Our disciplines, whether they are hang gliding, paragliding, trikes or powered wings, are similar to mountain biking, skiing, and climbing. This means they are as safe or as dangerous as you choose to make them.
Hang gliding and paragliding are forms of aviation, yet they are also types of sports. They can be physically demanding, but also very accessible and adaptable. Much of your experience with hang gliding or paragliding will be dictated by how you approach it.
Some specific considerations that are very important to managing our risk when we choose to fly are 1. weather 2. equipment and 3. decision making
1. Weather – it doesn’t matter if you have taken this week off from work in order to fly – if the weather isn’t appropriate, then you can’t fly. One aspect of our training program is to learn both macro- and micro-meterology. You will never look at clouds the same way again!
2. Equipment – One of the great things about our sport is that our equipment continues to improve both in performance (we can fly farther and faster and safer than ever before). However, the nature of our flying craft still expose us to some risks. Hang gliders require assembly prior to every flight: a lapse in your attention during this process could have dire consequences. Paragliders are a dynamic system: the wind inflates the fabric into a wing, but the wing is not rigid.
3. Decision making – One of the most critical skills a pilot learns is judgment. Is the wind too strong today? Are the thermals going to keep me up? Can I safely launch with a tree close by? Developing good judgment about your own skill and the factors that will affect your flying will pay dividends your entire flying career. Ultimately it is up to you, the pilot-in-command, to make your own decisions about your flying. You need to have the confidence to apply your understanding of the weather, the limitations of your equipment, the soundness of your judgment, and taking appropriate consideration of input of the other pilots around you to choose when and where to fly. If you can do this, you can manage the risks associated with hang gliding and paragliding and take flight!
Trying to describe the feeling of flying a hang glider is almost impossible. It’s everything you think it would be (and probably more). A recent student summed it up like this, “I’ve had dreams of flying my whole life. Hang gliding is the closest thing I’ve found to matching that feeling in my dreams. It’s the best thing I have ever done.” Or as Leonardo da Vinci said,
Once you have tasted flight, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been and there you long to return.
Hang gliders have evolved from Francis Rogallo’s original flexible wing into modern day flying marvels. Hang gliders are now made of aircraft aluminium or carbon fiber, stainless steel cable and Dacron (the same material sailboat sails are made of) and weigh between 20kg and 40kg. Although gliders normally fly between 30 and 50km/h, they can reach speeds in excess of 120km/h and have a glide ratio of up to 16:1. That means they fly 16 metres forward for every metre of altitude they lose, when flying in calm air. They can withstand more G-forces than many single engine aircraft and can be folded up into a bag that is 4.5m -5.5m long and a foot in diameter and easily transported on the roof of a car.
Paragliding has a huge following all over the world, and all the equipment fits in a backpack weighing anywhere from 11-22kg depending on your equipment choices. This is the most practical type of aviation on the planet. Everything you need to fly fits in your backpack, which you can check onto a plane or put in the trunk of your car as you travel. The lightweight kits make it very accessible to hike to launches. Like other aviation, paragliding is dependent on weather, maturity and judgment, and the pilot’s ability to make good decisions. You can enjoy paragliding if you’re a 12 year old girl, an 80 year old man, or someone in between. Paragliding is the most practical way to live amongst the clouds and soar like a bird.
A paraglider is a foot-launched, ram-air, aerofoil canopy, designed to be flown and landed with no other energy requirements than the wind and gravity.
What are the main component parts of a paraglider?
A canopy (the actual “wing”), risers (the cords by which the pilot is suspended below the canopy) and a harness. In addition, the brake cords provide speed and directional control and carabiners are used to connect the risers and the harness together.
A paraglider is not the same thing as a parachute. A paraglider is similar to a modern, steerable skydiving canopy, but different in several important ways.
The paraglider is a foot-launched device, so there is no “drouge” ‘chute or “slider”, and the construction is generally much lighter, as it doesn’t have to withstand the sudden shock of opening at high velocities.
The paraglider usually has more cells and thinner risers than a parachute.
The key differences between hang gliding and paragliding
- Transport: hang gliders typically weigh more than 50 pounds, can be carried balanced on your shoulder, and require a roof rack to transport on a vehicle; paragliders typically weigh less than 50 pounds, are carried in a backpack, and can fit inside a vehicle.
- Set-up: hang gliders fold up for transport and take about 15 to 20 minutes to set up and prepare to launch; paragliders are packed completely assembled and take about 5 to 10 minutes to set-up and prepare to launch.
- Flight: hang gliders are more streamlined and capable of much faster speeds and improved glide ratios as compared to paragliders; due to their slower speed, paragliders can typically land in much smaller fields.
In order to fly for hours and for long distances a glider needs to be able to gain altitude or, at a minimum, maintain altitude. This is a challenge since hang gliders and paragliders do not have engines. Like a giant paper airplane, once airborne, a glider is constantly being pulled down toward the ground by gravity. The only way to combat this is to get the glider into air that is rising faster than the glider is descending. The result will be that the glider is able to gain altitude or at least maintain its altitude. There are two different ways this can happen. The first is by circling the glider in a thermal, which is a column of warm rising air. The other is by flying the glider in “ridge lift” which is created when wind hits an obstruction like a mountain or hill and gets deflected up the face of it. As long as the glider stays in the upward moving air it will stay aloft, but as soon as it flies out of the upward moving air, the glider will start to gently descend again. Circling with a bird in a thermal or flying over a local mountain range is an experience that will never be forgotten.
There are many different levels on which hang gliding and paragliding can be pursued. There are those who enjoy simple top of the hill to bottom of the hill sled rides. Some enjoy soaring in smooth ridge lift. There are those who want to gain thousands of feet of altitude and fly long distances. The current world record (as of January 2018) for straight distance in paragliding is 564 kilometers (350 miles) and for hang gliding is 764 kilometers (475 miles) – set in 2012 by US pilot Dustin Martin launching from Zapata, Texas and flying nearly across the entire state! This is a sport of progressions – it is truly a lifelong sport with a lifetime of learning.
Hang gliders are controlled by shifting the pilot’s weight with respect to the glider. Pilots are suspended from a hang strap connected to the glider’s frame (hence the name “hang” glider). By moving forward and backward and side to side at the end of this hang strap, the pilot alters the centre of gravity of the glider. This then causes the glider to pitch or roll in the direction of the pilot’s motion and thus allows both speed control and turning.
This depends a lot on the conditions in which they are flown, but flights in excess of 450km in length and altitudes of well over 17,999 ft. MSL have been recorded. More typically, pilots in the summer in Australia will frequently achieve altitudes of 5,000 to 10,000 ft AGL and fly for over 250 km. The most recent competition record was set in January 2018 at the Forbes flatlands competition. Around a quarter of the field made the task and flew from Forbes NSW north to Manilla NSW a distance 389km.
The current world paragliding record (as of January 2018) for straight distance in paragliding is 564 kilometers (350 miles).
Again this depends on conditions, but a high altitude flight is frequently several hours in duration. On good days, pilots don’t have to land until the sun goes down.
Pretty much any slope that is relatively free from obstructions, is steeper than about 6 to 1 and faces into the wind can be used to foot launch a hang glider. The pilot just runs down the slope and takes off when the air speed reaches 15 to 20 mph. Alternatively, towing by trucks, stationary winches and ultralight aircraft allows gliders to get into the air when no hills are available.
Where a hang glider can be landed depends somewhat on the skill of the pilot. An experienced pilot should be able to put a glider safely into any flat spot clear of obstructions bigger than about 50 by 200 ft. This area requirement can vary somewhat, though, depending on wind conditions and the surrounding terrain.
As safe as the person flying them. Like any form of sport aviation, hang gliding can be dangerous if pursued carelessly. Gliders in the US are now certified for airworthiness by the Hang Glider Manufacturers Assn. (HGMA). Also, hang gliding instruction has been standardized and students learn from certified instructors using a thorough gradual training program. Despite these advances, people still make judgment errors and aviation is not very forgiving of such. The majority of pilots fly their entire careers without sustaining a serious injury.
Hang gliders can be launched, flown and landed in winds from zero to about 48km safely. Generally, ideal winds for launching and landing are from 8 – 32km/h depending on the flying site. Wind speed is less important in flight since the pilot controls the air speed of the glider whatever the wind speed may be.
While there are many sources of upwardly moving air or “lift”, the most commonly used by hang gliders are ridge lift and thermal lift. Ridge lift occurs when horizontal wind hits an obstruction (like a ridge, for instance) and is deflected upward. Thermal lift occurs when terrain is heated by the sun and transfers this heat to the surrounding air – which then rises. Typically ridge lift exists in a “lift band” on the windward side of a ridge and pilots get up by flying back and forth through this band. Thermal lift on the other hand usually starts at some local “trigger point” on the ground and then rises as a column or bubble of air. To get up in a thermal, pilots thus typical circle in this region of rising air.
Almost anyone can fly a hang glider or paraglider. If someone can jog while balancing a 22 – 31kg. weight on their shoulders they can learn to fly. While flying does not require great strength (since the straps – not the pilot’s arms – hold the pilot up) long duration flights in turbulent conditions require a moderate degree of upper body endurance. This typically develops as the pilot progresses through training to these longer flights.
Hang glider pilots range in age from teens to octagenarians. The limits are more mental than physical. If someone is sufficiently mature to make decisions significantly affecting their safety and has sufficiently good reflexes to make such decisions promptly, then they probably are of a reasonable age for flying.
Flying depends more on balance and mental acuity than strength. Woman and men make equally good pilots. While the fraction varies regionally, about 10 – 15 % of the hang glider pilots in the US are women.
While pilots of virtually any size can fly, the limits here are mostly dictated by available equipment. Heavier and lighter pilots require commensurately bigger and smaller gliders.
Since most hang glider pilots weigh between 40 and 113kg, however, it may be difficult to find equipment appropriate for pilots beyond this range. Specially designed tandem gliders are available, however, and may be used for extra heavy pilots.
While height per se does not determine who can fly, again, equipment tends to be most available for those between about 5 and 6.5 feet tall. Harness and glider modifications may be necessary for individuals outside this range.
Yes pilots must hold a valid pilot license from the HGFA or from an approved international association.
If a student goes to a certified school and buys all new equipment at retail prices, learning to fly can cost $7000+. If one purchases used equipment, however, this price can easily drop to around $4000. Whenever used equipment is purchased, however, it is IMPERATIVE that an experienced pilot familiar with the equipment inspect it thoroughly.
Costs vary a lot:
Training through the Novice level: $2500 – $3000
Training hang glider: $1400 – $3400 (used) $5000– $7000 (new)
Harness $100 – $900 (used) $1000 – $2000 (new)
Parachute $400 – $600 (used) $1200 – $1700 (new)
Helmet $150 – $600 (new)
Fortunately, this can be purchased in stages. Usually instructors will provide training equipment as part of their package through the Beginner rating, but will expect students to obtain their own equipment beyond this point.
How much does a paraglider cost? This varies between makers, models, countries, but a middle of the range canopy and harness will normally cost somewhere in the region of $6000 to $8000.
General wear and tear (especially the latter) and deterioration from exposure to ultra-violet usually limit the useful lifetime of a canopy to somewhere in the region of 200 to 300 hours of airtime. This obviously depends strongly on use.
- Get in touch with a local NSW club to talk to other pilots:
- Find a local NSW Instructor or School to learn more about their programs: