ABU DHABI // Stepping into the path of a 195kph hurricane is not most people's idea of fun, but this summer hundreds of people have been doing exactly that at one of two indoor skydiving centres in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. They are visiting a vertical wind tunnel, where air moves upwards at about 55m per second, the terminal velocity of a human body falling belly-downwards.
Jumping into this tunnel simulates the free fall one would have when jumping out of a plane, said Steve Smuts, one of the few instructors in the UAE. "Other than the stepping out of the plane and having the ground hurtling towards you, it is basically the same," said Mr Smuts, preparing himself for a recent morning training session. "Skydivers, pilots and scuba divers come to train here. As well as, of course, people that just come to have fun."
Mr Smuts is a full-time instructor at Spacewalk Abu Dhabi, the indoor skydiving centre at the Abu Dhabi Country Club on Al Saada Street. An average of 50 people a week come to experience the feeling of flying, with about 20 per cent of those being return flyers. Mr Smuts said some used it as a form of exercise. "Between six to 10 minutes of flying is the equivalent to around 30 minutes on a treadmill," he said.
The muscles are strengthened and toned by resisting the pressure of such high wind speeds and because the process does not place any pressure on the joints, it can be a useful addition to your fitness programme, he said. The facility in Abu Dhabi, which opened in 2008, has a 12.5m-high flight chamber powered by five fans with a combined total of 875 horsepower. It works by sucking air in from outside and is not air conditioned.
"This means it's basically like flying in a hairdryer during the summer," said Mr Smuts. "But it doesn't put anyone off." Flights are short, anywhere between two and 10 minutes, with first-time flyers allowed in the tunnel for a maximum of one minute. "People don't notice the heat," he said. "They're having too much fun." In Dubai, a newer, more powerful facility opened its doors in April. IFly Dubai uses two 400 horsepower fans and, due to the fact its interior is cooled with air that is denser than that outdoors, the speed of the airflow is faster - up to 250kph.
For amateurs, it did not really make that much difference, said Thomas Gateff, the operations manager for the centre, because they did not use the tunnel at its full velocity. "We have first-time groups coming here all the time," he said. "It is a great activity for all the family." Children as young as three are permitted to fly, although Mr Gateff does not recommend it for those under five. The oldest flyer to visit the centre, which is in the newly completed Mirdif City Centre mall, was 81, he said.
"She was an Indian lady and a grandmother," he said. "She took to it like a natural." The centre is also popular with the Royal Family. Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai, is a keen skydiver who visited during the first week of opening in April. He is helping to promote the centre among young Emiratis, said Mr Gateff, who now make up a significant proportion of return flyers. Although it is not the cheapest activity - prices are from Dh165 to Dh195 for each two-minute session - it is certainly one of the most exhilarating.