For me, paragliding is the most amazing way to experience the world from the air. I can carry my glider up a mountain in my back pack, lay the wing out on the ground, step into my harness and fly away into the sky. If the weather is working right I can fly for hours and hours, covering mile after mile, flirting with the clouds, skimming the tree tops. On the ground or in the air I can control the wing precisely with the steering lines, and weight shift inputs through the harness. Once in the air, I have to find rising air to go up since I don’t have a motor and I can’t flap my wings like a bird. Most of you are probably aware of winds on the ground but the sky is a very dynamic place with lots of vertical air movement too. Those of us who fly gliders are always working to understand the weather and figure out where there are updrafts or lift that allow us to climb upwards in the sky. On a good day we can get up to the clouds and cover many miles, flying for hours at a time. My longest flight was in Chelan WA where I flew over 7 hours covering 107 miles to the edge of Palouse Hills.
Hike and fly paragliding is what I love the most. It might just be a quick hike up through woods to fly back down or I might go sky camping, hiking up to a launch, flying many miles away, landing high in the mountains to make camp and repeat the process. Either way knowing that as I walk with that paraglider on my back I am fully capable of flight is an amazing feeling. Light weight modern paragliding and camping gear lets me travel, as a self contained hiking flying individual, through rugged mountains. The X-Pyr race that I’m participating in this July is one of a handful of races world wide that showcases how a paraglider can turn a person into a being of flight. In the race we have to travel 250 miles through the heart of the Pyrenees Mountains only by foot with our paragliders on our backs, or by flying. We can sleep in our support vans and receive food and supplies from our support crew but we have to do the race with our feet or our wings. We will spend several days covering the rugged terrain that follows the French-Spanish border, hitting a few mandatory turn points but mostly choosing our own path through the mountains or sky. Hopefully I can race fast enough to complete the course, starting on the Atlantic Ocean and ending on the Mediterranean Ocean, before the race ends 24 hours after the winner reaches the finish line. It promises to be an amazing adventure.
The crazy thing about a paraglider is that it’s a soft, completely foldable, fabric wing (also called a canopy), with nothing but a bunch of thin lines running from the bottom of the canopy down to 2 attachments points called risers where the pilot attaches with their harness. Most paragliding canopies are formed with a top and bottom layer of fabric and vents in the lower leading edge that keep the wing inflated, and wing-shaped, as it flies forward through the air. The canopies also have a lot of internal fabric ribs and reinforcement, as well as some flexible nylon stiffeners, that allows them to keep their shape with a heavy human hanging below the completely soft fabric. I fly a light pod harness that covers my legs like a little kayak and only weighs about 5 lbs. It has protective padding under me and a big cargo compartment on my back that can hold camping gear, food, and everything I need to travel. Most of the time when away from home with my paraglider all my belongings go with me flying so I don’t have to worry about getting back to where I started when I land. Like most harnesses mine also has a compartment that carries a reserve parachute that I can open if the paraglider collapses in turbulence and won’t reopen to fly properly. Paragliders are the least efficient aircraft in the world but they’re the only aircraft that can carry a person 100s of miles through the air and also fit in a backpack at the end of the day. That’s what makes them so special to me.
A paraglider is a glider, a winged aircraft with no motor and it is always descending through the air. In order to go higher, and keep flying for more than a few minutes, I always have to be searching out rising air to regain altitude. This lift can be found in a few different forms. The most common sources of lift are thermals which form when the layer of air near the ground is heated by the sun and then bubbles or streams upward, rising like a hot air balloon or the colored wax in a lava lamp. Cumulus clouds, which are distinguished by their popcorn shape and flat bottoms, are actually the tops of thermals that started out on the ground and rose upward. Ridge lift or mechanical lift are terms for a different kind of lift, the rising air that forms when wind strikes a hill and rises up to go over it. It usually exists in a narrow band near a hill and isn’t as useful as thermals but can still allowlong flights along ridges. I am always using my knowledge of how winds and weather interact, as well as instruments, to find the best rising air to climb in. As with any glider, altitude is our fuel and the higher I go the farther I can fly.
