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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Paragliding (known in some countries as parapenting) is a recreational and competitive flying sport. A paraglider is a free-flying, foot-launched aircraft. The pilot sits in a harness suspended below a fabric wing, whose shape is formed by the pressure of air entering vents in the front of the wing.

It is closely related to hang gliding, but quite different from parasailing/parascending, which don't involve free flight. Paramotoring uses the same equipment, with the addition of a small engine and propeller mounted behind the pilot, making it a form of ultra-light aviation as opposed to free flight.

Paraglider take-off in Brazil
Paraglider take-off in Brazil


The paraglider wing (or ‘canopy’ or parafoil) is a self-inflating structure consisting of a row of cells, most of them open at the front and all of them closed at the back, joined together side by side. Moving through the air keeps them inflated as air enters in the front but can't get out the back. In cross-section, the cells form an aerofoil shape to produce lift, just like an airplane wing.

The pilot is supported underneath the wing from a web of lines (each with the strength to support the pilot). The lines are then attached to strap-like risers that are attached to the pilot's harness.

Controls held in the pilot’s hands, which pull down the trailing edge (rear portion) of the wing, are used to control speed and to turn.

The pilot is strapped into the bucket-seat harness, which usually holds a reserve parachute, and includes a ‘speed system’ which pulls down the leading edge for maximum flying speed. Modern recreational harnesses have a foam or air-bag back protector.

Paraglider wings typically have an area of 25–35 m² with a span of 8–12 m, and weigh 3–7 kg. Combined weight of wing, harness, reserve, instruments, helmet etc is around 12–18 kg.

Glide ratio ranges from 6:1 for recreational paragliders to about 10:1 for modern competition paragliders (compared with an average of 15:1 for hang gliders and up to 60:1 for some sailplanes), and speed range is typically 20–65 km/h (stall speed – max speed): though safe flying range is smaller.

Modern paraglider wings are made of high-performance non-porous fabrics such as Porcher Sport & Gelvenor, with Dyneema/Spectra or Kevlar/Aramid lines.

For storage and carrying, the wing is folded into the harness seat, and the whole stored in a backpack (which is normally stowed in the harness in flight).

Tandem paragliders, designed to carry the pilot and one passenger, are larger but otherwise similar. They usually have higher trim speeds (fly faster), are more resistant to collapses and have a slightly higher sink rate compared to solo paragliders.

Parachutes including Skydiving canopies are generally used for descending purposes (i.e. jumping out of an aircraft or for dropping cargo) while paragliders are generally used for ascending. Paragliders are categorized as "ascending" parachutes by canopy manufacutures worldwide and involve "free flying" (without a tether) or an aircraft. However Paragliders can sometimes be tethered for a short period during towing to get airborne.


Take off from a ramp, Tegelberg, Schwangau, Germany.
Take off from a ramp, Tegelberg, Schwangau, Germany.
Paragliding in Solang Valley, India.
Paragliding in Solang Valley, India.

In unpowered flight, rising air is needed to keep a glider aloft. This rising air can come from two sources:

  • when the sun heats features on the ground, columns of rising air known as thermals are generated
  • when wind encounters a ridge in the landscape, the air is forced upwards, providing ridge lift.

In mountainous environments, flying is mostly based around thermals, which can be used to stay aloft before heading for a landing field below the launch site. In hill environments, ridge lift is used for ridge soaring, and landing can be done either back at the launch site, or at a landing field at the bottom of the ridge. In either case, more experienced pilots can use thermals to go ‘cross country’.

Ridge soaring

In ridge soaring, pilots fly along the length of a ridge feature in the landscape, relying on the lift provided by the air which is forced up as it passes over the ridge.

Ridge soaring is highly dependent on a steady wind within a defined range (the suitable range depends on the performance of the wing and the skill of the pilot). Too little wind, and insufficient lift is available to stay airborne (pilots end up ‘scratching’ along the slope). With more wind, gliders can fly well above and forward of the ridge, but too much wind, and there is a risk of being ‘blown back’ over the ridge.

