How Paragliding Works

By: Debra Ronca
Skydiving Image Gallery A professional paragliding instructor takes off at the Kathisma beach on Lefkada Island, Greece. See pictures of skydiving.
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Do you ever dream of flying -- making lazy circles in the sky like a seagull or a hawk? If you do, you're not alone. Dreaming of flying is quite common, and if you believe dream analysis, it's a sign of good things to come. It means you're on top of a particular situation and that you're enjoying a sense of power and freedom [source: Dream Moods].

But you don't have to leave flying to your dreams. You can do it while you're awake. We're not talking about flying in an airplane or a hot air balloon. We're talking about paragliding -- nonmotorized, foot-launched flying with an inflatable wing. Enthusiasts call it the simplest form of human flight. Using air currents and shifting their own body weight, paragliders can fly to heights of 23,000 feet (7,000 meters) with their paragliding sails. You can't beat the view, and paragliders find the solitude incredibly peaceful.


In theory, paragliding is similar to hang gliding. But there are several important differences. Hang gliders typically have an aluminum frame with a V-shaped wing. Paragliders have no frame, and the wing is an elliptical-shaped parachute that folds up to the size of a backpack when it's not being used. These features make paragliders considerably lighter and more convenient to transport than hang gliders.

Paragliders also soar a bit more slowly than hang gliders, which makes it easier for people to learn to fly them. You might think paragliding is like parachuting. But there's one main difference. Paragliding pilots start on the ground with their parachutes already deployed, and the wind takes them up into the sky. Parachuters fall from the sky and deploy the parachute as they get closer to the ground.

What else makes paragliding stand apart? And when was this way of flying invented?


History of Paragliding

A paraglider at sunset in Berkshire, England.
Andrew Holt/Getty Images

Before we get into how paragliding works, let's investigate its history. Paragliding grew out of parachuting. In the 1960s, the military needed to train parachutists how to perform safe landings. Repeatedly going up and down in an airplane to drop the parachutists was complicated and time-consuming. In order to fit more landing practice into a day, they would attach the parachutists to a truck with a tow rope.

As the vehicle picked up speed, the parachutist would float higher and higher. Then the parachutist would release the tow rope and descend back to earth. Many parachutists soon became more interested in the floating part than the landing part. For fun, they would launch themselves off steep hills and parachute to the ground below, experimenting with how they could harness air currents to stay in the air longer. A new sport was born. The shape and design of the parachutes morphed as paragliders tried different techniques to get better and longer rides.


The solution came with the invention of the ram-air parachute. Also known as the parafoil, it changed everything. Developed by Domina Jalbert in 1964, the ram-air parachute altered the shape of the chute from round to rectangular. The parachute -- called a wing or sail -- was broken up into cells. As the sail caught the wind, air would "ram" into these cells, filling up or inflating the sail. The shape allowed the wing to glide or float rather than immediately descend, as a traditional parachute would.

In 1978, three friends in Mieussy, France used their modified parachutes to jump off a mountainside and glide to the ground, the first time it had been done. This is considered the beginning of modern paragliding.

Paragliding equipment has evolved, with more complicated suspension and steering systems. Nevertheless, they're all based on Jalbert's original design. Extremely popular in Europe, paragliding is still a micro-sport in the United States, with around 5,000 or so participants [source: Becher]. However, it's climbing quickly in popularity.


Parts of the Paraglider

Parachuting: an active, fun sport!

The main components of a paraglider are:

  • Wing (also called the canopy or sail)
  • Lines and risers
  • Harness
  • Speed bar
  • Reserve parachute
  • Helmet

In simplest terms, a paraglider is an inflatable wing. It resembles a parachute, but its shape is elliptical rather than round. Wings are usually made of rip-stop nylon, which is a tear-proof and tough synthetic fabric. It's actually two layers of material sewn together with a gap between the two. Vertical fabric ribs support the gap, and in between each rib are cells. These dozens of cells work to trap air and inflate the canopy for gliding. The wing has a leading edge, which allows air to enter the cells. Experts agree that most wings are good for about 300 hours of paragliding (about four years) before they begin to stretch or weaken [source: Discovery].


Lines are the rigging cords attached to different areas of the underside of the wing. There are usually about four or five rows of lines. The last row of lines make up the brakes, or control lines, attached to the wing's trailing edge. These cords all stream down and are secured in a bunch on both sides of the pilot. The bunches of grouped lines are called risers and they suspend the pilot below the canopy. The pilot can use the lines to control the glider. Manipulating the lines changes the direction or speed of the glider as it flies. Lines are made of synthetic materials like Kevlar (aramid) or Dyneema (polyethylene). These types of materials won't stretch or shrink, which would cause the glider to become unbalanced. Nylon is a popular choice for risers because of its strength and durability.

