A Safer Way to Fly

Photo courtesy of JoeBurden

Photo courtesy of JoeBurden

See it in the Montreal Gazette HERE

“I always dreamed of flying. When I was 45 years old I finally did.”

Alain Guérin is no stranger to achieving his dreams. He is president of SkyVenture Montreal, Canada’s only re-circulating wind tunnel, which is designed to simulate skydiving

Guérin started skydiving in 1995 but quickly became frustrated by the stop-and-go progress of the short season. “There’s no interest, when it’s freezing outside, to jump out of a plane – so when you stop for six months you have a hard time starting again.”

It was on a vacation in 2001 when he discovered a way to skydive year-round and pursue his dream of leaving his job as an accountant to become an entrepreneur.

“I visited a SkyVenture facility in Orlando, Fla., and was blown away by how amazing it was. I knew I had to bring it back to Montreal,” he said

In 2009, SkyVenture Montreal opened its doors.

He set up shop in Laval where an entire building was designed for a 14-foot by 45-foot tube where vacuums generate air speeds of 300 kilometres an hour. “The entire building is only for the flight chamber right in the centre. The technology is so complicated it takes a big building like this to duplicate an actual skydive,” he said. Huge fans in the ceiling suck air up through the flying tunnel and then circulate around tubes in the side of the building and back. This same technology is being used by 23 facilities across the globe.

SkyVenture can accommodate flyers as young as 4 and people with limited mobility or those who suffer from a handicap, which matches Guérin’s ethos that everyone should have the chance to fly. “We had three boys who had different levels of cerebral palsy, one could barely move and we got him to fly. We’ve had people who are blind flying, we’ve had amputees flying. The idea is to make sure everybody can enjoy it.”

It’s clear this is the case by the number of people not only flying, but watching the flyers from behind the thick glass of the tube. Yves Bedard, 33, brought his family to fly, but said the experience wasn’t just for the kids. “I’m a thrill-seeker, so it was what I hoped it would be,” he said, qualifying the experience as “a lot of fun.”

His four-year-old daughter Julianne agreed. “I was a little scared, but once I started it was fun,” she said as she tugged at her windblown curls.

It was a second flight for Isabelle Pellerin, 41, who said she loved the experience so much, she’s considering the real thing. “I’ve never skydived but after I flew in the tunnel I would consider it; I would have never before.”

David Hodge is the president of the Canadian Sport Parachuting Association (CSPA), and while he thinks the wind tunnel delivers a different experience than a real skydive, he believes it’s an excellent tool. “You’re not going to match the adrenalin from an actual skydive in a wind tunnel,” he said, “but you learn to have excellent control of your body because you’re in a confined space.”

He notes that the Montreal location is ideal because nearly half of CSPA’s members live in Quebec. “If there is anywhere in Canada that I can see it due to the number of skydivers, Montreal is the absolute perfect spot,” he said.

Hodge attributes the large number of skydivers in the province to a difference in attitude about pushing themselves to the limit. “Quebecers are more likely to do what others won’t and that includes skydiving,” he said.

Guérin simply attributes it to “joie de vivre.” “We have an interest in living outside of the box and enjoying ourselves. I would say we go outside the box in Quebec on a regular basis.”

Whether this lighthearted attitude will translate to different markets is Guérin’s next experiment. He plans to expand to Toronto in the next 15 months. “We’re still looking for venues,” he said with a smile before adding, “and we’ll see how daring Torontonians are.”

Just like in skydiving, the risk is the thrill for Guérin. “People said it couldn’t be done. Or if it could be done it wouldn’t work in Quebec, or in Montreal. In the end we proved them wrong,” he said. “I’m happy now to be able to go back to the bankers who turned us down and give them a copy of our financial records.”

He thinks that watching other people share his passion is worth it. “You see people walk out of here with their hair all messed up but the biggest smile on their face. Everybody wants to fly.”

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