How Safe is Paragliding?
How safe is paragliding? It may look pretty dangerous being high in the sky with little in between you and the ground if you were to fall. But let’s be realistic and look at the figures – a study into paragliding accidents found that in 242,355 paragliding jumps reviewed between 2004 and 2011, 82 received serious injury and 18 of these people lost their lives. That’s only 0.007%.
If you’re considering paragliding for the first time at a paragliding school or on holiday with a tourism operator, don’t worry, you’ll be flying tandem paragliding. These operators employ paragliding pilots who not only have many years of experience, but have great people skills and can explain what they are doing in the flight and make you feel safe. Most tandem paragliding beginners find that once they’re in the sky, they feel at ease and really enjoy the view.
Paragliding safety can be increased by approaching the sport with a systematic approach. Correct safety checks on equipment and discipline when in flight can help you to avoid most dangerous situations and ensure you live to fly another day.
Here are some key paragliding safety tips:
Maintain Relationships with Experienced Paragliders
Even after completing a paragliding certification course and being told you’re ready to fly solo, it’s a good idea to continue flying with experienced pilots. Join a club or association such as the USHPA in the United States, SAFA in Australia, and the British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association in the United Kingdom.
The reason for this is that in your training, you may not gain experience in all types of conditions. Experienced pilots can inform you about different conditions that you’re not very experienced in handling and provide tips on how to safely navigate them.
It’s a good idea to continue paragliding in new conditions while learning to increase your competency. Joining experienced pilots is a great way to do this.
Use Appropriate Equipment
Carrying fancy equipment isn’t enough, you must use it consistently. A variometer and a GPS can inform you about changes in altitude and if your drifting off-track or backwards. These factors can be indicators of weather changes and that you’re gradually losing control of your paraglider.
Make sure you fly with a reserve parachute, it’s not worth flying without one.
Use a Paraglider for Your Level of Experience
It’s tempting when you’re an amateaur with experienced friends, or you want to buy something for the long-term, to purchase a cross-country or performance paraglider that’s designed for experienced pilots. These require higher skills in manoeuvrability and can be a handful for a beginner. There’s no shame in starting with an EN A rating paraglider. It won’t reduce your enjoyment of paragliding, it will actually increase your enjoyment as you’ll be flying something that’s easier to control and will feel more stable.
Check Paragliding Equipment Before Every Flight
This rule applies to all pilots regardless of experience. You’re paraglider wing may have been damaged when landing in your most recent flight. Your lines may have go tangled when unpacking. Don’t risk it!
Most pilots perform their safety checks in the same way each time, following a set order to reduce the chances of forgetting anything. Helmet (also make sure you’re wearing it) wing, lines, harness, and risers.
Understand and Check the Weather Conditions
Meteorology is something all paragliding pilots need to understand. Key components a thermals, clouds and wind. It’s not enough to check the weather report, even the hourly online reports. It’s important to be able to spot changes in weather as they happening.
And for thermalling, cumulous clouds are important for providing warm thermals for flight. Learn how to spot these and incorporate them into your flying.
Best weather conditions for paragliding are sunny, warm weather with moderate cumulus clouds. However, paragliding can be done in cold and cloudy conditions.
Weather conditions which aren’t suitable include moderate or strong rain, lighting, or excessive wind. It’s important that you recognise your skills and experience when dealing with wind, there will be some strong winds which an experienced pilot can handle, but amateur pilots may find difficult, particularly taking off safely.
It’s also important to consider the direction of the wind. If you have a strong headwind, it will make takeoff difficult and make gliding to your destination in a safe and timely manner difficult. Unfortunately there will be times when you have to abandon your paragliding plans, but at least you’ll walk away without injury.
Maintain Safe Distances
If you have to fly over roads and houses, ensure you’re sufficiently high in the air with more than enough room to correct yourself if something were to make you lose stability. Avoid flying over large groups of people, schools, busy sports grounds, car parks or anywhere else where a crash could harm high numbers of people.
Best Weather Conditions for Paragliding
Paragliding is a highly weather dependent form of flight. It’s critical for beginner pilots to learn what the best weather conditions are for paragliding and make sure they are fully aware of what weather conditions are too dangerous to fly in.