Risers affix to carabiners, which in turn lock into the pilot's harness. A paragliding harness is the soft chair that suspends the pilot below the wing. It features multiple straps that keep the pilot safe in the harness as well as provide lumbar support.

Some pilots like to utilize a speed bar, which is a foot control. It attaches to the harness and connects to the canopy via pulleys. By pushing on the speed bar with his foot, a pilot can increase the paraglider's speed by changing the angle of the wing.

The reserve parachute is for the unlikely (but possible) event that the wing begins to irreversibly deflate. The reserve attaches to the harness in a spot that prevents accidental deployment. Reserve parachutes are specially made so that they can open quickly.

And of course, a pilot never flies without a helmet.


Launching the Paraglider

Illustrative map vectoring nature's direction.

To fly a paraglider properly, you must understand not only how the equipment works, but how the wind works as well. But first, perform a safety equipment check. Are you strapped in tight to your harness? Does your helmet fit snugly on your head? Is your canopy properly laid out and are you properly attached to it?

Of course, you can't start flying until you figure out how to get off the ground. We call this the launch. Face into the wind and run or walk forward. Pull on the wing, which will cause it to start filling with air. Soon, the wing will transform from a piece of fabric dragging behind you on the ground into an inflated canopy rising over your head. The term for inflating the wing while you're on the ground is kiting.


At this point, the wing is above you and catching some airflow. Use the brakes to retain control of the wing and do an overhead check to ensure the wing is fully inflated and no lines are tangled. Now it's time for the final phase. Run down your designated slope to work up to flying speed. Sometimes all you'll need here is a brisk walking pace. Your wing slowly rises and gently picks you up with it. You look down and your feet are no longer touching the ground. You're flying!

But now what? How are you going to stay up in the air? Like a hang glider, a paraglider works with airflow to create lift. Air flows over both the top and the bottom of the glider and meets at the edge. Aerodynamics predict that the pressure on the bottom of the glider is higher than on the top of the glider. This creates lift upwards.

One of the most desirable things about paragliding is that, in the right conditions, you can stay aloft for hours at a time, traveling for miles. Paragliders look for rising air in order to catch a current that will keep them aloft for the longest time possible. There are three basic types of rising air:

  • Thermals are columns of hot air that rise from the ground. As the sun heats air near the ground, that air expands and rises. Paragliding pilots know they can find thermal columns near areas like asphalt parking lots or dark rocky terrain. If you notice large birds soaring around in the sky without flapping their wings, thermal activity is likely. Once a pilot finds a thermal column, he or she can circle within it until reaching a desired altitude.
  • Ridge lift occurs when the wind blows against mountains or hills. When wind hits the mountain, it moves upward, forming a band of lift along its slope. Although ridge lift doesn't reach much higher than the mountain or ridge that created it, ridge lift can last for miles -- for example, along a mountain chain.
  • Wave lift is a lot like ridge lift. It also occurs when the wind blows against a mountain. However, wave lift happens on the downwind side of a mountain and can go much higher than the peak. A glider can reach altitudes of more than 35,000 feet or 10,668 meters (using oxygen) by utilizing wave lift. It can be a very dangerous form of lift as it is often caused by very strong winds in the upper atmosphere.


Controlling the Paraglider

Controlling a paraglider is actually quite simple. The controls you hold in your hand connect to the trailing edge of the wing. Depending on how you pull the controls, the wing will change shape and therefore change behavior. Pulling on the controls makes the glider fly slower. Releasing pressure makes it fly faster.

Example: If you want to turn to the right, pull on the right control and release pressure on the left. This makes the right side of the wing fly slower and the left faster. Before you know it, you'll be turning right. Of course, it's all a matter of finesse and practice. Yanking on the controls can cause the wing to act unpredictably.


You can also shift your weight to help steer the glider. Moving your weight toward one side or the other will also bring subtle shape changes to the wing. Weight-shifting is helpful when you're using both hand control lines and need to add an extra layer of control.

Now that you're airborne and moving around, you probably want to go higher. Here are a few techniques:

Coring is the term pilots use when they climb via a thermal column. When you find and enter a thermal column, you turn in circles within it (around its core). After climbing to the top of a thermal column, you can continue drifting and gliding until you find another column.

Ridge soaring is another technique you can use to fly along the ridge of a mountain or large hill. As we talked about on the previous page, the updraft created by the mountain will keep you in the air. However, ridge soaring can be dangerous if wind conditions aren't just right. If you fly close to a ridge, always shift your weight away from the ridge. This way, in the event of a wing collapse, your glider will head away from the ridge as well, instead of crashing into it.

