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What Happened? And Why Is It Important That It Did? Here’s the Beta The First Global Indoor Skydiving Summit, which took place in Skydive Empuriabrava’s hometown of Castelló d'Empúries, just happened. If you fly in the Windoor tunnel, you almost certainly know that it did. Right? But you might not yet be clear on why that’s important -- or how what happened over those two days in Castelló is going to affect your life as a flyer. Let’s be clear: It was, and it will. When a bunch of profit-minded business competitors and stakeholders with divergent views on how indoor skydiving should develop start building industry consensus for the very first time -- with technologists, engineers, energy experts and athletes in the room -- it’s only a matter of time until that far-off wave hits. To understand where this is going, it’s important to understand where it came from: and that’s Roland Hilfiker, CEO of Support Air International, who organized the event. If you think you recognize the name, you’re right: Roland has been in and around skydiving since 1975 in a flurry of different capacities. “I was professional at one stage,” he laughs. “I ran the School of Human Flight in Zephyrhills and the Skydive Empuriabrava dropzone afterwards, until the mid-90s.” From there, Roland embarked on a new adventure: in sports communications. He worked within a number of different sports shuttling between international governing bodies, event organizers and rights holders, “basically providing communication support in all its different facets, from television production to communication strategy,” he explains. Among plenty of other things, he’s done quite a bit for the FAI. As chair of the Olympic Coordinating Committee he represented FAI in the Global Association of International Sports Federations and similar umbrella bodies, all the while pitching parachuting/skydiving for inclusion into the Olympic Games from Barcelona 1992 through Beijing 2008. He was on the Olympic Rings jump in Seoul 1988, too. Something which he considers the pinnacle in his active career. Even though his lobbying efforts failed to produce results with the International Olympic Committee, Hilfiker managed to get air sports admitted to The World Games back in 1995. He assumed the lead in organizing the first two appearances of skydiving/parachuting (he insisted on the slash to allow for the side-by-side of canopy and freefall events on the program) in The World Games Lahti and Akita. After getting elected Vice President of the International World Games Association, he decided to reduce his engagement for FAI. He received the FAI Bronze medal in 2001 (“for his exceptional and dedicated work in promoting the FAI in the wider sports community and amongst the public at large by campaigning for air sports to be admitted to the Olympic Games”). For all that involvement in air sports, Roland is still relatively new to the tunnel. In fact, he saw his first indoor competition during The Wind Games 2019. “I was convinced this is a good way of presenting skydiving,” he muses. “It has a lot of advantages over the traditional sport. Something that could make it a stronger contender for an Olympic bid. But after a little more research, I perceived not just the sport’s strengths - but its weaknesses too. I saw a lack of consistency across a number of areas.” What’s the best path to consistency? Well: In the case of a sport that’s fractured across continents, philosophies and party lines, getting everyone together in a room is a great first step. In all those years of working in sport organizations, specifically in the field of communications, Roland had logged a lot of time at sports congresses (“about five in an average year, over 25 to 30 years,” he says), both big and small. “After receiving encouragement by the President of the International Skydiving Commission (ISC), Gillian Winter, I thought, ‘why don't you try to organize one yourself?’ “And that's how it came about,” he smiles He dove right in, calling the project the Global Indoor Skydiving Summit. Going into it, Roland certainly had a vision. “Obviously, I had my own opinions on virtually all of the different topics I felt needed addressing,” he explains. “I definitely picked these topics based on my 25 years of professional experience. What I was trying to achieve was a more complete analysis of the situation, and to get partnerships going between the most different parties.” But not all of it was sailing the calm waters. From the outset, Hilfiker had sought the approval of not only the ISC, but of the FAI as well. In fact, he had met with the highest FAI charges for discussions on three occasions and a final version of a co-hosting agreement was ready for signature in late October 2019. The precise moment the ISC President announced the withdrawal from the project of the body she presides. The disagreement was over the choice of summit topics and the lineup of panelists. “The silver lining of that,” he adds, “is that not being associated with commercial organizations or the world governing body, it gave us a certain freedom to act and speak and go about our business. On the other hand, I did feel bad for FAI and ISC. Both bodies are in dire need to reinvent themselves, passing up on an opportunity to be in on important conversations seems somewhat wasteful.” The summit was held alongside The Wind Games, one of the premier indoor skydiving competitions on the world calendar. The Wind Games had attracted 180 competitors from more than 30 countries to the Windoor wind tunnel, right next to Skydive Empuriabrava, and plenty of them were more than keen to join the conversation taking place just down the road. The venue was pretty special, too: an old convent, converted into a cultural center. Over two eight-hour days, packed to the gills with sessions, discussions and breakout sessions, participants across the sport -- from manufacturers to owners to representative athletes -- came to collective grips with everything from oversaturation to safety standards to the cost of flying (with a potential BlaBlaCar-style proposal from an enterprising Frenchman). Experts took the stage to talk about how operators can negotiate preferential rates for energy, and technologists (such as the Tunnel Tech EU team, who occupy the very leading edge of advances in tunnel engineering and materials) jumped into the conversation with about new methods to keep energy consumption down. Carbon impact came up, too, of course. “People are making efforts to offset the carbon footprint of indoor skydiving,” Roland says, “we need to provide the operators and manufacturers with good data, obtained through a number of channels we have identified so far. That’s the process - and it should continue.” “It was not a vacation,” Roland says. “It was for sure a debate. And it was positive! In the end, everyone agreed that we achieved great things.” A great example of one of those “great things” that came as a surprise to plenty of tunnel folks: Tunnel Instructor and the International Bodyflight Association made a public announcement of their forward-going cooperation and intention to coordinate their respective work. In essence, what that means is that it’s suddenly going to be significantly easier for a licensed, rated instructor to transfer co-validated ratings between IBA and Tunnel Instructor facilities. “That was a major breakthrough,” Roland affirms. “We’re still working towards a mission statement to guide our continued work from here,” he adds. “We don't know where this is going to take indoor skydiving as a sport, but I personally see this as an open-ended process that provides plenty of space for it to be continued. We could think of it as a think tank -- as a permanent forum for discussion -- and we’ve created venues on the web which will allow us to keep the dialogue going until the next event gets us all in the same room again.” There will, then, be a sequel. “I've been doing this for well over 30 years,” Roland laughs. “It will take quite a bit more to burn me out.” “People at the inaugural Summit said they are looking forward to the next one. I am confident that we will see a lot of progress in the industry and the sport before it takes place,” Hilfiker said. “Indoor skydiving has huge potential to grow and evolve as a sport, a fun activity and as an entertainment for all. In any case, it can be a viable proposition without being part of the Olympic program any time soon.” All images courtesy Support Air. For updates on the next Global Indoor Skydiving Summit, visit www.indoorskydiving.vision and/or www.indoorskydiving.stream
Luxfly, Tunnel Tech and the Mighty Braffs It seems like tunnels are popping up everywhere, doesn’t it? As a dyed-in-the-wool aficionado of all vertically-oriented wind, this can hardly have escaped your notice. Another thing that hasn’t escaped your notice, we’re willing to bet, is that none of these tunnels have popped up within a lunch-break drive of your fine abode. Wanna do something about that? Well: As it turns out, you can. And you can do it even if you’re not personally made of money. Want proof? Meet Steve Braff, a true tunnel-building dynamo. He and his wife/business partner, Magali share a deeper history in windytubes than pretty much anyone on the planet -- and now, they’re building Luxfly, the most exciting indoor skydiving wind tunnel project in Europe, using the brand-newest, top-of-the-line-est technology to do so (Tunnel Tech, to be specific -- but we’ll get to that later). Suffice it to say: The Braffs are a good example to follow. Currently, Steve and Magali -- collectively known as their vertical wind tunnel consulting business, Starfly -- are keeping busy not just with Luxfly, but with .other tunnels around the world. As a point of note, Starfly is utterly unique -- Steve and Magali are the only people in the world who do this kind of work, helping others to build tunnels. Outside of Starfly, there are two industry operators: the customers, who want to have and operate tunnels, and the tunnel manufacturers, who want to sell vertical wind tunnel technology. Until Starfly, there’s been no one in between to smooth the steep, bumpy road to a grand opening. Pretty in pink “Right now, we have five projects in process,” he says. “But it varies. Sometimes, we help people out with optimizing their existing tunnels; sometimes, we help them start projects, or assist them in different phases. We work with a group of investors to which we propose our projects. The specific investors depend on the location and the host country. People who want to build tunnels can work with us at every stage. We can do it from A to the end.” “Since I was a kid, my dream was always to fly like Superman,” Steve grins. “And that was the only thing I ever wanted to do.” Steve started skydiving at 21 years old. He’s celebrating his 23rd year in the sport this year, with around 8,000 skydives, a thousand BASE jumps -- and, very importantly, lots and lots of hours in the windytube. “I was always interested in the tunnel flying industry,” he explains. “It always amazed me, what people were doing in there.” For a very long time, Steve funded his freefall habit by working at the family company: importing Italian coffee into the Braffs’ native Belgium. One day, after 15 years of working side-by-side with his brother, mom, sister and dad, he decided it was time for a change. “I said: You know what, I think I'm going to quit,” he laughs, “And sell air. So I did.” “There’s enough money around the world to serve everyone who wants to invest,” he insists. “The issue is that there aren’t enough ideas, or the people with the willingness to push them. When somebody tells me they’ve been trying [to get a tunnel started] for two years and they can’t seem to get the money together, I just tell them they need to push harder. Never give up. It only depends on you. The money is there, and you’ll unlock it if you try.” Tunnel Tech airducts with Hubble-level surface precision and finishing Steve doesn’t want you to think that he’s under the impression that it’s easy to convince someone to invest in something as big as a tunnel. The price tag of a windytube is plenty high for a project that most humans have only seen, occasionally, on TV. “You need to transfer your passion to the investor,” he advises. “If you are capable of doing this, then you’re already doing great work on the investment. Even if you have a business plan and you can prove with paperwork that your wind tunnel is going to make a lot of money -- super nice presentations and Excel sheets and all the trimmings -- you still need to make your potential investors believe in it with their hearts. If they don't believe in it with their hearts, they will not invest.” “Think about it,” he continues. “You’re asking them to invest millions of Euros in a building with wind blowing at 200 kilometers per hour through the walls. It is crazy. We still run into this all the time when we go to new contractors. Why all of this for a flight chamber? Why all of that construction around it? They don't understand.” In 2006, after one false start at a Belgian dropzone, that decision took Steve and Magali to create a truly watershed moment in what the rest of the world knows as “indoor skydiving.” Inspired by the idea that training in the vertical wind tunnel could revolutionize skydiving -- at the time, a very new and unorthodox philosophy -- the pair decided to build the very first vertical wind tunnel facility in Belgium. It was called AirSpace and it was, in a word, visionary. “I am a big fan of Apple, and their thing was always to think different,” Steve explains. “And that resonates with us, because it’s really the way we live. We are always trying to improve and make stuff differently; not to be just another tunnel. Our tunnel was a huge success because of that, and because we wanted to do everything we could for the for the flyers.” Steve and Magali built “their” tunnel from scratch. To do so, they quit everything else in their lives to focus full-time on creating the facility -- including their home. “My wife and myself, we decided we were going to go full on,” he smiles. “We wanted to know everything -- every bolt, every detail -- about our tunnel, and about the industry. So we left our rented house and moved into the contractor container on the construction site. We lived in it for a year. It was a really nice experience, day by day following the progress of construction.” Steve and Magali Braff Though ‘home’ was technically a shipping container for the Braffs that year, the heart of the idea behind that tunnel -- and, now, LuxFly -- was, charmingly, to make it into as homey a place as possible. The Braffs integrated a cozy lounge bar; as much wood as possible, moving away from the stainless-and-plastic aesthetic that pervaded (and still pervades) the vertical wind tunnel oeuvre; a deep sense of comfort and place. “We were insistent that it had to be like a house,” Steve says. “I wanted people to come in and walk around in their bare feet. When I saw that for the first time, it felt like success to me.” The year it took to build AirSpace -- still fast for a tunnel project, which is normally it is two years from the point of financing, securing building permits and organizing all the construction to the grand opening -- taught Steve and Magali a boatload. “Sure, it was a lot of ups and downs -- a lot of them -- more downs than ups, okay -- but, at a certain point, you have to look at it a bit like the stock market,” he explains. “You need to be patient and you need to keep believing in it. That is your only source of strength. Not depending on anyone. It's yourself; your own belief.” The tunnel truly bloomed under the Braffs’ management. This is one couple, however, that doesn’t make a habit of resting on laurels, no matter how comfortable they might be. After a few years, they decided to sell it and move on. It felt like time to grapple with another project (this time, on the border with Luxembourg), and to start helping other would-be tunnel owners with their own projects. “We earned a lot of experience over the course of all those years,” Steve says. “We traveled a lot, both skydiving and tunnel flying. We have seen a lot of wind tunnels. We took all those ideas we discovered over the years and we put them into in Luxfly. It's going to be super, super, super special.” According to Steve, Luxfly is going to be “the 2020 version of tunnel flying.” The design aesthetic -- still a secret, as of publication -- promises to be groundbreaking. The pair decided to make another, perhaps even bigger change: a total technology rethink. While AirSpace used top-of-the-line-at-the-time German tech (ISG), the Braffs decided to build Luxfly with Tunnel Tech, a multinational vertical wind tunnel technology company that’s making huge strides forward in safety and efficiency. “I must say [Tunnel Tech] have blown us away with the quality of their product,” Steve explains. “First of all, I’ve known Slava, the CEO, for many years. When I heard he was making his own technology -- and that they were building a 15-foot with less power consumption than a 14-foot -- I got very curious. Then I started following their projects in Japan, in Moscow and in Korea, and I was totally convinced.” The LuxFly structure & the Tunnel Tech machine are ready for assembly “It was a risk, of course, because it’s a new company, and it always feels safer to go with a company that has built 15 tunnels versus somebody that has built three,” he continues. “But that’s our history. With Airspace, for example, I think we were the fourth ISG tunnel; perhaps the fifth. So being the fourth Tunnel Tech wind tunnel doesn’t feel so crazy. Tunnel Tech really are rethinking every part of the tunnel -- how we can do better, better and better -- contrasts a lot with where now a lot of manufacturers are now. When you have a certain design that's working and selling, the tendency is to just keep it until people demand something new. Tunnel Tech keeps well out in front of that.” With Luxfly’s gala grand opening set for the end of January, Steve and Magali are up to their eyeballs in preparations. They insist, however, that they are always available to help people out -- to make new tunnel dreams a reality. “We are passionate people,” he smiles. “We just want to share our love of flying.”