Expect to use your vacation time for skydiving, and not for leisure. Competitions can run for a week or more and I have to be creative with how I turn my trips into adventures. Once, I had to see all of Rome for three days, a vacation most people do in a week. Yet, I’ve met all types of amazing people from all walks of life that I would have not come into contact with otherwise.
New technologies have changed the way we engage in and watch sports. Sensors, Wearable Tech, Video Assistant Referees (VAR), and Instant Replay, are examples of new technologies that have changed the way we play and watch sports. In this interview series called, “The Future of Sports; New Emerging Technologies That Are Disrupting The World Of Sports,” we are talking to sports leaders, athletes, sports tech experts, and sports equipment companies who can talk about the new technologies that are reshaping the sports world.
As a part of this interview, we had the pleasure of interviewing Joe Ridler.
Joe Ridler, 41, has come a long way from jumping his BMX bike as a kid to jumping out of aircraft to set world speed records. Along the way, wingsuit racing has become his overriding passion, leading him to be a part of launching WOWS (Wide Open Wingsuit Series), where he currently serves as the Managing Director. When he isn’t jumping from 13,000+ feet, Joe is a business professional serving as the Director of Quality Control Operations at Jansy Packaging. He has a driving passion for the sport and wants to continue to push the boundaries of human performance.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
For as long as I can remember, I wanted to fly — especially after watching movies such as “The Never Ending Story” and “Flight of the Navigator,” as a child — I knew it was something I was destined for. Then as I got older, Tom Cruise blessed us with the movie “Top Gun,” it was then I knew I wanted to be a fighter pilot. Period. I mean, you fly around the skies in a multi-million-dollar jet, pick up hot chicks, live life to the fullest… it doesn’t get any better than that, does it?
When I was 9 or 10 years old, my friend’s dad was an army recruiter, and after telling him dozens of times about “how I wanted to fly fighter jets when I grow up,” he introduced me to his friend who was an Air Force recruiter. The Air Force recruiter helped explain to me what it would take to become a fighter pilot and asked questions about my favorite subjects in school, which were math and science. He said, “Perfect. Focus on doing well in school, then come talk to me when you’re 18.” Fast forward a few years, I received an eyes and ears test at school, and found out I was color blind. When I shared this with the recruiter, I was heartbroken to learn I couldn’t become a fighter or even a commercial pilot due to my specific type of color blindness.
Ten years after that, I was cruising through YouTube with my brother and came across a video of BASE jumpers flying squirrel suits (wingsuits) down the sides of mountains and knew immediately, this was how I would make my dreams of flight come true. I immediately did some research on what I needed to do to get there and, slowly but surely, navigated my way through those requirements.
In wingsuit skydiving, we wear technologically advanced suits that are specially designed to increase our horizontal glide across the ground, allowing us to soar like birds. We can reach horizontal speeds nearing 200 miles per hour — some of the fastest non-motorized speeds humans can reach.
Wingsuiting is just one of many niche disciplines of skydiving that were on display at the FAI World Parachuting Championships in Siberia this year. I participated as a member of the U.S. team organized by the United States Parachute Association (USPA). They are a nonprofit association dedicated to the promotion of safe skydiving nationwide. It is through their strict safety standards and training policies that guys like me become pro-level athletes in this sport. Every year, hundreds of thousands of first-time skydivers make roughly 3.3 million jumps across the country, and none of it would be possible without this organization.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Unfortunately, wingsuit flying isn’t my career — not yet anyway; I’m a business professional to support my wingsuiting habit. But the most interesting story of my wingsuit career would probably be…
In August of 2019, I had the opportunity to bring to life an amazing event concept that I invested several years of work and research into. I hand-selected 18 highly experienced wingsuit pilots from around the U.S to race together in the pitch-black night sky, weaving around beams of light that created a 3D slalom course. Internally I called it, “Project Dark Knight,” and the plan was to use the same ultra-high-intensity lights they used for the bat signal in the Dark Knight movie series. These searchlights were the most important part of the event and acquiring the specific ones needed to make this event happen was tricky. In World War II, these searchlights were made in England and used to spot and shoot down German aircraft that were relentlessly bombing London during the dark of night. Each searchlight measures five feet in diameter, and after the war, some companies bought up and used them for events, like movie premieres. Over the last 70+ years the majority of them have broken down or been used for parts. After an exhaustive search, I just so happened to land upon an outfit located just outside of Chicago who had three of these lights, an obvious sign that this event was meant to be!
There were a few other logistics to plan, such as lighting up the wingsuits during the race, planning with the city, and creating custom scoring software. The wingsuits incorporated illumination devices, which were taped inside the suits and some people had LED strips that ran the length of the suits. The city of Rochelle, Illinois, is comparatively small, and Chicagoland Skydiving Center is on the outer edge of it, so we didn’t have to deal with much light pollution. We coordinated the event with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and local sheriff to ensure there would be no issues or surprises with commercial flights coming into and out of O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. All of the data gathered from each of the flights were recorded on a GPS device, called a FlySight. The location data was then uploaded into our custom scoring software ensuring the wingsuit pilots made it around each slalom gate and confirmed the time they crossed the finish line, a physical landmark on the ground below. The beams of light were unmistakable, but you could really tell as you were approaching in flight that the light was getting a lot brighter! Normally, night jumps are done with a full moon, but instead we wanted the sky to be as dark as possible, so we had the event on a no moon night, guaranteeing the highest visibility of our slalom gates in the sky.
