Up in the Air

Greater Phoenix’s aerial adventures soar with excitement | By David Hubbard

Ahhh. To indulge in that laid-back ambiance only enjoyed in the Southwest. Well, wait a sec. The customary pastimes—a soak in the sunshine, cool beverages in the shade—don’t do it entirely for the more adventurous. Instead, they’re craving a healthy rush of excitement that can come with a brief breakout from gravity. It’s up, up, and away for this crowd. They’re getting to a higher place that’s above the fray through these aerial adventures in and around Greater Phoenix.

Fantastic floats

A float trip above the desert invites a quintessential overview of the landscape and lifestyle of the Southwest. Family-owned and -operated Hot Air Expeditions is known for upscale ballooning experiences in the Phoenix area. For 30 years, they have been presenting all the traditional components, from launch to a sit-down meal upon landing that properly caps off the excursion aloft. First-time riders earn recognition in ballooning society through the time-honored Balloonists Ceremony shared the world over and capped with the award of a Certificate d’Ascension En Machine Aerostatique.

Explore the desert from above with Hot Air Expeditions. (Photo courtesy of Hot Air Expeditions.)

“First time balloonists are typically surprised when their initial fears subside,” says Hot Air Expeditions co-owner and co-president, Amanda Long. “Flying with the wind there is no sense of motion, and they are relieved to discover the basket is roomy, very still, and stable during flight.”

An interactive experience is at the core of a balloon ride with Rainbow Ryders, a company that has traversed the Southwestern skies for more than 35 years. Rainbow Ryders founded the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta and other renowned ballooning events such as Balloon Glow and Albuquerque Aloft.

As new balloonists are often curious, the company invites those who wish to work alongside the crew to assist as the team unfurls and inflates the balloon for liftoff. Watch in amazement as the material in a little package transforms into a 94-foot “gentle giant.”

 “An unexpected takeaway for first-time customers is how a balloon ride does not trigger the usual anxieties associated with fears of heights,” says Rainbow Ryders founder Scott Appelman. “Ballooning does not evoke the same feeling as standing on an edge and viewing straight down.”

Rock & roll

Enjoy a totally realistic, action-filled aerial combat simulation without the dire risks of actual war. Fighter Combat International in Mesa delivers aerobatic and authentic aerial combat experiences to recreational pilots and aviation enthusiasts as they engage with veteran military fighter pilots.

In two 30-minute aerial excursion packages, The Flight of Your Life and Air Combat Mission, participants call all the shots, opting for their personal thrill levels from mild to wild. The passenger has the option of taking the controls of the Extra 300L high performance-certified aerobatic airplane or allowing the fighter pilot to handle the stick. Either choice puts the flyer through such air show maneuvers as loops, hammerheads, inverted flight, tail slides, torque rolls, spins, outside loops, and tumbles.

The Air Combat Mission package begins with an authentic tactical briefing on advanced handling, weapons usage, and basic aerobatic maneuvers. Splitting into teams of two, it’s then time for “Check Six!”—pulling five Gs in offensive and defensive air combat tactics in alternating lead and follow positions. Simulations are replete with rubber ammo, smoke, true-to-life sound, and a multiview audio/video system that records the experience. The adventure concludes with a comprehensive debrief.

“First time fliers are taken aback by the physical demands of this style of aviation on the body,” says Paul “BJ” Ransbury, president and aerobatic/air combat instructor. “One aerial simulation essentially equates to eight hours of physical labor.”

Fighter Combat International advises eating light and thoroughly hydrating prior to takeoff.

Soar above lions, tigers, wolves, and more on the Out of Africa Wildlife Park Racing Raptor zip line. (Photo courtesy of Out of Africa Wildlife Park.)

Zip & zoom

A zip line or two is the most thrilling means of transit between point A and point B. In the Verde Valley, 90 miles north of Phoenix, the Predator and Racing Raptor zip line tours offer exhilarating zip line experiences over Out of Africa Wildlife Park, a 104-acre preserve in Camp Verde that showcases and cares for exotic animals from around the world. The view from as high as 75 feet takes in the Verde Valley, nearby wine country, and the exotic animals below—lions, tigers, wolves, hyenas, bears, leopards, and cougars.

Following a zip line orientation, visitors are fitted with seat and chest harnesses, helmets, and two lanyards with safety clips before traversing the park. The Predator adventure offers a two-hour, fully guided tour along five zip lines stretched over seven towers and a rope bridge. A guide is on hand before and after each stretch to train and offer enlightening commentary on all that is in view. The Racing Raptor’s three parallel lines allow friends to zip together.

“‘Wow!’ is about all our overwhelmed first-time zip liners ever have to say after zipping across the park,” says Group Sales Director Deni Arve. “One word says it all. These are the only zip lines in the world with such aerial vantage points above free-roaming majestic animals such as ours.”

Take the plunge

The exhilarating aerial experience enjoyed at iFly Phoenix is essentially skydiving from the ground up. Diving is actually a vertical launch from an indoor wind tunnel 14 feet in diameter. 

This amazingly safe, worldwide indoor adventure is more accurately called bodyflight. Floating in midair, the iFly experience simulates freefalling, but without a parachute.

The fun begins with a personalized training session on how to gear up and how to execute all the moves to get the most out of the experience and gain the confidence to take to the air. iFly recommends its two- and six-minute flight packages for first-time fliers. With additional sessions, fliers will find they gain more control and learn more maneuvers. 

“The biggest surprise for our guests is anticipating a falling sensation, and finding that is just not the case,” says iFly instructor Mike Bougher. “They come prepared for an activity involving heights, and what they experience instead is the incredible feeling of flying their bodies on a cushion of air.”

Make the climb

With feet planted firmly on a vertical canyon wall, the horizontal ground below confirms that rock climbing and rappelling are bona fide aerial adventures.

Operating from its private base at the foot of Phoenix’s rugged South Mountain, Rappel Arizona specializes in rock climbing, rappelling, and high ropes course adventures. The diverse climbing site features more than 15 different scenarios involving slab, face, overhangs, boulders, cracks, dihedrals, and a 100-foot chimney. Additionally, Rappel Arizona conducts classes and hosts climbing tours to Zion and Yosemite National Parks throughout the year.

To ensure maximum safety and consummate customer service, each climbing adventure is a privately guided experience. Rappel Arizona guides take pride in their exceptional level of knowledge and, according to the company, are easygoing and fun to be around.

“The fact that first-time climbers make the decision to try tells us they are set to push their limits in spite of their initial fears and anxieties,” says Ryan Myers, director of operations. “Their biggest surprise is in discovering how far and fast they can push themselves in just half a day.

Bird’s-eye views

The new view of Arizona’s magnificent Grand Canyon is from Grand Canyon West, a property of the Hualapai Indian Nation less than five hours by car from Greater Phoenix. The opportunity to stare straight down 800 feet to the canyon floor from the spellbinding Grand Canyon Skywalk at Eagle Point or catch the more inaccessible reaches viewed from a fast-moving helicopter is well worth the drive. 

The Skywalk is a 10-foot wide, horseshoe-shaped glass bridge that extends 70 feet out from the rim of the canyon. A lap around the transparent construction comes as close to walking on air as is humanly possible. 

Cruising aboard a state-of-the-art, six-passenger A-Star jet helicopter flying beneath the rim, along the canyon wall, over mesas, and around rugged promontories lends a new perspective and invites a greater appreciation of Arizona’s wondrous natural chasm.