Type of aircraft Soaring – a paraglider wing has a true airfoil shape and flies just like any other aircraft. It has little in common with a parachute although it superficially looks like one. Go here for detailed info on how a paraglider works. Go here to learn more about how paragliders are rated (it is generally based on their ability to spontaneously recover from collapses).
Types of paragliders non-powered, foot-launched paragliding (PG) foot-launched powered paragliding (PPG) trike or quad powered paragliding
Total weight of PG ultralights and common accessories 20-55 lb. For PPG, this can range from 45-220 lb.
Speed in flight 15-45+ mph
Control method Weight shift, changing the positions of the glider's trailing edge or wingtips, and (less often) changing the position of the leading edge
Maximum altitude 18,000' (set by FAA regulations)
Cruising Range Depends on the pilot and conditions – can be a few hundred yards or a 100 miles. On a recent trip to Florida, local PG pilot Lee Boone went over 65 miles cross country in lift solely from thermals. For PPG, the range can be 2-5 hours of air time, depending on the amount of fuel carried. Skilled PPG pilots can fly hundreds of miles by combining power with thermalling and/or ridge lift.
Rate of sink through calm air 200+ ft./minute
Glide Ratio 1 foot of drop to 6-12 feet of forward travel
Turning radius Less than 30 yd. For trikes/quads, the radius increases to about 150'.
Method used to stay in the air for long periods Finding air going up (thermals, ridge lift, and/or standing waves in the air). PPG pilots use the power of the paramotor to stay in the air. They can also find air going up, as well, but this is rare as most PPG pilots do not like turbulence of any kind.
Safety Statistically similar to motorcycle riding (safety is largely a factor of pilot's skill and not flying beyond it). Properly trained pilots who are diligent to adhere to well established rules for flight preparation, who thoroughly understand the weather and how it affects safety, and who avoid extreme or dangerous maneuvers can expect years of safe flying. Nonetheless, paragliding – like all forms of sport aviation – is inherently dangerous, often forgiving of mistakes, but not nearly often enough.
Most common injury Ankle sprain. For PPG, the most common injury is being struck by the propeller while starting the engine.
Reason for injuries Pilot error 99.99% of the time. The most common error is pilots flying in conditions above their skill level. The second most common error is pilots flying gliders rated above their skill level. Pilots who are good kiters of their wing while on the ground will be skilled in the air. Unfortunately, many pilots are injured due to disorientation and/or panic because they were flying in conditions above their skill level or doing things they should not have been doing (e.g., acrobatics or maneuvers near the ground). Thorough training is the most important factor in avoiding unnecessary risk in our sport. Most accidents happen at launch.
Launching-Landing Launching PG may be done from a hill or mountain site where we (hopefully) find air that is going up faster than the paraglider sinks through the air. We can also be towed up from flat ground by means of a long line paid out behind a vehicle or pulled in by a winch. Go here for a typical launch sequence of a paraglider by a new student pilot. We never "jump off a cliff". Instead, we lay out our wing in front of us (our back to where we are flying) and then bring the wing up over our head. When everything looks good, we turn, and step away like in this video or in this one. Launching PPG is usually done from a flat area in the same manner as any powered aircraft: Heading is into the wind and then we apply the throttle. It is a little more complicated than this but not much. A launch may take from 1' to 100' or more before we are in the air depending on the wind speed and slope at launch.
Rescue System Usually an ordinary round parachute stowed below the seat. Go here for more info on reserve rescue systems. Most PPG setups do not include a rescue system because most PPG pilots fly in calm/dead air and near the terrain. Reserve parachutes may have difficulty deploying properly below 500' AGL.
Launching from the summit of Mt. Riley, Dona Ana County, New Mexico (west of El Paso). When it's good in the southwest it's magic.
Because it has such a slow speed, a paraglider can do things no other can do. This includes soaring small mesas, maars, sand dunes, landing almost anywhere, and flying within a few yards of mountainous sites shared only with the soaring birds – our frequent companions in the air. Trike/quad PPG has more limited options for launching and landing.
Pilots who learn PG first will always be better PPG pilots as they have a more intimate knowledge of the glider and the air in which we fly. Flying in thermals is normal for PG so the PG trained PPG pilot has much more confidence and skill to fly in many different conditions. The most important requirement is that a pilot complete his training and maintain focus on the sport – something very necessary for long term flying safety.
PPG pilots can climb out and go anywhere, no matter whether the air is going up or not. One of the special features of PPG is that a pilot can go for miles just a few feet off the ground – it is the magic of slow flight close to the earth and the content of many dreams.
The wing is controlled almost the same way as other aircraft – we pull on various lines that are connected to the wing and can make it do the same things as an ordinary airplane wing. Slowly moving through the air allows us to get closer to the landscape than any other aircraft. Non-powered paragliding is unequaled to other types of flying as it is so peaceful.
PG is the least expensive overall but requires the most skill. It has the highest return on a pilot's investment in training and is the most like being a soaring bird. It requires no fossil fuel to launch and fly for hours at a time. Ridge and thermal soaring is the domain of the PG pilot where the pilot effectively uses his knowledge of meteorology, topography, aerodynamics, and experience. When in the air, only a modest rush of the wind is heard. PG and hang gliding pilots connect with the air in a way no other aircraft can.
We can gain thousands of feet in altitude in the smallest of thermals because we can do complete turns in less than 30 yards. Our slow speed minimizes wind noise so we can hear sounds on the ground and in the air – we are peaceful and quiet. Also, we are not encumbered by cockpits and glass so it’s a 360 degree view in all directions.
FL PPG is not as nimble and agile as PG but has the advantage of launching from the flatlands, in no-wind conditions and flying at times of the day when conditions are completely calm. A significant disadvantage is that the pilot has to carry 45 - 70 lb of machinery on his back. It is an ideal form of paragliding in coastal regions or near large bodies of water where on-shore winds are gentle and reliable much of the time and the soft sand of a beach is the landing zone. In desert climates (and at high altitudes as in the southwest U.S.) launching is generally pretty easy but landing can require a fast (but quick) run if the wind dies. Only the physically fit should consider FL PPG. Joints and back should be in tip-top condition. Below is a photo of a typical FL PPG – the Miniplane. It only weighs about 44 lb.
Trike PPG is the answer for powered flight without stress on your joints or back or if you are overweight. This form of PPG is the easiest to learn. Although it costs more than the other forms of paragliding, it combines the advantages of all of them. Experienced pilots can fly much of the same geography as PG or FL PG. A disadvantage is that it requires greater time to make turns and inputs to the wing are not as fast. Ridge and thermal soaring should not be done. Landing mishaps are rarely more than a bent bolt in the wheel axle or a broken prop. Touch and go flying is an easy task with the Trike PPG. Trike PPG pilots should always be close to a runway of some kind. It is not the right kind of aircraft to venture out to unknown places as it can only land or take-off where the ground is flat, smooth, and level.
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