When an inoperable tumor on her spine put Jessika Kattah in a wheelchair, the self-described adrenaline junkie knew that she was paralyzed and wouldn’t be able to walk again.
But she could still fly.
Kattah and other disabled adventure seekers have found a home once a month at iFly, the indoor skydiving range in Davie. Every second Thursday of the month, iFly hosts All Abilities Night, at which physically challenged patrons can safely try the free-fall simulation in a giant vertical wind tunnel, with the help of friendly, knowledgeable instructors and a supportive group of families and friends.
And if you’re thinking that floating in a giant wind tunnel is nothing like jumping out of an airplane with a parachute, Kattah, 30, is happy to tell you that you’re wrong.
“You definitely get that sensation of flying,” says Kattah, who knows a thing or two about skydiving — she did it twice before her medical condition intervened. “But the fact that I’m able to get out of my chair, that’s what’s so great. You forget about your disability. You’re just like everybody else. We’re not normally granted that opportunity. It’s so freeing and liberating, and there’s no chair attached to you.”
Flight instructor manager Chris Dixon agrees: “It’s very similar. Once you get in free fall, it’s the same thing.” Minus the nerves that come with stepping out of a plane, that is.
Almost anyone between the ages of 3 and 103 can participate at iFly. General manager Jim Braun says iFly recently hosted a group that included a 3-year-old and his 87-year-old great-grandfather.
You can’t fly if you’re pregnant or weigh more than 300 pounds (and if you’re over 260 pounds, you need to alert iFly staff). People with recent back, neck or heart problems should check with a doctor before signing up, and iFly recommends no one with a dislocated shoulder get into the tunnel — the wind could dislocate your shoulder all over again.
Fliers wear a special suit, goggles and helmet and watch a short instructional video before entering the tunnel with an instructor (disabled fliers generally get two). Each flier gets two minute-long “flights.” In between sessions, the instructors — almost all are experienced skydivers — perform tricks, shooting up and down and around the wind tunnel, eliciting gasps from the onlookers. Just don’t expect to be able to do the things these guys do — they’ve put in hundreds of hours of flight time.
IFly, which also has locations in Tampa and Orlando, discounts its flights for disabled patrons on All Abilities Night ($39.95; regular packages start at $69.96).
“It’s our way of giving back to the community,” Braun says.
All Abilities Night is becoming something of a community itself, he says. Few people emerge from the wind tunnel without a big grin. Encouraging applause erupts from the people sitting in the observation area. Braun says the camaraderie at the events — so far, there have been four All Abilities Nights — has grown and deepened.
“It’s not just for the flier but the families, too,” Braun says. “It’s a meeting place. The atmosphere is always good on these nights.”
Instructor Marcus Lewis echoes his sentiment: “We’re supposed to give the gift of flight. So we do.”
On a recent evening, Chuck Petscher of Davie, who is legally blind, gave iFly a shot. “I’ll do this,” he joked, “but I’m not jumping out of an airplane.”
After his flight, which he pronounced “awesome, a major rush,” he described the experience “like swimming in the air” and said iFly’s friendly, inclusive atmosphere was a refreshing change from many events for the disabled that he’s attended.
“When you’re handicapped, you usually have to do things a different way from everybody else,” he says. “Here, you’re doing what everybody else is doing. That’s what turned me on to it.”
Kattah and her boyfriend Reinaldo Maiz, 28, who is also in a wheelchair, plan to skydive for real some day soon (Maiz, unlike Kattah, has never jumped out of a plane). The couple, who were heading to St. Augustine to surf the following day and share their experiences as paraplegics on a blog on Kattah’s website under the hashtag #ItsThatWheelKindOfLove, think of iFly as a great warmup to the real thing.
“It’s something I have to try,” Kattah says of her desire to jump out of a plane despite being paralyzed.
“One of the reasons I write about these experiences is that people don’t know services like iFly are out there,” she says. “For some people with cerebral palsy or a spinal cord injury, it’s a real life changer. Many of us feel we’re confined to our disability, but All Abilities Night provides an opportunity for people to do something they never thought they’d be able to do.
“If you have that inkling of wanting to do it, do it. Don’t let fear guide you. In the end you’re going to be so happy you did it.”
If you go
What: iFly All Abilities Night
When: 6-8 p.m. the second Thursday of the month
Where: iFly, 11690 W. State Road 84, Davie
Cost: $39.95 for disabled patrons; other packages start at $69.95
Information: 954-280-4359 or www.iflyworld.com/fort-lauderdale/