What a day of flying is like really depends tremendously on the weather. Some days lift is easy to find, some days I struggle to climb enough to stay in the air. If there’s no rising air I can’t go up and I’ll be on the ground in minutes. Strong winds stop us from flying as well. A paraglider is the slowest flying winged aircraft and if the winds are faster than I can fly, around 15-20 mph, I need to be on the ground for safety. Wind from the right direction generally helps us take off and land but it isn’t necessary to fly, calm conditions aren’t inherently bad. Paraliders can fly in rain but not very well. I almost always avoid rain as it usually comes with sinking air that will put me on the ground and modern gliders become stall prone when they’re wet. The lift that fuels my flights can exist in many weather conditions but I have to always be watching the weather to tell the good flying conditions apart from dangerous situations.
There are different genres of paragliding just like there are different types of skiing; cross country, downhill, etc. The two main disciplines of paragliding are flying cross country or XC which is about covering distance, and acro which is more or less doing acrobatics on a glider. Acro is a world I only dabble in but it’s basically doing tricks with your glider to make it do things like stall, spin like a heliopter, or even do tumbles where the glider and pilot flip over each other like a jump rope. Two people can paraglide tandem, hooked together under a larger wing which lets an experienced pilot take a passenger along for a fun ride. People fly speed wings, basically small fast paragliders, for a variety of pursuits. Although the line is fuzzy between paragliders and their small speed wing cousins, thing that sets paragliders apart is that they are designed to fly efficiently enough that it’s easy to climb in rising air and stay aloft for a long time.
There are a lot of other extreme air sports out there that get mixed up with paragliding in people’s minds so we’ll finish up with a list of things that paragliders aren’t. Here are a bunch of things that relate to paragliding in some way, but aren’t paragliding. If you can get a basic understanding of these differences you will avoid annoying any paraglider pilot with a bunch of confused questions.
- Hang gliders are designed around the same soaring concept as paragliders but they have rigid parts in their triangular wings and pack up into heavy 8-16 foot long packages. They are a more efficient aircraft than a paraglider but part of that efficiency is flying faster so they can be trickier to launch and land.
- Parasailing sounds similar but it’s just a glorified round parachute, basically a kite, that gets pulled behind a boat and lifts your aunt Betsy a couple hundred feet up in the air on her Florida vacation. Paragliders can be towed up behind a boat or truck but a much more sophisticated payout winch system is used to get paragliders thousands of feet in the air.
- Paramotoring or powered paragliding is flying a paraglider with some type of motor/propeller assembly. Some times the pilot has a basic chair harness with the motor on their back and takes off and lands on foot. Others have a small frame with wheels for take off and landing. I’ve tried it out on a couple of occasions and while the freedom to go wherever I want with the motor is nice I miss peace and quite of normal gliding and the challenge of finding thermals.
- Speed wings are similar to a paraglider but significantly smaller. These wings fly faster and descend quicker. Speed riding means flying a small wing with skis, coming down a mountain part skiing, part flying. Speed flying uses the same small fast canopies but people launch and land on foot. These small wings generally can’t climb. They are fun way to rip down a mountain but they don’t usually give long flights. High speed take offs and landings can be dicey.
- Parachutes used in modern skydiving are almost all rectangular ram air canopies that look somewhat similar to paragliders and speed wings. A significant difference is that parachutes are designed to be able to open reliably while falling through the air at high speed. Some come down lazily, some fly with a lot of speed, but all parachutes are designed around coming to the earth.
- BASE jumping is simply parachuting from an object fixed to the earth like a building or mountain, instead of an aircraft. BASE canopies are usually bigger but they share the same ram air design as normal parachutes and paragliders.
- Wingsuits seem to be what stick in people’s minds the most and they’re an amazing development in human flight. These are the body suits that let people skydive from an airplane or do a BASE jump, first falling, then gliding at high speed with arms and legs spread like a flying squirrel, then opening a parachute before landing. Some wingsuiters skim past cliffs and buildings for the awesome youtube footage most people have seen. Modern wingsuits turn a person’s body into a very fast flying glider allowing quite long flights, but because of the extreme speeds all wingsuiters wear a parachute and must open it to land safely. Wing suits are on my “maybe someday list” but the sport is still developing I’m in no hurry.