If your wing begins to deflate, due to turbulent air or your own miscalculation, you should know that it will usually reinflate on its own. In the rare instance it doesn't, you can deploy the emergency parachute to land safely. Emergency parachutes work best when you're up high and they have a chance to completely deploy. If wing deflation happens close to the ground -- shortly after takeoff or shortly before landing -- the parachute may be unable to deploy quickly enough, and serious injury could occur.

Minimize the chances of accidents by ensuring you're properly trained before ever attempting to paraglide. Ensure you're using a safe glider, you're aware of wind conditions and fly in a place suited to your experience and comfort levels.


Paragliding Instruments

What good is a sport without a whole bunch of cool gadgets to go with it? The three most important gadgets for the paraglider are the altimeter, the variometer, the radio and the GPS.

An altimeter keeps track of your altitude. All types of aircraft feature altimeters. They tell you how far you are from the ground or terrain below. It helps you maintain necessary clearance as well as keeps you a safe distance away from other gliders or aircraft. Altimeters used by paragliders measure altitude based on air pressure. They are usually digital and built inside a variometer, GPS or sports watch.


Variometers (also called varios) are indispensible to paragliders. It tells you how fast you are climbing or falling, relative to the ground. They're used mostly for thermal lifting. Varios have audio indicators, so you don't have to bother looking at them. When you hit a certain vertical speed, the vario will start to beep, with the pitch increasing as your lift increases (or decreases as you sink). You can also check a digital readout to see your speed in a variety of measurements.

Paragliders use radios to keep in touch with other pilots as well as people on the ground. Paragliding instructors always use radios when they're training new pilots. Usually the microphone is right in the helmet so the pilot can stay in constant contact with his or her instructor on the ground.

Global positioning systems (GPS) are becoming quite popular with paragliders and other recreational aircraft pilots. Using a GPS, a paraglider pilot can assess his or her speed and follow preset routes. Some people also use the GPS once they've landed to analyze their routes and flying patterns to see if there's room for improvement. In competitive paragliding, a GPS is necessary to prove that a pilot hit all the required turning points in the race route.


Learning to Paraglide

You can find a paragliding school near you with just a few clicks of the mouse. Once you find a school, do some research. Find out its affiliations, instructor experience and safety records. A good place to start is the U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association (USHGPA).

Most paragliding schools feature a training hill, where students can practice launching and taking small flights. You don't have to wear any special equipment to paragliding class. The school will provide you with a glider, harness, helmet and radio. Most schools suggest you wear sturdy hiking boots and clothes you don't mind getting dirty, and that you bring a pair of light gloves to keep your hands from being cut by the lines. The best way to learn to land safely is through practice -- so you'll be hitting the ground over and over again. In addition, keep in mind that the higher your altitude, the colder it gets. So, dress in layers.


Expect to pay about $200 for one day of instruction (about four to six hours). You can purchase multi-day packages as well as certification courses. Lessons usually include a demonstration by the instructor, observation of other paragliders and ground classes. When you've learned all you can on the ground, it's time to go up. Some paragliding schools offer a tandem ride, where you can enjoy the experience without being responsible for controlling the glider.

A typical lesson will have you in the air at least once by the first or second day. And most schools state that you'll be ready to fly unsupervised after only about five to seven days of instruction [source: Federal Aviation Association (FAA) doesn't require you to have a license for paragliding. However, the USGHPA features a voluntary pilot rating system to which most paragliders adhere.

If this all seems like fun to you, start saving up your pennies. A full kit, with a new paraglider, harness, reserve parachute and helmet will cost you $4,000 to $6,000. Used equipment is less costly, but you should first ensure the equipment is safe and not worn-out before making a purchase.


Paragliding FAQ

How dangerous is paragliding?
Paragliding has one of the highest fatality rates in extreme sports. Once an injury or mishap is suffered, the death rate is high.
Do you need a license to fly a paraglider?
Federal Aviation Regulations Section 103 regulates all paragliders, but does not require a license. However, certain requirements or ratings such as P3 or P4 are required for paragliding over certain areas.
Has anyone died paragliding?
Research conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reported that between 3 to 5 million people paraglide in a year and only eight have died since 2009. However, mishaps or accidents often result in death.
Can you paraglide without training?
No. But with a three to four day training course, you can learn enough to begin paragliding, constantly increasing your skills and ability with additional training and experience.
How hard is it to learn paragliding?
While paragliding can be easy to learn initially, it is a never-ending process of constant learning to increase proficiency and ensure safety.

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More Great Links

  • Adventure Paragliding and Kiteboarding. "How It Works." 2006.
  • Becher, Bill. "Paragliding: It's the Alone Way to Fly." The New York Times. April 28, 2006.
  • Besser, Linton. "I rode to the heavens and back." Sydney Morning Herald. Feb. 17, 2007.
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  • Discovery Channel. "Introduction to Paragliding." 2009.
  • Discovery Channel. "Paragliding Equipment." 2009.
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