Have you ever had a dream in which you gradually start to float up into the air? Within just a few moments you might be at a considerable height without any visible means of support. Have you ever woken up after such a dream and wondered what it would really be like to fly freely in the air much like the birds? If this sounds like you and you never thought that such a dream could be realised, then the sport for you could well be paragliding.
Back in the 1960s parascending was developed partly as a training method for would-be parachutists. Rather than spending a lot of time and money raising parachutists into the air using an aeroplane, they were attached to a tow rope and hauled into the air using a winch or a vehicle such as a Land Rover. Having attained sufficient height they would then release from the tow rope and descend back to earth. This allowed them to practise many more landings in a day than would have been achieved if they had relied on fixed-wing aircraft for their lift into the sky.
Before too long the parascenders became more interested in their time in the air than they were in practising their landings. At parascending meets people would see how long they could stay in the air for and also attempt to 'fly' as far as they could before landing. Initially this was achieved by using longer and longer tow ropes to gain more and more height. Brave pilots would also launch into increasingly stronger winds which meant pulling on the front risers1 to increase forward speed during the launch (there was no such thing as a speed bar in those days). At the height of the tow they would release, turn downwind and try to stay up for as long as they could while allowing the wind to blow them as far as possible.
In 1982 a picture of Alan James descending from a hill ridge using a modified parachute2 appeared in the British Hang Gliding Associations (BHGA) magazine Wings. This was seen by Gerald Williams who was inspired to develop his own modified parachute in order to try out this new method of getting airborne. By 1985 he had made over 3000 launches off various hills. Each time he descended he would sling the canopy over his shoulder and trudge back up the hill in his infamous wellies to launch again, sometimes achieving 20 descents in an hour. An article was written about his exploits in BHGA's Wings magazine by Bill Morris.
This led to a rush of parascenders heading for the hills with similarly modified canopies. By using the rising currents of air on the side of the hill to achieve extra lift the amount of time spent in the air soon rocketed from a few minutes to several hours. While most of these time records were set by pilots simply sitting in the lift generated by the hill, others were still turning downwind to see how far they could fly. They found that once they were in the air they could harness other sources of lift such as the thermals below cumulus clouds to extend their flights. By the late 1980s record distances were measured in first tens and then hundreds of kilometres.
And so the sport of paragliding was born. Today it is a fully-fledged and mature sport. The equipment is much more advanced with modern paragliding canopies having an aerofoil design to enhance lift. Top pilots are sponsored by major companies to take part in national and international competitions which typically involve either achieving maximum distance flown, or shortest time around a pre-designated route. Technology plays its part these days with many pilots carrying variometers to help determine the best areas of lift and GPS units to aid navigation.
As a sport it enjoys almost mainstream popularity with paragliding and paramotoring3 scenes having been included in a number of books and films including the James Bond movie The World Is Not Enough.
To get airborne you will need the following as a minimum:
Canopy - This is the large fabric 'wing' that holds you in the air. Made of modern materials which are non-porous (so that it holds air in rather than letting it pass through the material), rip resistant (for obvious reasons) and in some cases dirt repelling. It is made with a double thickness and forms an aerofoil shape so that it generates lift as air passes over it. To do this the front part (or leading edge) has a series of openings leading to compartments or 'cells' which run from front to back. These trap air inside and give the canopy a certain amount of rigidity. The canopy also has a large number of lines, known as risers, which run from various places on the underside of the canopy down to two karabiners which are fastened on either side of your harness.
Harness - This is the thing you sit in. The strength of the harness is provided by webbing straps which are attached to the karabiners at the bottom of the risers. In addition, modern harnesses are designed to function as a seat so that when you are flying you are sitting in a very comfortable position (almost like being in an armchair, albeit a very high and mobile one). The harness will almost certainly include padding on the sides and in particular the back in case of hard and fast landings or loss of control during launch - sometimes known as 'going for a drag'.
Helmet - For obvious head protection. In training you may be forced to wear something that looks like a rock climbing helmet but most qualified pilots prefer the snazzier full-face versions complete with aerodynamic profile.
As you progress you may want to invest in some of the following items:
Flying Suit - Wind resistant all-in-one suit to keep you warm and comfortable in the air. Also useful for looking the part when hanging around on the ground waiting for the wind, and a good place to sew badges to indicate that your local club subscriptions are up to date.
Variometer - A modified version of an altimeter. Instead of giving your absolute height, it provides information on your rate of climb (or descent), usually in the form of an easy-to-read scale or audible beeps; high pitched for going up and low pitched for going down.
Reserve Canopy - A spare canopy which can be deployed rapidly in the event of something disastrous happening to your main canopy. Only to be deployed in the event of dire emergency as modern paragliders are designed to recover from most emergency situations within less time than it would take you to throw a reserve. Also once you have thrown your reserve, you generally no longer have steering control and are at the mercy of the wind as you descend.