This is what dangerous weather conditions can mean for paragliding pilots:
- Failure to achieve and retain sufficient lift
- Lose of control
- Unable to fly in the planned direction
- Unable to land in the planned landing zone, or unable to land safely anywhere
Here are some key weather conditions to look out for before and during your paragliding flight. This article will give you an overview of the key areas to look out for and consider. Enjoy and safe paragliding to you all!
Paragliding & Clouds
Excellent paragliding weather conditions don’t need to be sunny, soaring sites will work in cloudy days – air is forced above and pilots use this updraft. If it’s clear sky, cloudy or overcast you can still paraglide. In overcast skies there will be less thermals but you can still paraglide safely.
Thermic conditions are created when the sun heats the air and creates cumulus cloud.
If you plan on going cross country paragliding, your ideal weather conditions are lots of white, puffy, cumulus clouds. This means that a cold front has just passed, approximately about 12 hours prior.
Cumulus clouds form at the top of thermals. Think of these as columns of rising air, with clouds sitting at the top of the columns. Ideally you want to use these thermals to circle your way up to the top.
Because of the colder weather, thermals are less common during winter. You may find it more difficult to achieve high altitudes or paraglide cross country. However don’t let this put you off any form of paragliding. Many people paraglide in places such as the Tirol region in Austria in winter, where the mountains are covered in snow. Just watch out for wind and don’t actually paraglide in snow – this is dangerous and will reduce your control of your wing.
Paragliding Wind Speed & How It Affects You
Ideal wind between 2 and 15mph, wind speed above 18mph (29km/h) isn’t suitable for paragliding. If you have beginner/intermediate experience you may wish to avoid winds exceeding 12mph (20km/h). While wind can be helpful, it is possible to launch a paraglider without wind. The speed the pilot generates by running combined with the pilot’s weight and the paraglider wing is sufficient.
Wind speed and strength is tested by an anemometer, make sure you fly with one of these. It’s a good idea to test wind strength before paragliding This will help you to determine how to approach launching and landing, and if you should postpone your flight.
- 1 m/s or 3.6 km/h – Very calm conditions, you’ll need a forward launch with lots of running and effort on your part to launch
- 1 – 3 m/s or 3.6 – 10.8 km/h – Forward and reverse launch possible, a decent amount of running or good reverse launch skills needed
- 4 – 6 m/s or 14.4 – 21.6 km/h – Moderate wind strength, reverse launch or a front launch with a small amount of running
- 7 – 10 m/s or 25.2 – 36 km/h – Wind strength is getting strong. Only very experienced pilots should consider launching. Reverse launch is the best option. Highly susceptible to turbulence and being blown backwards after launching.
It’s also important to monitor if wind is constant or changing. You don’t want to launch in decent conditions, only to find that the wind strength has increased and now it’s difficult to land safely. Test wind speed across a two minute period. If wind speed changes more than 2 m/s in this two minute period, it’s gusty. You risk the possibility of being flown backwards, turbulence and difficulty in landing.
Wind gradient is the change in wind strength and direction with height, and is another dimension pilots must consider before launching. This hazard occurs when low moving air is slowed by friction with the ground, causing pilots to notice an increase of wind as they reach height. This can cause pilots to be blown backwards as they begin to increase in height not long after launch. Wind gradient can also suprise pilots by causing an increase of ground speed just before they land.
In good flying conditions, the airflow is isolated and moves slowly within its layer. This is known as laminar flow. When airflow speed increases to a certain point, airflow can become turbulent. Turbulence is when air particles move in chaotic, random directions. Winds above 5-6 m/s can often be turbulent.
Only experienced pilots should paraglide in light turbulence and no-one should paraglide in moderate to heavy turbulence. Paragliding in turbulence is hazardous because without the smooth laminar airflow, the wing can easily stall, spin, collapse or suddenly drop or sink. Imagine trying to land safely with this going on!
Turbulence can also be caused by large solid objects, this is known as mechanical turbulence. Large objects which block wind can create a turbulent zone. Fortunately this type of turbulence is often easier to predict and avoid.
Weather Conditions Where You Shouldn’t Paraglide
Strong Winds – as mentioned earlier, if wind speeds are above 18mph (29km/h), or above a level that you’re comfortable flying in, or if the wind speed is increasing towards this speed, it’s a good idea to to avoid paragliding.
Orographic Cloud – can form around a hillside and create an area with no visibility, which could result in you flying into objects. Ideally pilots should always fly when they’ve got full visual meteorological conditions. Orographic clouds can also cause rain.
