Paragliding is a recreational and competitive flying sport. A paraglider is a free-flying, foot-launched aircraft. The pilot sits in a harness suspended below a fabric wing, whose shape is formed by its suspension lines and the pressure of air entering vents in the front of the wing.
In 1952 Domina Jalbert advance governable parachutes with multi-cells and controls for controlling lateral glide of the device.
In 1954, Walter Neumark predicted (in an article in Flight magazine) a time when a glider pilot would be “able to launch himself by running over the edge of a cliff or down a slope ... whether on a rock-climbing holiday in Skye or ski-ing in the Alps”.
In 1961, the French engineer Pierre Lemoigne produced improved parachute designs which led to the Para-Commander (‘PC’), which had cut-outs at the rear and sides that enabled it to be towed into the air and steered – leading to parasailing/parascending.
Sometimes credited with the greatest development in parachutes since Leonardo da Vinci, the American Domina Jalbert invented his filed-for January 10, 1963 US Patent 3131894 the Parafoil which had sectioned cells in an aerofoil shape; an open leading edge and a closed trailing edge, inflated by passage through the air – the ram-air design.
Meanwhile, David Barish was developing the Sail Wing for recovery of NASA space capsules – “slope soaring was a way of testing out ... the Sail Wing”. After tests on Hunter Mountain, New York in September 1965, he went on to promote ‘slope soaring’ as a summer activity for ski resorts (apparently without great success). NASA originated the term ‘paraglider’ in the early 1960s, and ‘paragliding’ was first used in the early 1970s to describe foot-launching of gliding parachutes.
Author Walter Neumark wrote Operating Procedures for Ascending Parachutes, and he and a group of enthusiasts with a passion for tow-launching ‘PCs’ and ram-air parachutes eventually broke away from the British Parachute Association to form the British Association of Parascending Clubs (BAPC) in 1973. Authors Patrick Gilligan (Canada) and Betrand Dubuis (Switzerland) wrote the first flight manual 'The Paragliding Manual' in 1985, officially coining the word Paragliding.
These threads were pulled together in June 1978 by three friends Jean-Claude Bétemps, André Bohn and Gérard Bosson from Mieussy Haute-Savoie, France. After inspiration from an article on ‘slope soaring’ in the Parachute Manual magazine by parachutist & publisher Dan Poynter, they calculated that on a suitable slope, a ‘square’ ram-air parachute could be inflated by running down the slope; Bétemps launched from Pointe du Pertuiset, Mieussy, and flew 100 m. Bohn followed him and glided down to the football pitch in the valley 1000 metres below. ‘Parapente’ (pente being French for slope) was born.
From the 1980s equipment has continued to improve and the number of paragliding pilots has continued to increase. The first World Championship was held in Kössen, Austria in 1989.
Note: In some modern paragliders (from the 90's onwards), especially higher performance wings, some of the cells of the leading edge are closed to form a cleaner aerodynamic airfoil. Like the wingtips, these cells are kept inflated by the internal pressure of the wing.
The pilot is supported underneath the wing by a network of lines. The lines are gathered into two sets as left and right risers. The risers collect the lines in rows from front to back in either 3 or 4 rows, distributing load as in a whippletree. The risers are connected to the pilot's harness by two carabiners.
Paraglider wings typically have an area of 20-35 m2 with a span of 8–12 m, and weigh 3–7 kg. Combined weight of wing, harness, reserve, instruments, helmet, etc. is around 12–18 kg.
The glide ratio of paragliders ranges from 8:1 for recreational wings, to about 11:1 for modern competition models. For comparison, a typical skydiving parachute will achieve about 3:1 glide. A hang glider will achieve about 15:1 glide. An idling (gliding) Cessna 152 will achieve 9:1. Some sailplanes can achieve a glide ratio of up to 72:1.
