities in the US open, iFLY Orlando remains busy with first time flyers and skydivers.

If those old decagonal plexi-glass tunnel walls could talk, they could tell some great stories. From numerous paint jobs on the outside, having the check-in desk/retail area in a separate trailer from the tunnel, walking up three flights of stairs to get to the flight deck, multiple cats living on property, lines out the door during high seasons, using an 8 stack DVD burner to get customers their photos and video, and having to tell customers there’s a weather hold because it’s raining in the tunnel.

In March of 2017, the old iFLY Orlando will shut down and an immediate transition will occur to open the brand new iFLY Orlando, further down on International Drive, next to Wonderworks and Icebar Orlando. This facility has two 12 ft. single-loop recirculating wind tunnels under one roof. They both function independently of each other with separate driving booths. It is located further The new facility will feature a meeting room, party room, and open glass viewing area where spectators can see from the outside of the building. 

Before the original tunnel retires, we wanted to get some perspective and memories in writing for this historical switch-over. We have connected with a handful of IBA Instructors that got their career started in Orlando over 5 years ago, and have led successful careers in Indoor Skydiving.

 

Rusty Lewis – IBA Director of Safety & Training

  • How you found the job with iFLY/SkyVenture, the position you started in, then position you’re in now, and how you got there

I was a skydiver living in the UK and working at a dropzone near Nottingham. I would travel to Orlando often (roughly every other month for two week stints) and bring friends and AFF students. I was coaching students for extended skydiving "vacations” and do free coaching in the tunnel just to help myself improve, jump as much as possible, and also to drink the fine beer the Americans make!

With spending a lot of time at the tunnel, I was able to get to know the staff well and form a relationship with the team. This eventually led to them agreeing to hire me if I could get my paperwork to legally work in the US. I started as an Instructor, the training only took 4 days back then. I was like a kid in a candy store!!

Now I’m the Director of Safety and Training for the IBA after rising to manager at SkyVenture Orlando (now iFLY Orlandosaurus Rex!) and Lead Instructor/Manager of SkyVenture Colorado (now iFLY Denver).

  • Advice for people looking to move up?

Enjoy the ride but be ready to work hard. LISTEN… you don’t have to look too hard to find some excellent advice, even from a brand new Level 1 Instructor, everyone can teach you something. Lead by example and be the best team mate anyone could ask you to be. Smile, there’s always a camera on you!

  • Any other fun facts related to your career path

I was often known as the Simon Cowell of training instructors. He’s a really nice guy when you get to know him though I’m sure…

 

Adam Fultz - Lead Instructor/T4 iFLY Chicago Lincoln Park

  • How you found the job with iFLY/SkyVenture, the position you started in, the position you’re in now, and how you got there

 I was pretty lucky in how I found a job in the tunnel. My best friend Striker fell into this awesome job at a place called Skyventure. I had to come to Orlando and try out for a position on the staff as well as participate in the early version of the FIT test. Pretty tough stuff. In September 2005 I was lucky enough to be invited to become a part of the team. I made it through a very tough FITP (Flight Instructor Training Program) to become a level one Instructor. I worked there for a few years before an ownership change. I worked for the tunnel in New Hampshire & SF Bay before coming back to my home tunnel Orlando after it became iFLY. I have been a part of countless FITPS for tunnels all over the world, and spent some time on the management side of things. Today you will find me as the Lead Instructor/T4 for iFLY Chicago, Lincoln Park.

  • Advice for people looking to move up?

 Stay hungry, yet take you time. Don't be afraid of taking your time and understating every inch of your body in the wind. Your value will grow once your full knowledge and understanding of the wind or is fully transparent.

  • Any other fun facts related to your career path

I miss being the young gun but I much prefer becoming the old wise (angry) man.  Oh and I definitely enjoy throwing a safety meeting or two.

 

Chris Dixon - iFLY Manager of Instruction and Training

  • How you found the job with iFLY/SkyVenture, the position you started in, the position you’re in now, and how you got there

Walking on campus at UCF, SkyVenture Orlando had tent by the student union. Interviewed the next day and got the job in March of 2007 as an instructor. Now I am the Manager of Instruction and Training. I was promoted to Lead Instructor of Orlando in 2009 I believe. Moved to Austin in 2012 to be Lead Instructor of the new tunnel. Earned an examiner rating in 2014 and began to work with the IBA in more of a development role. Transitioned to the Operations team in late 2015/early 2016 as the Manager of Instruction and Training.

  • What do you think should happen to the old tunnel once the new ones open?

One last flight session for those who have history with the machine then respectfully turned off forever. I call dibs on a piece of her for a memento.

  • Your earliest/funniest/best memory from working in Orlando

Trying to discretely free a dead bird that got sucked up under the net while flying and filming live on the morning news.

  • Advice for people looking to move up?

Don’t make it about yourself, and what the organization is doing for you. Make it first about how you can have a positive impact on your co-workers and the greater organization. You will achieve your goals.

  • Any other fun facts related to your career path

Umm… baggy jump suits used to be cool. Now I have to work myself through, and be ok with, wearing a spandex unitard.

 

Michael Carney - Lead Instructor & Examiner iFLY Orlando

  • How you found the job with iFLY/SkyVenture

In desperation mode searching for a job, I resorted to Craigslist for job listings and saw a post for a position at SkyVenture Orlando. I was hired in September of 2007 to begin FITP in October. I am now the Lead Instructor at iFLY Orlando, after lots of persistence and training worked my way up level by level.

  • What do you think should happen to the old tunnel once the new ones open?

I think the original tunnel should be put in a museum or in some way made sure it is remembered. 

  • Your earliest/funniest/best memory from working in Orlando

Some of my best memories are being able to work alongside a good friend and my original Trainer Nick Scott-Tomlin. 

 

Rendering of the interior of the new iFLY Orlando


 

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