It looked like I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
The ferocious funnel of wind swept me off my feet, out of Seoul, and into Maseong-ri, Yongin, Gyeonggi Province, where I sat inside Fly Station Korea, waiting to experience what is called indoor skydiving.
Fly Station Korea, just a five-minute drive away from Everland theme park, is the only place in South Korea that offers indoor skydiving programs, operated every day from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Upon stepping through the door, statues of figures from Avatar and of Spider-Man welcomed me for some reason, perhaps to amuse the visiting children.
“The majority of our customers are children, and their parents. Sometimes people who enjoy actual skydiving visits here for some practice,” said Kim Jong-wook, a certified tunnel instructor and a coach for the indoor skydiving program. A tunnel instructor refers to those certified to instruct and teach these programs inside the “wind tunnel,” in which winds reaching up to 360 kph thrust you off the floor and into the air.
Kim added that the minimum age limit was three, although children who are too young may have trouble. As such, most of the children taking flight looked to be aged roughly between 8 and 12.
As I stepped onto the second floor, animated chatter of families and couples surrounded the tunnel in question.
|A man participates in an indoor skydiving program Tuesday at Fly Station Korea in Maseong-ri, Yongin, Gyeonggi Province. (Yoon Min-sik/The Korea Herald)|
From the look of it, it did not seem that intimidating. Little children were lining up to do it, and it is mostly floating few feet off the ground, so how hard could it be?
The 3 p.m. team was a group of 12, consisting of seven children and five adults: two of whom were parents of participating children, a couple and one reporter who had no idea what he was about to face. We were each handed a goggle, a jumpsuit, a helmet, a set of earplugs, and a pair of sneakers for those who wore sandals, which are included in the package deal that costs 66,000 won ($54) on weekdays and 76,000 won on weekends per jump.
After changing into the suits, putting away watches, earrings or any other accessories into lockers, we entered a preparation area to watch a safety instruction video and additional explanations by coach Kim.
The flight would last two minutes per person, and we were told to relax, look forward, keep our body in a natural upside-down arch shape, and not to flail or stand on the safety net installed on the ground. All communication would be done via preset gestures we were told to memorize.
|Coach Kim Jung-wook of Fly Station Korea explains the safety measures of the indoor skydiving program on Tuesday. (Yoon Min-sik/The Korea Herald)|
Then it was time to start. We entered a small chamber that is connected to the wind tunnel, where the piercing sound of gushing wind greeted me: Now I understood what the ear plugs were for.
As children went up and down the tunnel one-by-one, accompanied by our coach, a not-so-freak accident of a boy’s shoe flying off his feet occurred, causing a 10-minute delay during which we all looked awkwardly at each other and retied our laces.
During the experience, both the coach and the wind operator would monitor the situation, ready to stop the operation at any sign of trouble.
To be honest, I wasn’t super-nervous about it. After all, I would be in a wind-filled tube facing a 25-feet drop at most, with a safety net there to gently catch my fall. All I’m facing is the wind, so how hard could it be?
How very much mistaken I was.
The moment I stepped in, the ruthless wind thrashed at my face and every inch of my body. While I waited, I told myself not to look like a fool in front of kids almost young enough to be my own, but looking cool wasn’t an option. I was bending over backward -- literally -- looking down, and basically doing everything I was told not to do, as the coach frantically tapped on my shoulders and gestured.
Just as I was thinking about one thing, another issue came up, then another. Then I realized I had stopped breathing for a good minute, or was it merely five seconds? I couldn’t tell, I was inside a tornado, for God’s sake!
To tell the truth, my performance wasn’t the best one, as I was one of the two people in our group who failed to stay afloat for most of the two minutes -- with the other being a 10-year-old boy.
|A child participates in an indoor skydiving program Tuesday at Fly Station Korea in Maseong-ri, Yongin, Gyeonggi Province. (Yoon Min-sik/The Korea Herald)|
But even I couldn’t help but enjoy a rush of excitement at the highlight of the program: The wind being dialed up to 11, as the coach and I flew high up into the air, near the top of the tunnel. Of course, I later learned that wasn’t really 11, more like five or six.
“We usually turn up the wind to between 150 kph and 200 kph. Those weighing up to 125 kg can participate,” Kim said, which means the wind tunnel was able to push a combined weight of nearly 200 kg up into the air.
He also explained why I had so much trouble, saying that you have to be well-balanced in the air for the wind to hit every part of your body. That explained why the boy half my weight kept sinking, while coach Kim was able to fly around the tunnel weightless during the end-of-program demonstration.
Overall, it was a surreal experience and tons of fun, but not one that is well-known among Koreans. Fly Station Korea only opened in January, despite the sport of indoor skydiving existing for years. The steep price also works as a hindrance.
“Not many people are aware of indoor skydiving in Korea. If more places offering the sport were to be built in Korea, and the price were to go down accordingly, I think it would be much more popular here,” Kim said.
In addition to the one-time experience, Fly Station Korea also has learning programs for indoor skydiving. It operates pickup service for customers from nearby subway stations of Jeondae-Everland and Guseong.
For more information, visit the homepage at www.flystation.kr.
By Yoon Min-sik