What is Paragliding?


Paragliding is one of the simplest and most pure forms of flight. It requires a paraglider, which is a foot-launched, non-motorized inflatable wing. A paraglider has no frame and is made of high-stress polyester or rip-stop nylon fabric. The pilot sits comfortably in a harness and steers the paraglider by pulling the handles located beside each shoulder.

Different Types of Paragliding

Paragliding is a competitive and recreational flying sport in which paragliders perform acrobatic and cross-country maneuvers.

Although there is no engine, paraglider flights can last for hours and often cover tens of kilometers. With the skillful exploitation of air currents and shifting his body weight, the pilot can gain height and typically climb to altitudes of a few thousand meters.

Nowadays, paragliding can be done in the following ways:

Soaring

This type of paragliding is ideal for beginners or people who do not have much flying experience. It helps beginners master how the paraglider works and train for advanced techniques.

In this type of flying, pilots make use of the upwards directed wind from a fixed object like a ridge or a dune. To enjoy a successful soaring flight, it is vital to have a steady wind and to avoid places with little wind or windy days.

paragliding soaring

For this paragliding flight, pilots rely on the lift provided by the air. They fly along the length of the landscape feature and soar up with the help of the forced up air as it passes over the slope.

However, a steady wind within an established range is very important for slope soaring. This range depends greatly on the skill of the pilot and the performance of the wing. A glider may end up scratching against the slope if there is an insufficient lift and too little wind. If there is too much wind, there is a possibility of the pilot being blown back over the ridge.

Another form of ridge soaring is condo soaring, where pilots use an artificial ridge or a row of buildings to glide from. This type of soaring is particularly practiced in flat lands where there is a lack of natural ridges.

Cross-country Flying

Perfect for advanced paragliders, this type of flying is a bit more difficult than the other types and requires more skill and know-how of the working of a paraglider. This paragliding technique can be attempted after you have mastered thermal flying because, in cross-country flying, you will be gliding from one thermal to the next.

paragliding cross country

You can easily identify potential thermals by land features that generate thermals typically or with the help of cumulus clouds, which indicate the top of a rising column of humid, warm air. This air condenses as it touches the dew point, thus forming a cloud.

In addition, cross-country pilots also need to have intimate knowledge of aviation maps outlining restricted airspace, flying regulations, air law, etc.

Thermal Flying

Thermal flying is the most popular type of paragliding. As the sun warms the terrain, heat is radiated to the air just above it. A thermal is typically a rising column of air formed by the sun’s heat on the ground. If the ground is not uniform, some of the landscape features will be warmer than others.

Paragliding pilots are aware that they can find thermal columns near dark rocky terrain or asphalt parking lots. Birds gliding in the sky without flapping their wings is also an indication of thermal activity. Once pilots find a thermal, they try to reach its center, also known as the core. This is a difficult technique and needs ample practice to master.

paragliding thermal flying

A paragliding flying instrument, commonly known as a variometer, is used to locate a thermal. It indicates the climb rate with a visual display or a beep, thus helping the paragliders to core in on a thermal.

History of Paragliding

Paragliding is a relatively new sport that has been derived from parachuting. During the 1960s, when the military wanted to train its parachutists on safe landings, an early version of paragliding was formed. Using the airplane repeatedly to drop the parachutists was time-consuming and complicated.

Therefore, to save time, parachutes were attached to a truck with the help of a tow rope. The vehicle would then be driven at high speed, making the parachutist float higher and higher. The parachutist would then release the tow rope to descend back to the ground.

However, these parachutists became more enthralled with floating instead of landing and started launching themselves off steep hills to parachute back to earth. This gave birth to a new sport where the design and shape of the parachutes evolved as paragliders tried newer techniques.

The invention that changed everything came in the form of the ram-air parachute or the parafoil. In 1964, Domina Jalbert developed the ram-air parachute that changed the chute’s shape from round to rectangular. The parachute became a sail or wing and was divided into cells. This ram-air shape made it possible for the wing to float or glide further instead of descending immediately.

Moreover, during the 1960s, David Barish, who was working with NASA space capsules, was also busy developing a recovery system using sail wings to bring astronauts back home. He took his rectangular-shaped parachute to ski resorts throughout the US, hoping for slope soaring to take off. However, at that time, nobody was prepared to fully explore its dynamics, and it was only seen as a method that could help them race down grassy ski slopes.

In 1961 Pierre Lemongine, a French engineer, also made a considerable contribution to the sport of paragliding. He designed a paraglider that could be towed and steered in the air.

However, it was not until 1978 that the sport of paragliding started gaining momentum. On 25th June, two French skydivers, Andre Bohn and Jean-Claud Betemps, ran down the steep slope of Mont Pertuiset in France and launched into the air, thus paving the way for modern paragliding.

Both Bohn and Betemps were going to compete in the French National Skydiving Championships but could not afford a plane to take them up and down the mountains. Their paragliding effort was featured in the media, and as a result, many people were encouraged to try this sport. Betemps became known as the inventor of paragliding as he was the first to paraglide that day.

The popularity of paragliding grew steadily from this point. The first paragliding school under the coaching of Betemps was established in 1979, and paragliders first appeared in the market in 1985. These paragliders were designed with a stiffer fabric as compared to a parachute, and their lines were less elastic, thus providing greater stability and control for the pilot.

Although paragliding equipment has evolved considerably with more complicated steering systems and suspension, they are nevertheless still based on the original design developed by Jalbert. The first unofficial Paragliding World Competition was held in 1987, while the first officially sanctioned FAI World Tournament was held in 1989 in Austria.

Today, paragliding is extremely popular in Europe and is quickly catching the attention of adventure seekers in the US. People can compete in various paragliding competitions held at different levels such as club, national and international. It is a sport that is not just limited to upland environments but can also be practiced by tow-launching.

Paragliding is an extreme sport; therefore, it is vital to employ all the safety measures. Moreover, risk management learning and training under professional instructors can help reduce the possibility of any serious injury in untoward situations.

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