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A Group of Vets Walk Into an iFLY. What Happened Next Was Magic, Says CEO Matt Ryan

Did you know special programs for the military are available at iFLY? CEO Matt Ryan said the company “works with veterans and veteran groups.” Right from the start, Ryan witnessed firsthand the magic that occurs when someone glides inside a vertical wind tunnel for the first time. It left a lasting impression on the business leader.

“A group of veterans organized a once-a-year get-together at iFLY on my first day as an employee in the Austin [Texas] tunnel,” recalled Ryan. One of the Wounded Warrior Project members had lost both of his legs in Iraq. However, that didn’t stop him from floating indoors that day.

Ryan said, “After flying, he said, ‘We’ve been doing these get-togethers for five years. But this is the first time I was able to go in and participate in the very same way as my buddies.’”

It was a moment the CEO would never forget. And it is one of the reasons he continues to guide the company with a focus on offering the thrilling gift of flying to anyone, regardless of age or ability. It is an important endeavor; as of April 2022, there were 165,967 wounded warriors registered with the Wounded Warrior Project.

Veterans Take To the Air at iFLY

Veterans face many challenges after they leave the military, such as unemployment, homelessness, poor mental health, and post-traumatic stress disorder. For those living with physical handicaps, it can be even worse. In 2020, 6,146 veterans died by suicide.

Fortunately, iFLY can offer an enjoyable outlet for veterans seeking unity and fun. Flying inside the wind tunnels has the potential to raise veterans’ spirits by teaching them a new, empowering skill. In addition, the whole iFLY experience is designed to give veterans a sense of camaraderie, fun, and accomplishment.

At that Wounded Warrior gathering in Austin, an Army veteran stated, “The instructors were very helpful and put us through a safety class to make sure we knew what we were doing. It was a great feeling like you were just floating there, suspended without strings.” In addition to the time inside the vertical wind tunnel, the vet enjoyed meeting other veterans, hearing their stories, and getting their perspectives.

Caree Gellinck is an Army National Guard veteran who took a chance at iFLY to get out of her comfort zone while surrounded by like-minded individuals. “I am taking steps to have an enjoyable life again. Attending the iFLY event was one large step I took to force myself to get out there and experience new things within a safe group,” said Gellinck. “I made a promise to myself that this year I will push myself into the uncomfortable zone to experience life, be in new surroundings, and most importantly, meet new people.”

At the Minneapolis location, a Wounded Warrior group meets up regularly. And another Wounded Warrior group experienced the dream of flying indoors at the iFLY location in the Lincoln Park section of Chicago. Army veteran Juan Sandoval said, “The evening was a real confidence-builder.” That could be because being around other vets that have survived life-altering military experiences empowers the members of the Wounded Warrior Project family.

“Taking part in these activities with other veterans makes me feel normal again, but the Wounded Warrior Project staff really helped make the event for me,” said Douglas Kollar, a Navy and Army veteran. “I don’t know if it is the love they have for what they do or the love they have for us that keeps me coming back, but when I’m there, I feel like someone who matters again.”

Chris Barrett, president of the retail division, explained that helping disabled vets is “something that we are passionate about. And our instructors are passionate about it as well.” Families are the most significant customer base for vertical wind tunnel flights.

A Culture of Compassion and Inclusivity Underpins iFly’s Ethos

Beyond welcoming veterans of varying abilities, the company is passionate about creating an environment of inclusivity for all of its fliers, says CEO Ryan.

There are organized events for groups of children and adults living with disabilities. Ryan adds that special harnesses have been created to help flyers of all abilities experience the thrill of floating on a cushion of air inside the vertical wind tunnel.

It hosts All Abilities Night for kids with physical or cognitive challenges. People with blindness, partial paralysis, physical deformities, and limited mobility have all flown at iFLY. Individuals with ADHD, autism, cerebral palsy, and muscular dystrophy can fly, too.

“If you’re in a wheelchair, as long as you can hold the proper body position, you can fly here,” CEO Ryan said. “It doesn’t matter if you have no arms or legs. Our world-class instructors can help you fly. And that makes it a great experience.”

Getting the opportunity to fly inside the vertical wind tunnel helps not just kids but many people seeking to overcome fears and anxiety to achieve goals, which is why at all of its nationwide locations, iFLY goes out of its way to support communities of all abilities.