Lenticular Clouds and Foehn Winds – occurs when air goes up a hill and drops down the other side, heating it. This causes some areas to be windy while others are calm
Rain – Paragliding in the rain is extremely dangerous. Rain is one of the most common and easy to predict paragliding hazards. Older paraglider wings are not waterproof and will absorb the rain. This makes the wing heavier and difficult to manoeuvre. Newer wings won’t absorb the wind however rain will still affect the ability of air to smoothly travel across the surface of the wing. You’ll probably get away with a few raindrops, but any proper rain will make paragliding extremely dangerous.
Cumulonimbus (Storm Clouds) – can cause very strong updrafts and downdrafts of up to 200mph. Even planes go well out of their way to avoid them! These clouds often combine other dangers such as heavy rain, strong winds, sudden powerful lifts and lightning
We hope this has helped you to identify the best weather for paragliding and avoid some nasty situations. Read the following article if you’d like to learn more on paragliding safety. Enjoy!
What is Paragliding?
What is paragliding? It’s one of the rawest and most pure forms of flight. It involves the use of a paraglider, where the pilot sits in a harness which is suspended by a large, curved fabric wing. There is no engine, pilots launch by running and obtaining lift. The curve in the wing enables a skilled pilot to glide over long distances and to climb to high altitudes. Steering is conducted by pulling handles which are located beside each shoulder.
Paragliding is one of the simplest forms of flight and easiest to get involved in. It’s a popular hobby for those who not only enjoy the skill and thrill of flight, but also enjoy the outdoors and the amazing overhead views obtainable.
However, like other forms of flight, paragliding takes time to learn and master. There are dangers involved and loss of control, sudden weather change, or mishandled equipment can result in death.
What is the History of Paragliding?
Paragliding has a relatively short history, involving many people across the United States and France. Early versions of paragliding were derived from the preexisting parachute, which was round in shape, and designed to descent safely.
The earliest known paragliding was performed by the US military in their parachute landing training. Repeatedly flying soldiers back into the air to jump out of a plane was time consuming. It was less costly, less time consuming and enabled more jumps to be performed in the day if soldiers made their own way into the air through paragliding.
The first recorded history dates back to 1952 where American Domina Jailbert successfully patented a gliding parachute with multi-cells and controls to enable lateral gliding. In 1963, Domina invented and patented the Parafoil. It’s ‘ram-air’ design contains many cells which collect air and once full, enable the pilot to take off. The shape had evolved from a round parachute to a rectangular, slightly curved wing.
Also in the 1960’s David Barish was working with NASA space capsules in the development of a sail wing as a recovery system to bring astronauts back to Earth. He created a rectangular shaped parachute. Barish took this idea to ski resorts throughout the United States, trying to get “slope soaring” to take off. At the time it was simply seen as a way to race down grassy ski slopes in the summer, skimming above the ground. There was no intention to leverage thermals or dynamic wind and glide high in the sky.
In 1961, French engineer Pierre Lemongine also made advancements to help enable the possibility of paragliding. He developed a parachute design which could be towed into the air and steered.
It wasn’t until 1978 when paragliding started to gain momentum. The defining moment was on June 25th, when two French skydivers Jean-Claud Betemps and Andre Bohn ran down the sleep mountain slope of Mont Pertuiset in France and launched into the air. Betemps and Bohn were training for the national skydiving championships in France and couldn’t afford to pay for fuel for a plane to take them up and down the mountains. At the time they were not aware of David Barish’s earlier work on the other side of the world, but asked scientists if their plans were possible, receiving a somewhat cautious “yes”.
Their paragliding was shown in the media, which encouraged others to try the sport and led to Betemps who was first to paraglide on the day, to become known as the inventor of paragliding.
From this moment on the popularity of paragliding steadily grew. In 1979 the first paragliding school was established, with Betemps as an instructor. The first paragliders become available for the public to buy in 1985. The wing fabric was stiffer than that of a parachute and the lines less elastic. This provided greater control and stability for the pilot.
What Components Make Up a Paraglider?
The main part of the paraglider is called the wing. This looks similar to a parachute, however instead of being round, it’s rectangular in shape and curved. These wings have two layers of fabric, usually ripstop polyester or nylon, which are connected by cells. The curved shape of the wing and it’s cells enable it to collect and hold the wind on takeoff and in flight. This is known as the ram-air airfoil design. There are different types of paraglider wings to choose from, depending on the type of turbulence which may be expected, and the speed that the pilot desires.
The pilot sits in a harness that is suspended below the wing. These can vary from a basic harness setup which is little more than a series of straps, to something with significant protection, like a chair. These more advanced harnesses will hold a reserve parachute under the seat which can be quickly deployed by pulling a handle. These harnesses also provide benefits such as protection from cold air in high alpine altitudes, storage and foam or airbag protectors in the event of a failed takeoff or rough landing.
Nowadays most paragliding pilots fly with a reserve. However this should only be used in when the pilot is completely sure they cannot regain control of the paraglider. Opening a reserve presents new risks such as not being able to control where you land, as well as candlesticking (where the main wing and parachute come into contact and twist into each other). In the possible event of candlesticking, many competitive pilots carry two reserves. As a paraglider it’s best to ensure that you have adequate training and can handle difficult conditions or avoid them completely, rather than fly through anything in the knowledge that you have a reserve.
Paraglider Tech (Variometer, GPS, Radio, Compass)
A variometer is important for measuring your vertical speed, as well as other variables such as relative altitude, actual altitude, air temperature and air speed. Most variometers can give you audio warning tones and record data from your flight which can be downloaded to your computer.
Some variometers also contain a GPS, otherwise pilots will use a separate GPS unit. GPS systems are very useful for paragliders as when your a mile above the ground, it’s harder to notice if changing weather conditions are causing you to slow down or drift backwards. Those who fly in high alpine conditions will carry a digital compass incase they fly through cloud, where GPS units are not effective.
Helmet for the Unexpected
Good paragliding helmets are made of kevlar for light weight and strength. Accidents can cause head trauma from any angle, therefore helmets contain full protection to the head. A large faceguard is particularly useful in the event that a launch does not go to plan.
Footwear Suitable for Landing
Believe it or not, the ankle is the most commonly injured part of the body in paragliding. For many people hiking boots will suffice, but regular advanced users will wear a specialist boot with high sides to protect the ankle from trauma. Paragliding boots are also designed not to have external lacing clips as these can snap on your lines.
Flying, controlling and Landing a Paraglider
Launching a Paraglider
There are three main forms of paraglider take off, the forward launch, reverse launch and a towed launch. The forward launch involved the pilots wing being spread out on the ground with the pilot running forward. This is done in an airstream, often on higher ground. Some pilots prefer this as they only have to run forward, and get the thrill of takeoff. However the disadvantage of this is that the wing is behind you, making it harder to check for correct inflation and no tangling of lines.
In strong winds, particularly at high altitudes, a pilot may choose a reverse launch. Little running from the pilot is required and the pilot can also watch the wing and lines as they leave the ground. However, skill is required to execute this launch successfully, requiring the pilot to hold the brakes, turn to the side and avoid tangling the lines.
A towed launch can involve the aid of a stationary object such as a winch, car or boat. This can make it easier to paraglide from flat ground with little wind.
Controlling the Paraglider
Pilots can increase speed by using the speed bar, which can be controlled using their feet. This is connected through the harness and decreases the wing’s angle of attack. Braking is controlled by two controls, one on each side of the pilot. These are used to adjust speed and a pilot can also use them to manipulate steering by shifting their body weight at the same time.
A skilled pilot can also use lines and risers to control the wing. This can be useful for speeding up the approach to a landing, slowing down if the brakes fail, or for retaining control in sudden changes of wind.
For the most part, the pilot can let the paraglider glide itself. A common mistake by beginners is to spend too much time overcorrecting and braking.
It’s important that a paraglider landing is well planned and performed gradually. Hitting the brakes hard early in the landing often results in a harder landing and injury. Pilots are taught to resist a poor landing and take their time to land in ideal conditions where possible. Landing with the wind can assist in a smooth landing, landing without wind can require the pilot to exercise some skill and ‘flare’ at the end of the landing. This involves speeding up as you get close to the ground to flare the wing and reduce the chance of a hard impact. Once your close to the ground, legs are down, wing is flared, and your final checks tell you that the ground is safe to land on, you’re then ready to hit the brakes.
If a more rapid landing is necessary, an experienced pilot may be able to perform a spiral dive, b-line stall or big ears landing, depending on the conditions and space available.
What are the Types of Paragliding?
The are different forms of competitive paragliding, to suit those with different interests and abilities. Most fall into three main categories: cross-country flying, aerobic paragliding competitions, and hike and fly paragliding competitions.
Soaring is performed by using wind which is guided up by a large object like a mountain, cliff, ridge or large sand-dune. A constant and suitable level of wind is required to do this. If there’s not enough wind, the paraglider won’t make a clean takeoff. If there is too much wind, the paraglider can be blown back over the slope.
Thermal flying leverages the thermals which rise through the air from objects such as rocks which have been warmed in the sun. When pilots find a thermal, they will use a varioaltimeter or fly in a circle, to find the strongest part of the core of the thermal where the air is rising faster.
Cross-country paragliding involves gliding from one thermal to the next. Paragliders will glide towards land features which could generate thermals or look for cumulus clouds to fly under, as these are usually found at the top of a warm air thermal.
What Does Paragliding Feel Like?
Most people who have tried it will tell you that paragliding feels pretty amazing! Paragliding is flight in it’s rawest, simplest and most pure form. The limited structure and absence of walls and a floor enables you to feel at one with your surroundings. While it’s often lumped in the same category as extreme sports such as skydiving and bungee jumping, it’s actually much more relaxing and appeals to a wide variety of people. Paragliding is definitely not as scary!
If you’re scared of heights, you might still feel comfortable with paragliding. What scares most people about heights is being close to the edge, or jumping off (e.g. jumping off a platform when bungee jumping). Paragliding in this regards, is different. You gently take off and are lifted into the air. And if you’re a first-timer, you’ll probably start with tandem paragliding, where an experienced pilot will take control from takeoff to landing.
Who Does This and Where?
Paragliding has always been a popular pastime in the mountainous regions of Western Europe. There are a number of places in France such as Annecy, Chamonix, Plaine Joux and Dune of Pilat to name a few. Other popular places include Interlaken in Switzerland, Tyrol in Austria, Tuscany in Italy, Oludeniz in Turkey and Algodonales in the south of Spain. At these locations you’ll see experienced paraglider pilots as well as tourism operators offering short tandem paragliding adventures for first-timers.
Other popular paragliding locations around the world include:
However, there are many paragliding enthusiasts who have their own spots where they go to escape the crowds and not only enjoy the thrill of flight, but enjoy the serenity of peacefulness of nature too.
How to get into Paragliding?
It’s a good idea to go on a couple of tandem flights with someone experienced and see if paragliding is something you want to invest your time and money in. If you’re keen on learning to paraglide, most countries and popular paragliding locations have providers who offer training courses. In comparison to other forms of human flight such as skydiving, the barriers to entry are low. Some courses can be conducted in as little as 8 days, where you are then free to fly by yourself.
While we are not against these courses, in such a short timeframe you may not get much experience in the wide range of conditions could be encountered. It’s a good idea after your training to continue flying with some experienced paragliders. They can help recommend places to fly in your local area which are suitable for your ability.
Many countries have paragliding clubs and associations where you can meet experienced pilots who are willing to offer advice.
- The USHPA in the United States in Australia
- The British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association in the United Kingdom
It’s also a good idea to brush up on your meteorology knowledge. Learn about different clouds and their effects on thermals.
In most countries paragliding is considered a ‘self regulated sport’ with no licence required for solo flying. However, some clubs and associations may ask to see some form of certification stating that you have undertaken training before you can join.
You are also required to abide by the laws in your country regarding restricted airspaces such as flight paths, airports and military bases. Pilots should also avoid flying too low over buildings and roads.
How to Purchase a Paraglider
If your careful what you’re buying, there’s nothing wrong with buying a used paragliding wing, lines and harness, and navigational equipment. To be on the safe side, it’s a good idea to bring an experienced friend to view the equipment and check the wing, lines and harness for damage, or buy from someone reputable at your local association.
Two components which are worth purchasing brand new are the reserve parachute and the helmet. You’re life may depend on these at some point, it’s not worth purchasing damaged equipment to save a few dollars.
Paragliding wings are segmented into various EN ratings which act as a guide to help you purchase a paraglider which is suitable for your ability and type of flying you wish to perform. Those new to paragliding will start at the ‘first wings’ class (EN A rating) which are easier to manoeuvre and keep stable. The next level up from this is the ‘progression class which usually gets an EN B rating.
After this there are classes which offer high performance in certain characteristics such as: