You know that moment where you feel like a good breeze could lift your feet from the ground? You lean into it a little. You might even unbutton your coat to let the wind fill the cloth.
Sometimes you see a bird circling the drafts (it’s usually a buzzard, or a hawk) and if you’re me, you want to put your arms out and join them in their turns.
When I stepped into the 250mph wind tunnel at SkyVenture New Hampshire, I felt exactly that, and more. It took my breath away.
A few years ago, I wrote a short story about a winged knife fight in a wind tunnel. My beta readers told me it was bigger than a story, and they were right (thanks, guys!). The story was a window on a world of wind and bone, songs and silence, betrayal and courage. That story was where my novel Updraft got its start.
One short story became a book, then three books.
Researching that world meant developing a moderate obsession with wingsuit adrenalinist Jeb Corliss, watching West Point’s skydiving team train for formation flying, getting into a 250 mph wind tunnel, talking with sailmakers, engineers, and weather experts, and feeling like I was about to be lifted from my feet by every breeze. I still feel that way.
I don’t get to fly very often any more — not on my own power. When I was younger, I did a lot of sailing, and that’s still the closest I can come most days to flying. Before that, I was a gymnast until a medical condition took me out of competition — gymnastics, too, has its moments where you feel as if you can fly.
So I was looking forward to experiencing the wind tunnel. I was also pretty nervous, because 250 mph is a lot of wind, the waiver was really long and filled with dire warnings*, and they suited me up with a crash helmet the color of a blue M&M.
When I stepped into the wind tunnel, I pointed my toes and smiled — I guess my nerves threw my old gymnastics training into overdrive. I leaned into the wind and my feet lifted. I tilted into and held a good plank - core firm, arms out, fingers spread, legs slightly apart, knees bent, pointed toes.
The instructor noted the toes. “You’re cut out for this,” he shouted over the roar of the giant fan far below. Then he scissored his legs and we started to spin faster, going up higher into the tunnel than anyone else had so far. “Want to try something more advanced?”
My version of advanced was trying not to throw up on the instructor. The pointed toes and performance-smile were a measure of how nervous I was. But I managed to keep it together. I didn’t want to miss out on anything. I gradually relaxed into the wind and realized how much I was learning just by feel. The way every shift of my body changed my roll and direction. The way that the curve of the tunnel impacted how I flew. The way a body could hang in the air if their feet were level with their head and the airflow was strong enough.
The minute I stepped out of the vortex, I was back on my feet. And I could still feel the rush of air around me.
SkyVenture New Hampshire was — at least on the evening I tried out the wind tunnel — a winter training location for West Point cadet skydivers.
The cadets were a diverse group — different heights, different backgrounds, young men with cropped hair, young women with brisk French braids and short ponytails. They entered the enclosed cage in blue- and yellow-clad ones and twos until they formed a ring. Then the fans began to go, and they lifted. They spun and locked arms and twisted in the wind just as they would when they were skydiving. They looked like they’d been doing this for years. When they weren’t in the tunnel, they leaned over their books, studying. Two leaned on each other, obviously close. In the tunnel, though, they were all business too. They had to be. That many bodies in there, any unplanned shifts would throw off the others. When they moved together as planned, they all lifted. They flew.
I watch Jeb Corliss’ videos and feel that lift, the sped pulse, the rush. I imagine myself brave enough to attempt wingsuit flight. Each time, I thank everything there is for the existence of Go-pro.
Go-pro is the first camera that can film skydiving, basejumping, and everything in between without the level of shakes that give me airsickness at my desk. They are the first cameras that really let me feel the adrenaline rush I got a taste of in the wind tunnel.
But I’m not going to lie - some of what appeals about people like Jeb Corliss is their ability to transform something most of us do not want to do — falling — into a dance with gravity, where they know how long they have and the moves they can execute, before they need to shift their wings or deploy their chutes.
Some of it is Corliss’ ability to seemingly slow gravity. like the best of wingfighters in Updraft.
Some of it is the rush. The sound of wind in my ears, the spin of earth and sky.
Many thanks to James D. Macdonald, who suggested SkyVenture New Hampshire and who drove me there with his wife Debra Doyle, and, to author and University of Delaware professor Siobhan Carroll, who went with me.
*In truth, SkyVenture NH says the wind tunnel is safe for kids three and up… the eight-year-old who went after me certainly had no fear.
Fran Wilde’s first novel, Updraft, debuts from Tor on September 1, 2015. You can find her on twitter, facebook, and at franwilde.net.