When ridge soaring, it is usually possible to either ‘top land’ or ‘slope land’ close to the launch site, which saves time returning from a landing site back to the launch site.

Thermal flying

When the sun warms the ground, it will warm some features more than others (such as rock-faces or large buildings), and these set off thermals which rise through the air. Sometimes these may be a simple rising column of air; more often, they are blown sideways in the wind, and will break off from the source, with a new thermal forming later.

Once a pilot finds a thermal, he or she begins to fly in a circle, trying to center the circle on the strongest part of the thermal (the "core"), where the air is rising the fastest. Most pilots use a ‘vario’ (vario-altimeter), which indicates climb rate with beeps and/or a visual display, to help ‘core-in’ on a thermal.

Coring: The technique to "core" a thermal is simple: turn tighter as lift decreases, and turn less as lift increases. This ensures you are always flying around the core.

Often there is strong sink surrounding thermals, and there is often also strong turbulence resulting in wing collapses as a pilot tries to enter a strong thermal. Once inside a thermal, shear forces reduce somewhat and the lift tends to become smoother.

Good thermal flying is a skill which takes time to learn, but a good pilot can often "core" a thermal all the way to cloud base.

Cross-country flying

Once the skills of using thermals to gain altitude have been mastered, pilots can glide from one thermal to the next to go ‘cross-country’ (‘XC’). Having gained altitude in a thermal, a pilot glides down to the next available thermal. Potential thermals can be identified by land features which typically generate thermals, or by cumulus clouds which mark the top of a rising column of warm, humid air as it reaches the dew point and condenses to form a cloud. In many flying areas, cross-country pilots also need an intimate familiarity with air law, flying regulations, aviation maps indicating restricted airspace, etc.

Launching / landing

Video clip: Launch for ridge soaring on Mam Tor, UK (1MB ogg/theora) (info) (help)
Video clip: Launch for ridge soaring on Mam Tor, UK (1MB ogg/theora) (info) (help)
Paraglider towed launch, Mirosławice, Poland.
Paraglider towed launch, Mirosławice, Poland.

As with all aircraft, launching and landing are done into wind (though in mountain flying, it is possible to launch in nil wind and glide out to the first thermal).

In low winds, the wing is inflated with a ‘forward launch’, where the pilot runs forward so that the air pressure generated by the forward movement inflates the wing.

In higher winds, particularly ridge soaring, a ‘reverse launch’ is used, with the pilot facing the wing to bring it up into a flying position, then turning under the wing to complete the launch.

Reverse launches have a number of advantages over a forward launch. It is more straight forward to inspect the wing and check the lines are free as it leaves the ground. In the presence of wind, the pilot can be tugged toward the wing and facing the wing makes it easier to resist this force, and safer in case the pilot slips (as opposed to being dragged backwards). These launches are normally attempted with a reasonable wind speed making the ground speed required to pressurise the wing much lower - the pilot is initially launching while walking backwards as opposed to running forward.

In flatter countryside, pilots can also be launched with a tow. Once at full height, the pilot pulls a release cord and the towline falls away. This requires separate training, as flying on a winch has quite different characteristics from free flying. In many countries only towing from a stationary winch is permitted: ‘static’ towing, with a fixed length towline attached to a car, is far more dangerous.

Landing involves lining up for an approach into wind, and just before touching down, ‘flaring’ the wing to minimise forward speed. The angle of approach to the landing zone will depend on wind speed. Landing will typically be at a gentle forward run.

Control of the glider

The pilot holds controls in each hand which pull down the trailing edge of the wing. Pulling down the trailing edge increases the angle of attack of the wing from its ‘trim’ (hands-off) position, which slows it down and increases the lift generated (like flaps on an aircraft wing). Turning is achieved by a combination of pulling down the control on one side and ‘weight shift’ within the harness. Faster than ‘trim’ speed can be achieved by pushing out a ‘speedbar’ with the feet, which pulls down the leading edge to reduce the angle of attack.

On occasions when it is necessary to lose height more rapidly, the tips of the wing can be ‘folded in’, in what is known as ‘big ears’. This reduces the flying area of the wing, and increases the amount of drag, causing the glider to descend at a greater rate than in normal flight.

In more extreme conditions, other manoeuvres such as ‘b-line stalls’ and spiral dives can be used, but most pilots avoid getting themselves into situations where these are required.


In turbulent air, since the wing is not rigid, part or all of the wing can collapse. On modern recreational wings, such collapses will normally recover themselves without pilot intervention. For the rare case where it is not possible to recover from a collapse (or from other threatening situations such as a spin), most pilots carry a reserve parachute. Thankfully, most pilots never have cause to ‘throw’ their reserve. In case the collapse happens near ground, i.e. shortly after takeoff or just before landing, the collapse may not recover even with pilot intervention and there will not be enough time for throwing the reserve. Those cases can result in serious injury or death. Collapses and other hazards are minimized by flying a suitable glider, and choosing appropriate locations and weather conditions, for the pilot's skill and experience.

Sports/competitive flying

Some pilots like to stretch themselves beyond recreational flying. For such pilots, there are multiple disciplines available:

  • cross-country leagues – annual leagues of the greatest distance ‘XC’ flying
  • ‘comps’ – competitive flying based around completing a number of tasks such as flying around set waypoints
  • accuracy – spot landing competitions where pilots land on targets the size of jam-jar lids
  • ‘acro’ – aero-acrobatic manoeuvres and stunt flying; heart stopping tricks such as helicopters, wing-overs, synchro spirals, infinity tumbles, and so on: see the Acromania site for some descriptions, also and InAir.nlfor videos and photos of acro flying.
  • national/international records – despite continually improving gliders, these become ever more difficult to achieve; aside from longest distance and highest altitude, examples include distance to declared goal, distance over triangular course, speed over 100 km triangular course, etc.

Competitive flying is done on high performance wings which demand far more skill to fly than their recreational counterparts, but which are far more responsive and offer greater feedback to the pilot, as well as flying faster with better glide ratios.

See also: FAI World Paragliding Championships, 2005 World Championship, Paragliding World Cup, Red Bull Vertigo Aerobatics World Cup, World Air Games.


Most pilots use varios and radios when flying; some more advanced pilots also use GPS units.



Birds are highly sensitive to atmospheric pressure, and can tell when they are in rising or sinking air. People can sense the acceleration when they first hit a thermal, but cannot detect the difference between constant rising air and constant sinking air, so turn to technology to help.

A vario-altimeter indicates climb-rate (or sink-rate) with audio signals (beeps which increase in pitch and tempo as you accelerate upwards and a droning sound which gets deeper as your decent rate increases) and/or a visual display. It also shows altitude: either above takeoff, above sea level, or (at higher altitudes) ‘flight level’.

The main purpose of a vario is in helping a pilot find and stay in the ‘core’ of a thermal to maximise height gain, and conversely indicating when he or she is in sinking air, and needs to find rising air.

2m-band radio
2m-band radio


Pilots use radio for training purposes, for communicating with other pilots in the air, particularly when travelling together on cross-country flights, and for reporting the location of landing.

Radios used are PTT (push-to-talk) transceivers, normally operating in or around the FM VHF 2-metre band (144–148 MHz). Usually a microphone is incorporated in the helmet, and the PTT switch is either fixed to the outside of the helmet, or strapped to a finger.


GPS(global positioning system) is a necessary accessory when flying competitions, where it has to be demonstrated that way-points have been correctly passed.

It can also be interesting to view a GPS track of a flight when back on the ground, to analyse flying technique. Computer software is available which allows various different analyses of GPS tracks (e.g. CompeGPS).

Other uses include being able to determine drift due to the prevailing wind when flying at altitude, providing position information to allow restricted airspace to be avoided, and identifying one’s location for retrieval teams after landing-out in unfamiliar territory.

More recently, the use of GPS data, linked to a computer, has enabled pilots to share 3D tracks of their flights on Google Earth. This fascinating insight allows comparisons between competing pilots to be made in a detailed 'post-flight' analysis.


