It’s a bizarre sensation, at first you are lying face-down in a perspex tube on a loosely woven mesh of wires, the only thing that betrays what is about to happen next is the roar of the huge fan below you. You are aware the wind speed generated is increasing, but what happens next still takes you by surprise; this is not a gradual or gentle process. Suddenly, your body arches and you are propelled upward. At first it is unnerving, you feel like you are being lifted and plummeting helplessly simultaneously, yet you are hovering maybe 1 or 2 metres above where you started. At this point, you have only two choices – panic or enjoy the ride...
It’s an assignment I approach with a mix of trepidation and excitement. Photographer Kateryna Tsarkova and I are headed to an area on the edge of Kyiv’s city limits known as Chaika. Appropriately for what we are about to do, Chaika translates as seagull, and we are about to emulate the seabird as closely as possible for humans – by experiencing the sensation of flying. To do this, we’ve enlisted the help of Aerofly, a company started in October to offer the first (and only) freefall simulator in Ukraine. The simulator is a short distance from the Chaika Raceway and Aerodrome and we are greeted by instructor Denys upon arrival.
Denys is a gentle giant – he needs to be, it is he who will ensure our safety in the tube, he also has an affable manner that puts you at ease immediately. First is a quick course to instruct us how to achieve maximum air resistance in flight. First, the stance, feet should be at least a shoulder width apart and rather than locking legs straight, you should maintain flexibility at the knees. Next, arms should be held up, at 90 degrees from the body with forearms also at 90 degrees. “The squarer your body, the more you will rise up, it is very important to be symmetrical,” he tells us. “When you are up, look around and not down.” Finally, we should push our stomachs out, creating an arched back, he says. It doesn’t seem a lot to remember...we think.
Suited Up And Ready
The next step is to don “flight suits”. They are basically thick canvas overalls – thick, bulky, and with a series of handles, which, as we are to discover, allow Denys to manoeuvre us into various positions “in-flight”. The flight suit is complemented with a balaclava and finally a helmet. The combination gives you a slightly detached feel from the outset. But you have little time to think of this: upon leaving the shipping container that doubles as an office and changing room, you are forced to clamber up the steps that lead to the tube. Its daunting, the wires that keep you above the fan are loosely woven and move as you step on them. It’s a marvel to me how Denys maintains his footing, and it’s a relief to lie sprawled across them. The roar of the fan is muted at first, but it builds to a helicopter-like whirr. I feel like I have been apprehended by the FBI, I have assumed “flight-position” but I could just as easily be about to undergo a pat-down. The roar of the fan builds, and suddenly an uncanny feeling of weightlessness starts to kick in. First, I feel my legs lift, then my arms; those sensations have barely time to register when suddenly my whole body is thrust upward. I feel helpless, every instinct is to flail, and in those first few seconds I feel like a rag-doll. It annoys me. Then everything Denys said to do floods back.
How’s The Air Up There
Panic, adrenaline, focus, whatever it is that’s kicked in, I am determined to use it to regain control. And it works. My faltering flight suddenly becomes easy. It’s peaceful, serene, and it gives Denys a chance to show what the carry handles are for. I’m floating on my back, Denys has flipped me and it’s easier work to be honest, and looking at blue sky and late afternoon shafts of sunlight while seemingly floating has a dreamlike quality that, well, I can only replicate in dreams. It’s five minutes, in reality much longer than a genuine free-fall; strangely it feels like an eternity and the blink of an eye simultaneously. Then it’s over, “You are a strong man,” Denys tells me. In fact, I feel like an over-excited puppy, jittery, bouncy, likely to pee, and it’s a feeling that will linger for a while. The adrenaline is coursing through my veins.
A Photographer’s Eye
It’s Kateryna’s turn and here, in her own poetic words, is her experience as she floats above an airstream of 67 metres per second. “When you get into the aero tube you understand you left your whole life beyond the perspex wall and you’re left to go face to face with the power of nature. Then a powerful stream lifts you up in the air and you feel like a paper plane that is about to fly away. The feeling of weightlessness, easiness and an absence of thoughts overwhelm you. Dressing up in a flight suit and holding hands with an instructor with whom you trust your life you fly into a completely different world, a world without fuss and problems. The five-minute flight seems like eternity. You soar above the ground, give all of yourself to the rush of air and the noise, you scream loudly, you offload tension in favour of pure escapism. This is a great way t recharge yourself with positive energy.” She’s right. It’s a must do experience and I’ll do it again.
by Jared Morgan