The speed range of paragliders is typically 20–60 km/h (12-34 mph), from stall speed to maximum speed. Beginner wings will be in the lower part of this range, high-performance wings in the upper part of the range. The range for safe flying will be somewhat smaller.
Modern paraglider wings are made of high-performance non-porous fabrics such as Skytex (Porcher Sport) & Gelvenor, with Dyneema/Spectra or Kevlar/Aramid lines.
For storage and carrying, the wing is usually folded into a rucksack (bag), which can then be stowed in a large backpack along with the harness. For pilots who may not want the added weight or fuss of a backpack, the harness itself can be used to carry the wing, though this is less comfortable, and thus less favorable for longer hikes. In this case the wing (within the rucksack) is buckled into the harness seat, which is then slung over the shoulders. Recent developments in light-weight harness design include the ability to turn the harness inside out such that it becomes the backpack, thus removing the need for a second storage system.
Tandem paragliders, designed to carry the pilot and one passenger, are larger but otherwise similar. They usually fly faster with higher trim speeds, are more resistant to collapse, and have a slightly higher sink rate compared to solo paragliders.
Since 2000 Juan Salvadori from Argentina has been exploring a variant wing termed Paramontante that involves some firm beams. In April 2009 Pere Casellas has joined in a collaboration with Juan Salvadori for polishing the paramontante. Laboratori d'envol Paramontante
A reserve parachute is also typically connected to a paragliding harness.
Parachutes, including skydiving canopies, primary design purpose is for descending, such as jumping out of an aircraft or for dropping cargo; while paragliders design purpose is for ascending. Paragliders are categorized as 'ascending parachutes' by canopy manufacturers worldwide, and are designed for 'free flying' meaning flight without a tether (for tethered flight amusement, see parasailing). However, in areas without high launch points, paragliders may be towed aloft by a ground vehicle or a stationary winch, after which they are released, creating much the same effect as a mountain launch. Such tethered launches can give a paraglider pilot a higher starting point than many mountains do, offering similar opportunity to catch thermals and to remain airborne by 'thermaling' and other forms of lift. As free flight, paragliding requires the significant skill and training required for aircraft control, including aeronautical theory, meteorological knowledge and forecasting, personal/emotional safety considerations, adherence to applicable Federal Aviation Regulations (US), and knowledge of equipment care and maintenance.
Variometer - Vario-altimeter
Birds are highly sensitive to atmospheric pressure, and can tell when they are in rising or sinking air. People can sense the acceleration when they first hit a thermal, but cannot detect the difference between constant rising air and constant sinking air, so turn to technology to help. Modern variometers are capable of detecting rates of climb or sink of 1 cm per second, such is the case of the Flymaster B1 which uses extremely low noise electronics and complex algorithms to detect such minute changes in air pressure.
A variometer indicates climb-rate (or sink-rate) with audio signals (beeps which increase in pitch and tempo as you accelerate upwards and a droning sound which gets deeper as your descent rate increases) and/or a visual display. It also shows altitude: either above takeoff, above sea level, or (at higher altitudes) 'flight level'.
The main purpose of a variometer is in helping a pilot find and stay in the 'core' of a thermal to maximise height gain, and conversely indicating when he or she is in sinking air, and needs to find rising air.
The more advanced variometers have an integrated GPS. This is not only more convenient, but also allows to record the flight in three dimensions. The track of the flight is digitally signed, stored and can be downloaded after the landing. Digitally signed tracks can be used as proof for record claims, replacing the 'old' method of photo documentation.
Pilots use radio for training purposes, for communicating with other pilots in the air, particularly when travelling together on cross-country flights, and for reporting the location of landing.
Radios used are PTT (push-to-talk) transceivers, normally operating in or around the FM VHF 2-metre band (144–148 MHz). Usually a microphone is incorporated in the helmet, and the PTT switch is either fixed to the outside of the helmet, or strapped to a finger.
It can also be interesting to view a GPS track of a flight when back on the ground, to analyze flying technique. Computer software is available which allows various different analyses of GPS tracks (e.g. CompeGPS, See You).
Other uses include being able to determine drift due to the prevailing wind when flying at altitude, providing position information to allow restricted airspace to be avoided, and identifying one’s location for retrieval teams after landing-out in unfamiliar territory.
More recently, the use of GPS data, linked to a computer, has enabled pilots to share 3D tracks of their flights on Google Earth. This fascinating insight allows comparisons between competing pilots to be made in a detailed 'post-flight' analysis.
Control - Speedbar mechanism.
Brakes: Controls held in each of the pilot’s hands connect to the trailing edge of the left and right sides of the wing. These controls are called 'brakes' and provide the primary and most general means of control in a paraglider. The brakes are used to adjust speed, to steer (in addition to weight-shift), and flare (during landing).
Weight Shift: In addition to manipulating the brakes, a paraglider pilot must also lean in order to steer properly. Such 'weight-shifting' can also be used for more limited steering when brake use is unavailable, such as when under 'big ears' (see below). More advanced control techniques may also involve weight-shifting.
Speed Bar: A kind of foot control called the 'speed bar' (also 'accelerator') attaches to the paragliding harness and connects to the leading edge of the paraglider wing, usually through a system of at least two pulleys (see animation in margin). This control is used to increase speed, and does so by decreasing the wing's angle of attack. This control is necessary because the brakes can only slow the wing from what is called 'trim speed' (no brakes applied). The accelerator is needed to go faster than this.
More advanced means of control can be obtained by manipulating the paraglider's risers or lines directly:
* Most commonly, the lines connecting to the outermost points of the wing's leading edge can be used to induce the wingtips to fold under. The technique, known as 'big ears', is used to increase rate of descent (see picture).
The spiral dive is the most effective form of fast descent: With a little bit of practice you will achieve a sink rate of 15 m/s and more. It is absolutely necessary that you gradually approach these values the first few times! Constant pulling on one brake narrows the radius of the turn and forms a spiral rotation in which high sink rates can be reached. As soon as the glider is in a spiral dive (clear increase of sink rate and turn bank), the outside wing should always be stabilised with the outside brake and the desired sink rate should be controlled with great delicacy.
Reverse launches have a number of advantages over a forward launch. It is more straight forward to inspect the wing and check the lines are free as it leaves the ground. In the presence of wind, the pilot can be tugged toward the wing and facing the wing makes it easier to resist this force, and safer in case the pilot slips (as opposed to being dragged backwards). These launches are normally attempted with a reasonable wind speed making the ground speed required to pressurise the wing much lower - the pilot is initially launching while walking forwards as opposed to running backward.
Ridge soaring is highly dependent on a steady wind within a defined range (the suitable range depends on the performance of the wing and the skill of the pilot). Too little wind, and insufficient lift is available to stay airborne (pilots end up ‘scratching’ along the slope). With more wind, gliders can fly well above and forward of the ridge, but too much wind, and there is a risk of being ‘blown back’ over the ridge.
Once a pilot finds a thermal, he or she begins to fly in a circle, trying to center the circle on the strongest part of the thermal (the 'core'), where the air is rising the fastest. Most pilots use a ‘vario’ (vario-altimeter), which indicates climb rate with beeps and/or a visual display, to help ‘core-in’ on a thermal.
Coring: The technique to 'core' a thermal is simple: turn tighter as lift decreases, and turn less as lift increases. This ensures you are always flying around the core.
Often there is strong sink surrounding thermals, and there is often also strong turbulence resulting in wing collapses as a pilot tries to enter a strong thermal. Once inside a thermal, shear forces reduce somewhat and the lift tends to become smoother.
Good thermal flying is a skill which takes time to learn, but a good pilot can often 'core' a thermal all the way to cloud base.
