Ever dreamed of flying...
Paragliding offers us the possibility of flight like no other aircraft can. It may sound over the top, but we are truly lucky to be living at a time when such amazing technology exists. Man's age old desire to fly has arrived and it's possible to take flight today. Imagine an aircraft that fits in a backpack, can be set up in a matter of minutes and can take you to great heights and far distances delivering you safely back to earth. An aircraft that doesn't use a motor – allowing us to hear and feel the wind in our face. An aircraft that's easy to operate and offers unobstructed and exceptionally scenic views of our world! Soaring like a bird is the nature of paragliding.
Paragliding became a developed sport for the common enthusiast during the later part of the 1980's. Parachute technology and a desire for better performance helped lead to this new breakthrough in flight in the form of a paraglider. At first, hikers were using parachutes to fly down the mountain peaks they just hiked as a means of saving the grueling hike down. The enjoyment of flight pushed engineers to create more streamlined gliders that offered less drag and better glide ratios to glide further and stay aloft longer. Our sailplane and hang gliding cousins had been busy for decades learning how to catch the rising thermals and extend their flying times and distances. Paragliders have joined their ranks of sustained soaring flights literally around the globe.
So what does it take to fly? A rich understanding of many concepts.
1) Weather is a major component in paragliding. We like light winds and a bit of air moving vertically up to extend our flying time. This vertical movement of air is referred to as instability, while the horizontal movement of air is referred to as wind. We look for rising columns of air called thermals and turn circles just like hawks do to climb to higher altitudes without the use of a motor. We also don't like much moisture in the form of rain or fog – we like to see where we're going. Warm sun, light winds and low pressure equals smooth flying conditions.
2) We need a firm understanding of how to assemble our aircraft properly with a thorough preflight. We sit in a very comfortable "harness" and attach the lines of the glider to the harness with bits of webbing called "risers." We have a reserve parachute tucked away that's easily deployed in case of an emergency. Of course we need a good helmet. These are the basics - wing, harness, reserve and helmet. Other tools can be helpful including a hand held communications radio, a vario (a very sensitive altimeter that beeps as we go up or down), and GPS to help track our distance and speed.
3) We need to know how to fly the aircraft! This includes inflating the glider overhead and controlling its direction smoothly as the wind picks us up off the ground. Once in the air we can use our body to weight shift and pull steering toggles gently to control smooth coordinated turns. Flight experience will lead to knowing where thermals reside, how to enter them smoothly and climb higher into the sky to extend our flying time. Of course all takeoffs require a landing – the smoother the better!
4) We need a good take off and an open unobstructed landing zone (LZ) that is easily reached given the limitations of our glide. On a good day it's easy to fly several miles from a mountain launch using rising air to keep us aloft, but it's never guaranteed that we will find this lift. The safest approach is to always have a clear landing area within reach of our worst possible glide ratios. Finding a good launch and close by open landing area is harder than you think! Private property, FAA controlled airspace, power lines, and trees are just some of the obstacles to avoid.
5) We need to really understand what the safe limits of this sport are. This can be a very dangerous sport or it can be a relatively simple and safe endeavor – it really depends on your approach, not unlike driving down the freeway. There are many ways to get into trouble, but it is my belief that if you can check yourself, learn to fly with a richly experienced instructor committed to your safety, grow slowly and put in the hours to develop the skills and understanding – this is a rich sport that pays great dividends to be enjoyed a lifetime.