I’ll never forget the visual I saw when I looked out from the aircraft door at the beams shining up and after I landed on the ground — it was amazing to see how defined and bright the beams were; like never-ending skyscrapers of light blasting into outer space.
The level of risk was high, so we had to make sure the pilots were hypersensitive and safe around other people in the sky. Everyone held their own well, and it was a ton of fun for everyone!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you shoot for the stars, you’ll likely end up in the clouds.” It’s relevant to me because I was always told to get my head out of the clouds. Now, I encompass my hobby on just that.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Alexey Galda came to me in the summer of 2015. He had recently started wingsuit flying and wanted to learn how to compete in performance competitions as I had. Immediately, I noticed that his stature made him perfectly fit for the task — tall, but not too tall and built, but not too lean. I then learned that he practiced as a theoretical physicist, basically the missing piece for me to dissect my runs and tweak my performance. Over the years, I showed him the ropes and how it all worked, and he added his analytical and scientific expertise to assist in pushing the limits on human flight in a wingsuit. Soon enough, we were breaking records and he even started to surpass me on some levels. We are both extremely competitive, which has led us to raise the bar and push each other much further than we would have ever done on our own. I often think of how lucky I am to have one of the world’s best wingsuit pilots as a best friend and someone who I can train with every weekend. Without having someone constantly pushing you, you’ll never grow at an exponential level. It’s a friendly, cut-throat battle we have with each other during training and competition. However, at the end of the day, we are each other’s biggest cheerleader, and it is an amazing feeling when we get to share the podium with each other.
Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
“Top Gun” — for reasons pointed out in question 1! It was the movie that put me on the path to really taking a serious position and pushed me to become an aviator, in one form or another.
You are a successful business leader. Which three-character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
#1: Driven. I am one who doesn’t settle for something I know I can do better in. Admittedly, I’m a perfectionist — it’s both a curse and a blessing. It started as wanting to just skydive for fun, as I saw on those You Tube videos and then it was about qualifying for that first world competition, and now it’s about breaking world records.
#2: Innovative. I think of myself as a creative problem solver; I take objective data and pair it with my creativity to find inventive and effective solutions. This applies to wingsuit performance flying and wingsuit event production as much as it does at my day job. As the Director of QC/QA, I deal with quality and production issues/problems on a daily basis. In short, identify the immediate issue, determine ways to fix it, and prevent it from recurring in the future. In wingsuits, I take that objective data and think of how I can adjust my body in the air or what modifications I can make to my wingsuit to create less drag and get the best angle of attack to get me further or faster.
#3: Grit. During the first FAI World Cup of Wingsuit Flying in 2015, the score for my first two jumps was a zero — for both. Double “goose eggs.” I have to admit, it was absolutely crushing. I had just flown all the way to the UK for my first world competition, and I completely failed. To make things worse, I didn’t find out about either of them until after my third jump, so it was too late to fix anything at that point.
After learning of my penalties, I had two choices: quit and say, “screw it,” or keep pushing forward and focus on new goals, like beating any others who had two or even one zero. I ended up beating three other competitors who had received only one zero and another who received none. This accomplishment was satisfying to a small degree but more so taught me a critical lesson in navigation that I will never forget and focused intensely on during training over the months and years that followed.
Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about the sports technologies that most excite you at the moment? Can you explain why you are passionate about it?
All of it. The sport of wingsuit flying is still in its relative infancy, and there’s a lot that can be done. The wingsuits themselves have evolved in the materials used and overall design advancements, but there is a lot outside of that which can be exploited and improved upon. There are existing cutting-edge technologies being used in other industries and the military space which have a potential of being applied to this sport as well. The opportunities and benefits of these types of integrations will be exciting, to say the least. I’m actively working on a few such projects, but you’ll have to follow my website and social channels to learn more as they become tangible.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
There will always be the potential for safety concerns/hazards, distractions, and unqualified people using them, which could result in the potential of incidents or worse. However, I think this echoes and is true with adding new technologies in all sports.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Budget for this. Skydiving and flying wingsuits is expensive. I carry about 15,000 dollars of equipment on my body each jump.
- Regardless of your accomplishments, this sport will not get you any women, make you rich or famous — like being a rockstar or professional football/basketball player.
- Expect to use your vacation time for skydiving, and not for leisure. Competitions can run for a week or more and I have to be creative with how I turn my trips into adventures. Once, I had to see all of Rome for three days, a vacation most people do in a week. Yet, I’ve met all types of amazing people from all walks of life that I would have not come into contact with otherwise.
- It will be an all-consuming part of your life. If you’re not skydiving, that’s what you’ll be thinking about, and you’ll even make trips outside of the Midwest in the winter to scratch that itch.
- Wingsuit pilots are the red-headed stepchildren of this sport. Skydivers of all the other disciplines will always be jealous because when they tell someone they are a skydiver, the first question they are asked is, “Do you fly those squirrel suits?”
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for these excellent stories and insights. We wish you continued success on your great work!