Article courtesy of the HGFA (www.hgfa.asn.au)
Paragliding is a kind of flying, but instead of a wing made of metal, wood, fabric or plastic, it uses nylon or polyester fabric instead - the kind of thing windsurfer sails are made out of. Paragliders fly the same as any non-powered aircraft, and can glide quite a long way if you simply jump off a hill (for the technical, glide ratios of up to 9 or 10:1 are quite possible). The wing itself is made of two layers of fabric that form a wing-shaped bag with openings along the front. As the glider starts to move forward off a hill, the openings allow the wing to fill with air, pressurising it and making a standard aerofoil shape. The wing (often referred to as a canopy) is attached to a harness by a series of up to 30 thin but very strong lines, much like a parachute. The harness is where the pilot sits - and you'll be glad to hear it's much more comfortable than a parachute harness. You can even take sandwiches in them, as they have pockets for food, radios, water ballast or a camera, and anything else you want to take flying.
Steering is the simplest thing possible. The pilot holds a special line (called a brake line) in each hand, and if he/she wants to go left, they pull down on the left one. To turn right - pull on the right brake line. Pulling both slows the canopy to land, and most paragliders have an extra, speed-up control worked by their feet. That's it. Very simple, very controllable and yet capable of flying over 300km on a good day. But still small and light enough to be packed up and fitted in under the back seat of the car after you have landed.
Like driving a car and deep sea diving, paragliding is as safe as the person doing it. The big advantage is that it is probably the slowest form of aviation, so at least if you do crash you will hit the ground more gently than a fixed-wing aircraft! And remember that the canopy normally sits right above the pilot, so that when you are learning, all you need to do is put both brake lines up and you will immediately start flying normally - because the paraglider is probably the most inherently stable aircraft there is. In some circumstances the air can get squeezed out from between the two fabric layers, which stops it flying like a wing, but then it simply reverts to being a parachute until the pilot starts it flying again. High speed dives are virtually impossible in a paraglider. So unless the pilot does something to make it unsafe, a paraglider is extremely safe.
Climbers in the Alps started jumping off mountains in order to get down quicker. At first they used simple parachutes, but they soon refined the designs, made more aerofoil cells, improved the wing sections, used sitting harnesses and thinner lines. All these things produced better handling, more manoeuvrable and safer paragliders until we arrived where we are today. Beginner level canopies are certified to recover from any mistake or problem within four seconds, with no pilot input at all. Advanced canopies can loop, spiral, wing over, stall and do some very impressive aerobatics in the right hands. And in Europe, there are hundreds of thousands of paraglider pilots flying regularly - mainly because the setup is so easy to carry up a mountain either on your back or on a chair-lift.
All paragliding schools are required to be members of, and checked by, the HGFA (Hang Gliding Federation of Australia) Operations Manager, who checks for safety and correct teaching procedures. All schools will take you through the first steps of learning to inflate the canopy, launching and landing, as well as basic flying controls within a couple of days. The schools use ground to air radio instruction, tandem flying experience and schoolroom theory sessions to make sure you get the most from your new sport.
Learning to fly a paraglider is not hard, mainly because they are light. So you don't need to be a Tarzan (or Jane) to lift one. It takes about seven days to get your restricted licence, then you are free to fly without any further instruction at a huge range of sites across Australia.
Pilots normally wear tough warm clothes, in case they get very high in a thermal (up to 10,000ft is legal), and a helmet in case they stumble on landing or takeoff. Most also wear gloves and sunnies. Standard outdoor boots, jeans and a sweatshirt will get you started. In terms of equipment, all schools will supply suitable training canopies, harnesses, radios and helmets. Once you have your licence, you will probably want to buy your own gear, which you will be able to choose much better once you have finished your course. After you start flying regularly, you will also need a radio and a willing and helpful driver to fetch you after you have broken that long distance flying record . . . .
Most flying is done either on a ridge - this can be inland or at a coastal cliff - when the wind is moderately strong, or at a high inland mountain where there are thermals. All paragliding comes under CASA regulation, which means no flying over 10,000ft high, no flying in regulated airspace, and carrying a VHF radio if you intend to fly in an MBZ (mandatory broadcast zone). Some local restrictions also apply in terms of flying near urban areas, roads and spectators. But in general, if the landowner doesn't mind you taking off and landing on their property, if the airspace you are in is unregulated, and if the wind is in the right direction - go for it!
There is no upper age limit as long as your instructor or safety officer deems you capable of piloting an aircraft, but the youngest anybody can fly a paraglider is 14.
Anybody with good eyesight, good balance, and a healthy outlook is a potential paraglider pilot. If you are short, tall, heavy, light, male, female, strong, weak or even slightly disabled, you can still fly a paraglider. It is probably the most relaxed way to get an adrenaline buzz there is, as you are sitting down all the time. Good hand/eye co-ordination is helpful, but most pilots find it takes some practice to become smooth at everything. In many ways it is much like learning to ride a bicycle - except without the grease marks on your trouser legs or the grazed knees. You will probably discover some muscles you didn't know you had whilst learning, but many of those will be thanks to the walk back up the training hill to launch. People like diabetics and epileptics may need to check with the doctor before they fly, but if you can swim, drive or ride a bike the chances are you will turn out to be a competent paraglider pilot.
Flying a paraglider is pleasurable thanks to its simplicity. So if you have a harness, a canopy and a helmet (plus a licence of course) you can fly with the best of them. With any luck, we may see you in the air with us this season. View course Information