The High Life

Story and Photos by Ryan Buller

Humans have only recently conquered the once forbidden realm of the sky, but conquered we have. Some have even begun to develop deep relationships with this foreign world, each through their own unique medium. This is the story of three people, their methods, and their passions for the limitless playground above.
D.J. Noerr hangs from fellow jumpers Joe Monreal and Jason Toaez in a hybrid formation over Skydive Taft in Taft, Calif., on February 3, 2013. (Photo by Ryan Buller ©2013)

D.J. Noerr hangs from fellow jumpers Joe Monreal and Jason Toaez in a hybrid formation over Skydive Taft in Taft, Calif., on February 3, 2013. (Photo by Ryan Buller)

DJ Noerr

A jumper steps into the leg loops of his skydiving harness like he’s putting on a pair of sneakers before a run. His casual demeanor and easy smile could deceive anyone to the act he’s about to participate in. He jokes with his friends in the raggedy hangar that he often calls home as he tightens down straps and empties his pockets. DJ Noerr has jumped out of a plane “300 or something times,” as he says, and harbors the subtle knowledge of things only learned from experience. The sputtering sounds of a small Cessna 206 airplane, far beyond its glory days, rolls across the airport as it pulls up to the hangar. DJ and two other jumpers lightly walk to the awaiting aircraft like school children with backpacks getting onto a bus. Much of the inside of the aircraft is held together with tape, the result of hundreds of less than gentle skydivers fighting to free themselves from the confines of the aircraft and into the limitless freedom of the sky. As the plane lazily floats off the runway the jumpers check their altimeters to ensure they are working before leaning against the windows to rest their eyes on the ride to altitude.

At 13,000 feet above the ground the pilot yells into the back, “Two minutes!” and as if on command, a flurry of activity begins. Goggles are pulled over eyes, helmets buckled, jump equipment is double and triple checked, and enthusiastic high fives are exchanged. Upon hearing the much loved words of “DOOR!” DJ rolls the door open to the rushing open air outside the cabin. He watches the other jumpers give their count before they hurl themselves into the void. As they fall away into the wide-open sky, he follows closely behind with his arms behind his back and his head down towards the ground, exceeding 150 miles per hour. As the other jumpers join hands in a belly to earth position, DJ links up and grabs their chest straps before pushing his feet down and hanging from the two other jumpers. The formation is called a “hybrid” in reference to the joining of “belly” flying and “free” flying. Soon the audible altimeter in his helmet starts screaming in his ear that it’s time to deploy. As the other jumpers track away from him, he releases his canopy from its container and immediately slows to a tranquil end of his jump.

Unlike other sky sports, skydiving is often referred to as the most natural and unhindered relationship between a human and the sky. Without any mechanical objects to manipulate, you control your position by the direct interaction of the wind and your body almost as one would swim in water. DJ says that he has tried a lot of other sports, “but jumping out of a plane at 13,000 feet is just unlike anything else.” Skydivers also comprise a miniscule 0.01 percent of the population in the United States, but DJ is confident that if more people gave it a shot, they would learn to love it as he does.  “It’s like when you were a kid on an airplane and wanted to reach out and touch the clouds through the window. if I had any advice, I would say try it at least once. My guess is, you will love it.”

Willy Dydo hang glides over Santa Barbara, Calif., on January 30, 2013. (Photo by Ryan Buller ©2013)

Willy Dydo hang glides over Santa Barbara, Calif., on January 30, 2013. (Photo by Ryan Buller ©2013)

Willy Dydo

On the ridges of the Santa Ynez Mountains, high above the cool blue coastline of Santa Barbara, California, Willy Dydo looks toward the horizon with the steeled eyes of a seasoned pilot. He stands nearly motionless for several minutes, scanning the brush around him for subtle clues that he will need for a successful launch. Invisible, unpredictable, and extremely powerful, the wind is something that many of us have little to no true understanding of. But for this man on the top of a lonely mountain, it is an intimate acquaintance if not always a friend.

