It's a bird? It's a plane? No, it's a wingsuit pilot


"All right, I'm gonna strap myself into this giant straightjacket and throw myself out of an airplane."

That's how Chicagoan Joe Ridler described his initial reaction to wingsuit racing, and it's only a slight exaggeration.

Wingsuit piloting is a form of skydiving where athletes wear a suit akin to a flying squirrel—no, really. The suit is made of nylon with fabric connecting the arms and legs that inflates with the air pressure from the fall. Ridler, a 35-year-old Pilsen resident, describes it as "flying a giant inflatable mattress." 

It seems like a strange hobby to have, but the idea of flying has stuck with Ridler since he was a kid growing up in Minnesota. Describing himself as a "kid your mom warned you about," Ridler said he and his friends were young adrenaline junkies, cliff-jumping and getting into situations that could have caused all kinds of bodily harm.

Inspired by "Top Gun," he aspired to be a fighter pilot—and who doesn't, after watching that movie? But after he discovered he was partially color-blind, those dreams were unceremoniously crushed. He then discovered BASE jumping, and from there, wingsuit racing.

"It was a different way of bringing that passion to life," Ridler said. "It's like drag racing in the sky." 

Now, wingsuit piloting is more than a hobby. Ridler will compete in the second annual Wingsuit Flying National Championships from Aug. 21-25 in Rochelle, Ill. His first trip out of a plane in the "squirrel suit" was only three years ago, but he is already competing on the national level with international aspirations. 

Joe Ridler, 35 of Pilsen, likes to jump out of planes in a flying squirrel suit. 

To even qualify to begin wingsuit training, skydivers must complete 200 jumps. 

"This is not for the novice skydiver," said Randy Connell, director of competition and records for the U.S. Parachute Association. The organization sanctioned competitive wingsuit racing only last year. 

The championships in Rochelle are broken up into two events: performance flying, in which one wingsuit pilot is judged for longest flight time, farthest distance flown and fastest horizontal speed; and acrobatic flying, where a pair of pilots perform various stunts, which Ridler described as a "dance routine as you're falling through the sky."

Ridler participates only in solo events. 

"I just like to go fast," he said. "I don't want to have to memorize anything."

During a solo competition, each jump corresponds to a task: speed, distance or time. Three jumps, one for each task, comprise one round of competition.

The data for each jump is recorded by a GPS unit in each athlete's helmet; that information is used to determine the scores. Whoever performs best in a given category is given 100 percent, and each person decreasing from there gets a slightly smaller percentage. All three scores are then averaged to determine the winning pilot.

To prepare for competition, Ridler spends most of his weekends jumping out in Rochelle. On an average weekend, he will complete up to 15 jumps. Each attempt allows him to learn something new about his technique, as he takes notes on each jump. 

"I have to get myself in the right mental state to perform well," he said of his pre-jump preparation. "I only think about what I need to succeed."

In addition to skydiving as often as possible, staying in shape is a necessity. 

"It's your entire body, not even just your upper body," Ridler said. "Even something as small as keeping your toes pointed out can be the difference in how well you perform."

Connell can attest to how grueling jumps can be on wingsuit athletes, some of whom have compared a flight to holding a plank or a half push-up for four minutes, which sounds an awful lot like torture. 

"Picture putting your hand out of the car window and pushing against the wind going 85 miles per hour," Connell said. "Now, double that wind speed and multiply it across your entire body. That's what wingsuit pilots feel."

As if that wasn't hard enough in perfect conditions, given the temperamental Chicago weather, the competition might be an unpleasant experience for athletes at best and downright impossible at worst.

"Any turbulence dramatically affects your flight," Ridler said. "The weather is always a giant variable."

Safety is a top priority for the athletes, of course, as you could imagine when they decide to hurl themselves out of an aircraft. But for Ridler, as long as he prioritizes his safety, he knows he'll make it to the ground in one piece.

"People don't believe me when I tell them you have a better chance of dying from being hit by a bus on the way to work than from skydiving," he said. Even his mom and grandmother came around to the idea of wingsuit piloting once they saw the happiness it brought him.

"People are afraid of what they don't understand," Ridler said. "The reward definitely outweighs the risk for me."



  • 10,500 feet: Height at which wingsuit pilots begin their jumps.
  • 200 mph: Approximate top speed of wingsuit pilots.
  • 1.86 miles: Length of a "good" distance task flight in wingsuit competition.
  • 2.8 miles: World competition record for wingsuit distance task flight. 
  • 18 mph: Maximum wind speed in which wingsuit competitions can be held, according the U.S. Parachute Association. 
  • $3,000-$4,000: Cost of wingsuit competition gear, including the suit and helmet but not including the skydiving rig that includes the parachute.

Sources: Joe Ridler, Randy Connell, U.S. Parachute Association


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