How Paragliding Works

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.

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 — non motorized, 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?

Launching The Paraglider

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.