In-flight Wing Deflation (Collapse)
* Cross-country leagues – annual leagues of the greatest distance ‘XC’ flying
Competitive flying is done on high performance wings which demand far more skill to fly than their recreational counterparts, but which are far more responsive and offer greater feedback to the pilot, as well as flying faster with better glide ratios.
The safety of the sport is directly proportional to the skill and sense of the pilot. It's important to note that almost all paragliding accidents are the result of pilot error. Paragliding equipment is very well built and, if properly cared for, will never fail. As an example, the average paraglider has around 30 lines connected to the risers, yet each one is strong enough to support the full weight of a pilot individually. Aerodynamically, newer paragliders that are not within advanced or competition categories are rated for safety and will tend to recover from most incidents on their own (without pilot intervention).
Given that equipment failure of properly certified paragliding equipment can be considered a non-issue, it is accurate to say that paragliding can be a very safe sport. The individual pilot is the ultimate indicator of his or her personal safety level.
The following weather is to be avoided:
General safety precautions include pre-flight checks, helmets, harnesses with back protection (foam or air-bag), reserve parachutes, and careful pre-launch observation of other pilots in the air to evaluate conditions.
For pilots who want to stretch themselves into more challenging conditions, advanced ‘SIV’ (simulation d’incidents en vol, or simulation of flying incidents) courses are available to teach pilots how to cope with hazardous situations which can arise in flight. Through instruction over radio (above a lake), pilots deliberately induce major collapses, stalls, spins, etc, in order to learn procedures for recovering from them. (As mentioned above, modern recreational wings will recover from minor collapses without intervention).
As always, fatalities and freak accidents can occur, but most properly-trained, responsible pilots risk only minor injuries, such as twisted ankles.
Learning to fly
There are several key components to a paragliding pilot certification instruction program. Initial training for beginning pilots usually begins with some amount of ground school to discuss the basics, including elementary theories of flight as well as basic structure and operation of the paraglider.
Students then learn how to control the glider on the ground, practicing take-offs and controlling the wing 'overhead'. Low, gentle hills are next where students get their first short flights, flying at very low altitudes, to get used to the handling of the wing over varied terrain. Special winches can be used to tow the glider to low altitude in areas that have no hills readily available.
As their skills progress, students move on to steeper/higher hills (or higher winch tows), making longer flights, and learning to turn the glider, control the glider's speed, then moving on to 360° turns, spot landings, ‘big ears’ (used to increase the rate of descent for the paraglider), and other more advanced techniques. Training instructions are often provided to the student via radio, particularly during the first flights.
A third key component to a complete paragliding instructional program provides substantial background in the key areas of meteorology, aviation law, and general flight area etiquette.
To give prospective pilots a chance to determine if they would like to proceed with a full pilot training program, most schools offer tandem flights, in which an experienced instructor pilots the paraglider with the prospective pilot as a passenger. Schools often offer pilot's families and friends the opportunity to fly tandem, and sometimes sell tandem pleasure flights at holiday resorts.
Most recognised courses lead to a national licence and an internationally recognised International Pilot Proficiency Information/Identification card. The IPPI specifies five stages of paragliding proficiency, from the entry level ParaPro 1 to the most advance stage 5.
* Straight distance – 461.6 km: Frank Brown, Marcelo Prieto, Rafael Monteiro Saladini (Brazil); Quixada – Duque, Brazil; 14 November 2007.
Other records (distance/speed for out-and-return and triangular course) can be seen on the FAI site
Recently a flight of over 500 km was made in excellent conditions in South Africa; however this is awaiting full ratification.
Numbers of actively flying pilots can only be a rough estimate, but France is believed to have the largest number, at around 25,000. Next most active flying countries are Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Japan, and Korea, at around 10,000 – 20,000, followed by Italy, the UK, and Spain with around 5,000 – 10,000. The USA has around 4,500. (All as of 2004).
Editor for Asisbiz: Matthew Laird Acred
Please help us to improve these articles with any additional information or photo's, if you should encounter any broken links or display errors :-(