Indoor skydiving outfit leaping into Washington market


A customer “sky dives” at the iFly location at Unversal Studios in Hollywood. The company is considering National Harbor as its first location in the Washington area. (Courtesy of iFLY)

For those who have always wanted to feel the rush of jumping out of an airplane without actually, well, jumping out of an airplane, you may be in luck.

Executives at iFly, which claims to be the world’s largest operator of vertical wind tunnels that simulate the sky diving experience, are on the hunt for two to three locations in the Washington area and could open their first here as early as 2013.

Vertical wind tunnels that simulate skydiving are not new but are beginning to expand as an attraction in the United States and abroad. Founded in Austin in 1999, iFly is not the only operator of indoor sky diving facilities but it now has 23 worldwide and has served more than 5 million customers.

At iFly locations in Universal Studios, Seattle, Russia, Brazil and elsewhere (using different names in other countries), customers often participate in groups for birthday parties, corporate retreats or team-building exercises. Over the course of about 90 minutes, participants learn body position and hand communication techniques just as they would at a traditional skydiving course, said Alan Metni, founder of iFly and of SkyVenture, which produces the wind machines.

Each participant can make two 60-second “jumps,” at about $50 a person, and experience something that is “absolutely exactly like free-fall” from an airplane, he said.

Some imagination may be required to picture the earth racing up from beneath, but the air moves past at the same speed, about 120 miles per hour according to Metni. “It’s absolutely identical,” he said.

Metni said that although the concept is sometimes compared with skiing simulators or surf machines, about 15 percent of the company’s indoor skydiving jumps are made by professional sky diving teams and military personnel. “Our thing is unique in that it is an entertainment attraction but we come from the military and professional skydiving training world,” he said.

Where will iFly land in the Washington area? National Harbor has the inside track, Metni said. He said he had inquired about other properties developed by the Peterson Cos., such as Fairfax Corner, but that Peterson executives “were real keen on having us go to National Harbor.”

“The interesting thing is they keep trying to steer me toward National Harbor, which is making me wonder whether they need help there,” he said.

Taylor Chess, senior vice president of retail for Peterson, said in an e-mailed statement that iFly’s interest was an indication of National Harbor’s strength.

“The vision for National Harbor was to create a destination that offered a wide variety of unique experiences,” he said. “The level of interest from a number of retail and entertainment uses — including iFly — is an affirmation of that vision.”

Retail developers are increasingly turning to experience-based attractions to fill space that may once have been filled by major retailers, few of which are now in expansion mode. All Borders bookstores and Filene’s Basement clothing stores have closed. Some locations of Lowe’s, Sears, Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s are also on the way out.

Metni said that with the Washington area’s above-average incomes and military population, “D.C. is not a one-tunnel market in our mind.”

“It’s a two-tunnel or three-tunnel market in our minds,” he said. “We could do one in National Harbor, another in Northern Virginia and maybe another up in Baltimore.”

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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