Paragliding is perhaps often viewed as a higher-risk sport than it actually is. Nonetheless, there is great potential for injury for the reckless or ill-prepared.

It is sometimes said that the factor which most affects safety is pilot attitude. A large proportion of accidents involve over-confident novices failing to heed advice, or pilots flying beyond their limits – often in a competitive context.

Most pilots will try to stay clear of:

  • overly ‘active’ thermic conditions – harsh thermals can induce collapses in the wing, which require skill and experience to manage
  • excessively windy conditions – landing can become dangerous, and if a glider is blown back behind a ridge where there is no longer rising air, it can encounter ‘rotor’, or turbulent air, which can collapse the wing – generally below the height at which a reserve parachute can be deployed
  • cu-nimbs – cumulo-nimbus clouds are fed by massive thermals which rise faster than a paraglider can lose height, and can push a pilot deep into enormously turbulent, blind clouds
  • hazardous landing conditions – in the lee of large trees or buildings there is ‘rotor’ which can collapse a wing; but among the greatest dangers are power lines
  • reckless pilots – a danger to others, as well as themselves

Safety precautions include pre-flight checks, flying helmets, harnesses with back protection (foam or air-bag), a reserve parachute, and careful pre-launch observation of other pilots in the air to evaluate conditions.

For pilots who want to stretch themselves into more challenging conditions, advanced ‘SIV’ (simulation d’incidents de vol, or simulation of flying incidents) courses are available which teach pilots how to cope with hazardous situations which can arise in flight. Through tuition over radio (above a lake), pilots deliberately induce major collapses, stalls, spins, etc, in order to learn procedures for recovering from them. (As mentioned above, modern recreational wings will recover from minor collapses without intervention).

While fatalities do occur, most properly-trained, responsible pilots suffer nothing worse than possible minor injuries – particularly twisted ankles and back injuries – and an occasional pounding heart.

Learning to fly

Most popular paragliding regions have a number of schools, generally registered with and/or organized by national associations. Certification systems vary widely between countries, though around 10 days instruction to basic certification is standard.

Flying above Stubaital, Austria
Flying above Stubaital, Austria

There are several key components to a paragliding pilot certification instruction program. Initial training for beginning pilots usually begins with some amount of ground school to discuss the basics, including elementary theories of flight as well as basic structure and operation of the paraglider.

Students then learn how to control the glider on the ground, practicing take-offs and controlling the wing 'overhead'. Low, gentle hills are next where students get their first short flights, flying at very low altitudes, to get used to the handling of the wing over varied terrain. Special winches can be used to tow the glider to low altitude in areas that have no hills readily available.

As their skills progress, students move on to steeper/higher hills (or higher winch tows), making longer flights, and learning to turn the glider, control the glider's speed, then moving on to 360° turns, spot landings, ‘big ears’ (used to increase the rate of descent for the paraglider), and other more advanced techniques. Training instructions are often provided to the student via radio, particularly during the first flights.

A third key component to a complete paragliding instructional program provides substantial background in the key areas of meteorology, aerology, aviation law, and general flight area etiquette.

To give prospective pilots a chance to determine if they would like to proceed with a full pilot training program, most schools offer tandem flights, in which an experienced instructor pilots the paraglider with the prospective pilot as a passenger.

World records

The current (as of November 2006) world distance record of 423km was set by Will Gadd, Canada, on the 21st of June 2002. He tow-launched near Zapata, Texas, USA, and landed near Ozona, Texas just under 11 hours later. There is a story about the flight here.

The official world record for gain of height is held by Robbie Whittal, England, who gained 4526M on January 6th, 1993 in Brandvlei, South Africa.

Other records can be seen on the FAI site.


In 1954, the prescient Walter Neumark foresaw (in an article in Flight magazine) a time when a glider pilot would be “able to launch himself by running over the edge of a cliff or down a slope … whether on a rock-climbing holiday in Skye or ski-ing in the Alps”.

In 1961, the French engineer Pierre Lemoigne produced improved parachute designs which led to the Para-Commander (‘PC’), which had cut-outs at the rear and sides which enabled it to be towed into the air and steered – leading to parasailing/parascending.

Sometimes credited with the greatest development in parachutes since Leonardo da Vinci, the American Domina Jalbert invented in 1964 a rectangular parafoil which had sectioned cells in an aerofoil shape; an open leading edge and a closed trailing edge, inflated by passage through the air – the so-called ‘ram-air’ design.

Walter Neumark shortly afterwards wrote the wonderfully entitled Operating Procedures for Ascending Parachutes, and he and a group of enthusiasts with a passion for tow-launching ‘PCs’ and ram-air parachutes eventually broke away from the British Parachute Association to form the British Association of Parascending Clubs (BAPC) in 1973.

Barish Sail Wing, Hunter Mountain 1965
Barish Sail Wing, Hunter Mountain 1965

Meanwhile, David Barish was developing the ‘Sail Wing’ for recovery of NASA space capsules – “slope soaring was a way of testing out … the Sail Wing”. After tests on Hunter Mountain, New York in September 1965, he went on to promote ‘slope soaring’ as a summer activity for ski resorts (apparently without great success).

(NASA probably originated the term ‘paraglider’ in the early 1960’s, and ‘paragliding’ was first used in the early 1970’s to describe foot-launching of gliding parachutes).

These threads were pulled together in June 1978 by three friends Jean-Claude Bétemps, André Bohn and Gérard Bosson from Haute-Savoie, France. After inspiration from an article on ‘slope soaring’ in the Parachute Manual magazine by parachutist & publisher Dan Poynter, they calculated that on a suitable slope, a ‘square’ ram-air parachute could be inflated by running down the slope; Bétemps launched from Pointe du Pertuiset, Mieussy, and flew 100 m. Bohn followed him and glided down to the football pitch in the valley 1000 metres below. ‘Parapente’ (pente being French for slope) was born.

Through the 1980’s and since, it has been a story of constantly improving equipment and ever greater numbers of paragliding pilots. The first World Championship was held in Kössen, Austria in 1989.

Pilot numbers

Numbers of actively flying plots can only be a rough estimate, but France is believed to have the largest number, at around 25,000. Next most active flying countries are Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Japan, and Korea, at around 10,000 – 20,000, followed by Italy, the UK, and Spain with around 5,000 – 10,000. The USA has around 4,500. (All as of 2004).

Comparison with hang gliders

Paragliding and hang gliding are closely related sports – foot-launched gliders with flexible wings, with options for tow launching and for powered flight – and there is sometimes confusion about the differences.

The main differences between them are:

See also

  • Powered paragliding
  • Hang gliding
  • Foot-launched Powered Hang Glider
  • Gliding


Paragliding Extrem

  • Extrempilot Andi Siebenhofer, english and german

Info & News

  •, online paragliding magazine


  • Para2000, Gérard Florit
  • Paraglider Performance Comparison, Jérôme Daoust


  • Paragliding Safety Articles, USHPA
  • Tips for Paraglider Pilots, Jérôme Daoust
  • Analysis of Accidents 2004, Fédération française de vol libre (in French)


  • Paragliding World Cup


  • Chronology of Free Flying, Fédération française de vol libre (in French)
  • Paragliding's "Believe it or not !", Jérôme Daoust
  • Historical Review,
  • Para-Commander,
  • Domina Jalbert, WindMuller Aerology Lab
  • David Barish, The Forgotten Father of Paragliding, FlyAboveAll

Online Videos

  • Acro Paragliding Videos JustAcro
  • Paragliding Videos InAir
  • Paragliding Videos MyFlight Videos
  • Paragliding and Powered Paragliding Videos Marks Paragliding Pages
  • Videos and photos.


  • Pie in the Sky Monthly Paragliding & Hang Gliding Satire
  • Mort Mort Cartoons
  • ParaLingo Paragliding Terminology

External links

  • FAI, International air sports federation
  • Paragliding FAQs, WikiFAQ
  • FFVL, French Federation of Free Flight
  • HPAC, Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association of Canada
  • USHPA, United States Hang gliding and Paragliding Association
  • BHPA, British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association

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