MOORHEAD — Movies with flight themes were powerful influences on Joe Ridler while growing up in his hometown of Moorhead.
He dreamt of flying on the back of the mythical creature, Falkor, in “The NeverEnding Story” and of becoming a fighter pilot like Tom Cruise in “Top Gun.”
But after learning in his early teens that he was colorblind, dashing his pilot hopes, he began thinking about other options.
The 1998 Moorhead High School graduate explored skydiving, making his first jump at Skydive Fargo, the local club drop-zone.
He was hooked from the start and honed his craft first in Minneapolis and later in Chicago, where he now lives.
The reward of that hard work and commitment has been realized.
Ridler, 41, claimed a first-place finish at the 2021 FAI World Parachuting Championships held Aug. 10-20 in Tanay, Russia.
“They are the Olympics of skydiving,” he told The Forum.
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Ridler, along with teammates Alexey Galda and Chris Geiler, took the combined team gold medal in wingsuit performance.
The championships featured more than 60 U.S. Parachute Association members and athletes from 30 other countries.
It was the third World Championships Ridler competed in but his first time earning a medal.
“Standing at the top of the podium in Russia hearing the U.S. National Anthem was pretty surreal,” he said.
Ridler wasn't the only competitor with local ties.
Justin Wageman, of Fargo, took home a silver medal as part of the U.S. four-way formation team.
Wageman, 54, a professor in the School of Education at North Dakota State University, is the videographer who flies over the U.S. team as they make their formations at an altitude of 10,500 feet.
Once they reach the ground, he submits the video to a panel of judges.
"I describe it as intense, a little crazy, but extremely fun," Wageman said.
Like Ridler, his first ever jump from an airplane happened at Skydive Fargo.
More than 200 mph, horizontally
After stumbling upon videos of wingsuit skydiving on YouTube, Ridler knew immediately he wanted to try it and went about learning what it would take to do so.
A minimum of 200 skydives is required first, and wingsuit-specific training is also strongly recommended, he said.
Wingsuit skydivers are often referred to as “flying squirrels,” wearing suits that are specially designed to increase their horizontal glide and allow them to approach speeds of 200 mph.
A typical skydive might have up to a minute of freefall time; with a wingsuit, freefall can last three to four minutes with that additional horizontal movement, Ridler said.
A wingsuit can also allow the flier to go up, which provides a sharp contrast to the shaky, loud start of a steep dive.
“It gets really quiet. You’re at zero Gs. You don’t really feel anything, and you're just kind of floating there for a couple seconds,” Ridler said.
He once held the Guinness World Record for Fastest Horizontal Speed in a Wingsuit, traveling at 239.73 mph.
That record now stands at 246.6 mph, according to Guinness.
It's kind of like Formula One racing in the sky, he said.
How the stats are measured
In the performance flying event, competitors are scored on three different tasks: horizontal distance, flight time and speed.
Three jumps are taken for each task, for a total of nine jumps.
The tasks are scored within a competition window of altitude that’s 1,000 meters tall, and from 2,500 to 1,500 meters above ground level.
Each measurement is recorded in a GPS logging device mounted on the top of the wingsuit skydiver’s helmet.
The device gives verbal cues to the skydiver as to when they’re about to enter and exit the altitude window.
“I know for that amount of time, I have to be 100% focused not only on the maximum performance possible in whatever task that I'm doing, but then also navigating from point A to point B,” Ridler said.
In competition, each wingsuit flier surrenders their helmet to a race official, who tapes a GPS device to it. The flier only gets the helmet back just before boarding the plane to jump. Upon landing, the helmet is turned over again, all steps taken to protect the integrity of the results.
Ridler’s next competition is the U.S. Parachute Association National Championships beginning Oct. 15 in Eloy, Arizona.
During the summer, he spends Thursday nights through Sundays at his RV trailer at a Chicago area drop zone.
He’ll work a half-day Friday then spend the entire weekend jumping.
“Rinse and repeat,” he said.
Just a dude 'flying through the sky'
Ridler’s day job as quality control director for a packaging design and manufacturing company helps pay for his passion.
Sponsors cover some of the most expensive equipment. Ridler’s sponsor, SQRL, takes care of his wingsuits, which run around $2,500 each.
Each wingsuit is made specifically for a person’s body, with as many as 40 different measurements.
“It's a little bit more intense than going to a tailor for a suit,” he said with a laugh.
Ridler's wife, Natalie, doesn’t skydive and has no interest in doing so, he said, which he’s happy about.
“If we had two adrenaline junkies in this house, we would be broke really quick,” he said.
Only a small percentage of skydivers fly wingsuits. Though they may come from different walks of life, they have this shared interest that few others may understand.
For anyone who might consider this extreme hobby, Ridler encourages them to go for it.
“I'm just a dude who's flying through the sky. I mean, how long has that been the dream of people on Earth? Seems like forever, so it’s totally possible,” he said.