Radio - Designed for maintaining communication in the air with other pilots so that they can keep track of each other as they fly cross country, but mostly used for asking other pilots sitting on nearby hills if the wind is any better where they are.
Air Charts - For cross country pilots only so that they can keep track of their location once they have left the take-off hill. Also used to ensure they do not enter controlled airspace as hitting a jumbo jet generally results in more harm to the paraglider than the jumbo.
GPS Unit - Used by really serious pilots as an aid to navigation. Also used to verify distances flown when in competitions and to ratify record breaking flights.
You should never attempt paragliding or any other free-flight activity without training from an authorised school. This is to protect both you and other people who may be flying in the area. In some countries it is also illegal to do so. The descriptions provided are necessarily brief. You will receive much more in-depth instruction and safety information at the training school.
On your first day at the school, you will almost certainly have to fill out some paperwork and you will probably be given some general information on general behaviour during the training. Then it's out to the hill.
Before learning how to inflate and launch your paraglider, you will be taught how to perform a PLF, or Parachute Landing Fall. This is to teach you how best to fall should your landing be either fast or awkward. The main aim of this technique is learning how to roll and so distribute the force of the landing around your body. For this reason it is recommended not to wear your best clothes, as they will soon be covered in dirt from rolling around on the floor. For those getting worried at this point rest assured that for the vast majority of paragliders this is the first and last time that PLF's are performed.
Once you have mastered this technique, you will then be given some instruction on the parts of the paraglider and how to check that the particular wing you are going to trust your life with is safe to fly. In other words you will be taught how to perform your pre-flight inspection. This will involve inspecting all parts of the equipment for wear and/or damage. In particular, this means checking the canopy for wear or evidence of holes, checking the risers for knots or abrasions, and checking the harness for signs of deterioration. You will also learn to check that everything is securely fastened. This is just as important, as a number of pilots have taken to the air only to realise then that, for instance, the karabiners attaching the risers to the harness are not fastened properly. Only after you have completed your pre-flight inspection to your instructor's satisfaction will you be ready for your first flight.
Depending on the school you train with, your introduction to the air may be with a tandem flight. For this a larger-than-normal canopy is used with two harnesses attached. The instructor sits in the rear one and operates the control lines. The would-be pilot sits in front and has the best view. This is an excellent way of experiencing what it feels like to be in the air without having to worry too much about technical details like take-off and landing. If the instructor feels that you are comfortable with the experience they may well offer you the chance to take the controls and try out a few turning manouevres.
For your first solo launch, you will start using the forward launch technique. This involves laying the canopy out on the ground behind you, slightly up-slope from where you are standing. The risers will be laid across your outstretched arms and you should be facing downhill. When the wind is favourable, a light breeze heading directly up-slope, you should start running downhill in a purposeful and committed manner. Initially there will be a lot of resistance and you will feel as though you are getting nowhere. Once the canopy has fully inflated and is above your head the pressure eases off, you will start careering downhill at speed. At this point it is wise to check overhead briefly to ensure that the canopy is, indeed, correctly inflated and no part of it is deflated or tucked over. As you gain speed down the hill the canopy will start to lift you off the ground until, if all goes well, your feet are no longer touching the ground and you have joined the realm of the birds.
Your first flight should be on quite a gentle slope and so before you have time to fully experience this novel experience you will be heading back down to the ground. In order to ensure a nice soft landing you should 'flare' the canopy just before touchdown. This is done by pulling firmly on the control lines. These are special risers which are connected to the rear edge of the canopy and are held in the hand so as to control your speed and direction.
Higher and Further
After a few more of these little hops you will start to move to higher and steeper slopes leading to longer and more enjoyable flights. The longer flights will also give you the opportunity to practise using the controls in order to turn and also to become more proficient at choosing the spot where you land. Further advancements will include learning how to reverse launch (facing the canopy as you inflate it which gives you much more control and has the added bonus of looking much more stylish than simply charging down the hill), ridge soar (using the lift generated by air flowing up the side of the hill to stay in the air for longer and also to gain height rather than continually losing it) and finally top landings. This last technique involves gaining sufficient height to fly back to the top of the hill before landing. Once you have perfected this art you will no longer need to slog your way back up the slope after every flight.
Once you have demonstrated that you have mastered these techniques, and passed some exams on theory of flight, air law and meteorology4 you will receive a pilot's qualification which will entitle you to fly unsupervised. Flying on your own, however, is still not recommended and you will be given details of local clubs that you can join. Most of these clubs are friendly organisations who welcome new members. They usually have members designated as club coaches who will be happy to give you further guidance on your technique and any information specific to the sites that the club flies.
As your confidence and technique improves you will find that your flights become longer and you may consider flying cross country. This involves leaving the ridge lift near the hill and looking for other up currents of air such as thermals5 in order to navigate your way across the countryside. This is the ultimate aim of most people who take up the sport, and once you have mastered this then as the old saying goes, 'The sky's the limit'.