The dream of flying is as old as mankind, and a paraglider provides the easiest and most natural way to fulfil it. You can carry your “aircraft” on your back, launch from a mountain, stay airborne for hours and cover some hundred kilometres distance. There is no engine noise, and your view isn’t obstructed by any surrounding structures. You immerse totally in the element of the birds, feeling like one of them.
How it works
A paraglider is basically a parachute which is designed to glide in a flat angle. It is not supposed to open in free fall (so we don’t “jump”), but moving forward it creates lift. The pilot sits in a harness connected to it. When he starts to run from a launch slope, the wing fills with air, forms a profile, and starts to carry him. In passive air the glider will descend continuously, and it’s up to the pilot to find thermals where all the air surrounding him is moving up, taking him with it. Skilled pilots can stay airborne for many hours and climb some thousand meters above ground. The system is also equipped with a safety parachute which is supposed to bring you down alive, though not necessarily unharmed, if the shit hits the fan.
Where you can do it
Well, you can try it everywhere on the globe, where
- the air is not too thin (a launch from Mt.Everest might become tricky)
- you find flat areas big enough to land on with a speed of up to 30km/h
- you have neither turbulences nor strong winds
Sounds easy, but to find suitable places is an art – so better stick to known sites! There is a global community which lists many thousands of explored sites all over the planet, and it is a wise choice to focus on them unless you have become very skilled.
Why you want to do it
Because it’s great. The emotional impact of flying is beyond comparison (though not every person can, or has to, handle it). The world gains another dimension for you, so you will never look at it like before, when you were still chained to the surface. You meet birds and share their environment. You look down on mountain summits. You feel endless freedom about where to move to. You feel the surrounding forces of nature. You ride on endless energy, humble and adaptive, and you feel blessed.
What the dangers are
A paraglider is light, so it deforms easily (also recovering by itself in most cases, but this takes some time), and its movements through the air can become very fast. This can be frightening, and it may become fatal if you hit something in the process. All pilots joke about “not being afraid of heights, but oft the ground” – because this is what you collide with. Most accidents happen during launch and landing since there is very little space for corrections. It’s basically a brain sport, and 95% of the accidents are related to wrong decisions, mostly about continuing a flight or launching at all. So the major skill for a paraglider pilot is metal strength and a clear brain. Be also aware that you share the air with planes and other aircraft, so you will need to learn about radio and airspaces at some point.
At the bottom line, paragliding is a major outdoor sport. Which means it happens in free, untamed nature – and nature’s powers are always many times larger than yours. You will never be stronger, or quicker, so you better focus on being smart and humble. The old saying “There are brave pilots and there are old pilots – but there are no old, brave pilots” expresses pretty well what the essence of every serious outdoor sport is – so let this be one of your mantras 🙂
What you must understand
Flying is different to, say, mountain biking or riding because if you collide with someone else it’s very likely that both of you will die. Especially if your opponent has no rescue system or moves very fast (hang gliders, planes, helicopters) – but also getting entangled with another paraglider might even block the rescue. So you are carrying a heap of responsibility. In case of a crisis there is also no option to stop over, breathe and reconsider, because – unlike for someone on the ground or clinging to a rock – gravity is always present and taking over immediately. Be aware that the air is not your natural element, so act considerate, disciplined and aware.
What you need
You need a solid wing, a harness, a rescue chute, helmet and gloves, stable boots plus clothing according to the weather conditions, and – after a while – an instrument called variometer which is telling you if you are going up or down. We are no birds, so we lack a sense of fine vertical movement; as soon as you want to stay up and control a flight in empty 3d space, you will need a surrogate. And you will need a license.
How you learn it
In a flying school. Every country has a paragliding association which lists all the certified schools, so just google “paragliding” or “hang gliding”, plus “school”, plus your country. You will go through an education which will most likely take 1/2 to one year, ending with a theoretical and practical test, and a license for you. Do not trust crash or intensive courses – paragliding needs time to modify your brain, and all these holiday related shortcuts lead to the majority of accidents in the following years. During the course you will get your equipment from the school; take advantage of that option to learn which wing’s character – there are many differences – suits you best.
And be very aware that any license can only be the first step in your pilot career, entitling you to practice on you own. Some accident will happen, hopefully without serious consequences, and it will take years (>50 flights per year would be a good start) for you to become a rather safe pilot. The most serious incidents happen around the 3rd year of paragliding – so just stay very aware and alert 🙂
What it costs
A complete course without own equipment (schools will press you to buy one from them since it is their second major business, but try to avoid that) will be divided into 2 or more stages and cost about 1.300€ / 1.300$ / R18.000. It will also include some travelling because you have to go to places where the weather works in your favour and the school is allowed to run its business, so think of additional fuel and accommodation costs. The license is usually valid for a lifetime.
Before you get driven too much by excitement, it might be helpful to test your “bird genes” doing a tandem flight. Try to avoid tourist spots because the pilots work like on a production line, focusing on quick money, thus taking too much risk and barely introducing you to the real magic of flying. It’s always a good idea to ask a tandem company/pilot about a longer “thermal flight”, explaining that you want to explore your options to learn the game. If you are stationed close to the Europe Alps region or near Cape region, South Africa, feel free to send me an email; knowing some guys and being a certified tandem pilot myself I might be able to help you here 🙂