My name is Gabe Sierra, former IFLY instructor, and USPA coach D - 36181.
Last year I decided to temporarily step away from my career as a construction manager to pursue my passion for body flight. I applied for an instructor position with IFLY and relocated from Miami to Dallas to work for the company. Upon completing my 1 month instructor training, I walked into IFLY Dallas the day before my first shift. I was surprised to see that the building was full of special needs individuals as they where hosting an “all abilities night.”
I remember thinking to myself “wow this is great, we should do this all the time.” I proceeded upstairs to find my new general manager and asked how I could help. Not being on the clock and fresh out of training, there wasn’t much I could do but I stuck around to watch and give a hand when needed. As I observed, I saw some things that where unsettling to say the least.
For one, IFLY was filling up classes (12 people to 1 instructor) in the same manner that they would with a group of not disabled individuals. This struck me as odd because obviously taking a class of special needs individuals into a wind tunnel and keeping everyone safe is no easy task. I could see the frustration on my fellow instructors faces and heard some disturbing comments about how “they didn’t get paid to do this, or this is stupid etc.” I watched a young boy step into the wind while an instructor had his back to the door, luckily the driver was able to cut the wind quickly enough and nobody was injured.
I went home that night and could not stop thinking about what I had just witnessed. I thought to myself, “surely there is a better way to do this.” Over the next few months I began putting together a plan to help improve the experience and increase the volume of special needs individuals who would be given the opportunity to fly. My first thought of course was, “I need to raise money because I want to offer this for free.” So, I started a gofundme account titled “Flying for a Cure.” I donated one of my iFLY paychecks and started to spread the word on Facebook. My idea was received very well and with several donations from my immediate family, I had a few thousand dollars to get going.
I was now ready to start bringing in flyers on my off days. I posted on Facebook that I was available to privately coach individuals with any special need, completely for free, on a first come first serve basis. Things started off a little slow and I realized I needed to get out and spread the word. I began using my free time to make my way around Dallas in search of different organizations who might send flyers my way. I would put on my iFLY uniform and take trips to the local children’s hospital and any place I could find that catered to special needs individuals.
Eventually, I got my first phone call. The call came from a family with an 11 year old son named Evan who suffered from leukemia. The children’s hospital had given them my information and they immediately reached out. Evan had unfortunately relapsed and was heading back into intensive treatment for at least a month. The family brought him to me the day before he went back into the hospital.
As the word started to spread, more and more people began to reach out. I soon had my next couple of flyers, Robert and Liz. Robert was 16 and suffering from non verbal autism and Liz age 33 had been in a wheelchair for 11 years due to a stroke that left her paralyzed from the waist down and with minimal arm movement.
Soon, I started to get feedback from the families I was flying with. I kept hearing back about how much of an impact the experience was making. I would often hear “thank you so much, there is no way we could have afforded to do this without you.”
Things started to take off and soon I was organizing entire events, had started an official Facebook page, and even had a special request from Liz. She wanted to take things one step further and asked me if it was possible for her to do an actual skydive. I told her I would do my best and I began to talk to some of my friends in the industry. Eventually with the help of Skydive Spaceland Dallas, I was able to make that dream come true for her. We modified a tandem harness, and I used some of the money I had raised to make it happen.
Over the next few months I continued my work, flying with over 50 different families. I began building profiles on my flyers and their disabilities, taking notes on how things would go in order to continually develop a better experience for my students. In the end I raised nearly $7,000 which I paid directly to iFLY and then volunteered my time to organize and instruct my flyers.
To my surprise along the way, I realized that not everyone felt the same way I did about helping the special needs population. A number of my fellow employees (not all) wanted nothing to do with helping me. In some ways I understood, as many of you know, being an iFLY instructor is quite a difficult and physically demanding job for which starting pay is $11 per hour. You can see why some would prefer not donate any of their extra time to “work” for free.
On several occasions I received less than pleasant remarks from my fellow employees and eventually I quit the company, with the idea that I would go back to construction and devote my off time to doing charity events around the country. I announced that we planned on doing events in multiple cities at different iFLY locations over the next year and I moved back home to Miami.
A few weeks after arriving home I received an email from Terrance L. Jenkins, general manger of iFLY Dallas, he stated that I would no longer be allowed to host Flying for a Cure events at his tunnel. At around the same time I had a meeting with iFLY in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. They of course thought what I was doing was great and despite being aware of IFLY Dallas’s position, granted me full permission to run events at IFLY Ft. Lauderdale.
I began spreading the word at home and soon I had 50 orphans from an organization called “Miami Rescue Mission,” who where going to fly for free right around Christmas (2017). I also reached out to IFLY’s corporate office to see how and why they would possibly stop me from doing what I was doing. I was run around in circles and never received a clear answer. Eventually corporate sided with their general manager (Dallas) and told me that it was his decision not theirs (despite being a corporate owned location). Things finally came crashing down about a week later when I received a call from IFLY Ft. Lauderdale, the Vice President of IFLY had reached out to them and said under no circumstances to allow me to operate.
Having already promised Miami Rescue Mission their flight time, I withdrew all of the money from my account in Ft. Lauderdale and purchased iFLY return packs which I then took and delivered to them. The orphans all got to go flying but I had no part in it and it was no longer a Flying for a Cure event.
Now, a few months have passed and Flying for a Cure has been completely halted. Recently, I have had an influx of calls from families who had heard about what I was doing or had previously flown with me. They want to fly. Not really having an answer for them, I have basically had to apologize and inform them that iFLY has shut down my charity program and that they would have to contact them and go as a regular paying customer.
I know that as a community we can do better than this! I would love nothing more than to be able to donate my time and money to the advancement of what I like to call “flight therapy.” Spread the word guys and let me know what you think. I will post as many pictures as I can of the events that took place.