Hang gliding is one of the oldest forms of human aviation, starting as early as the 1800s. It is also one of the simplest forms of flight requiring no engine-produced power and little mechanical control input to operate. Willy explains, “hang gliding is the closest you can get to flying like a bird. It gives you a feeling of freedom that can’t be found in any other way.” You can see these words are not empty as Willy stands on the side of the road judging the winds. As soon as he is content with the conditions, he pulls a 20-foot long bag from the top of his specially designed roof rack and begins to assemble his craft. Much like a tent, the glider begins to take shape out of various tubing, flight surfaces, and rods. When the glider is fully assembled Willy dons something that looks like a sleeping bag but is actually a “cocoon” that not only allows him to comfortably hang from the glider but also houses a reserve parachute in the case of an emergency.

At this point Willy seems incredibly burdened and awkward with a sleeping bag draping from his body and an enormous wing resting on his shoulders. He slowly lugs the equipment to the edge of a cliff and pauses as if to enjoy the view. The mountaintop begins to become eerily quiet while he slowly scans the environment for the clues he knows so well. A small gust of wind blows directly up the face of the cliff and dies down before Willy picks the wing off the ground. He begins to slowly walk and then scramble into a run towards the edge of the steep drop off until, without a warning, he turns from an awkward pile of lumbering equipment into a gracefully soaring hang glider. In complete silence he soars away from the mountain towards the beaches of Santa Barbara.

“Hang gliding is much more enjoyable than being in a powered aircraft. Without the noise of an engine, it provides a much more peaceful and relaxing experience. It also allows you to see everything without ever looking out the window. It’s very rewarding to fly for hours without burning an ounce of fuel.”


Les Whittlesy flies his Waco ZPF-7 over Chino, Calif., on February 10, 2013. (Photo by Ryan Buller ©2013)

Les Whittlesy flies his Waco ZPF-7 over Chino, Calif., on February 10, 2013. (Photo by Ryan Buller ©2013)

Les Whittlesey

In a beautiful hangar at the Chino Airport in Southern California, sits an equally beautiful aircraft. Its smooth sheet metal coated in a heart fluttering deep red, its wooden dash and conventional dial gauges a direct affront to modern glass cockpits, and its 275 horsepower Jacob’s radial engine defiantly drips oil into a much-needed drip pan. It has no modern turbine engines or precision navigational aids. No creature comforts or efficiency. But what it lacks in amenities it more than makes up for with its unbridled elegance and soul. It’s the spitting image of aviation imaginations everywhere. It’s “The Z”.

Over 50 years after it first took to the air, Les Whittlesey first got his hands on the Waco in 1993. After years of touring on the airshow circuit in its previous life, the airplane was in dire need of a restoration and Les did just that. Eight years and some considerable modifications later, the airplane was back in the air. Why spend so much time and effort on such an old airplane? One look at the airplane in flight would answer that question. From the distinctive soul shaking rumble of the radial engine to the stunning grace only a biplane can have, the Waco ZPF-7 is an airplane unlike most others. As Les explains, “I love the sounds and smells of vintage aircraft. It’s old school and low tech and everything leaks.”

Les found his way into aviation by growing up at the airport and knew he liked flying from the start. Flying airplanes isn’t something that everyone can do, especially flying vintage aircraft like the Z. As Les describes, flying an airplane is something entirely different from most other hobbies. “Golf for example is a girl’s game. If you land short it’s an extra stroke. In aviation when you land short, it’s film at 11. It’s an attitude and a lifestyle and you always have to be on your game.”

As opposed to most modern aircraft that have an assortment of modern equipment to aid in navigation and operation of the aircraft, the Z has only the essentials. There are no hydraulic control aids and everything that is happening in the airplane can be felt through the controls directly. It is this dialogue between the pilot and aircraft that makes for such a unique experience with vintage aircraft. Les knows that he will continue to fly for a long time to come and that vintage aircraft will certainly be a continued part of his future. What is it exactly that Les loves so much about aviation? “It’s really hard to put into words. It’s something that not everyone can do and you have to do it well. It puts you above the rest of the crowd, pun intended”