Paragliding (known in some countries as parapenting) is a recreational and competitive windsport that is best described as a hybrid of hang gliding and parachuting. A paraglider is free-flying, unlike the parachutes used in parasailing, which is generally a passive amusement ride rather than an active sport.
The sports of hang gliding and paragliding are essentially the same. Both aircraft can be footlaunched from mountains or towed aloft. Both have variations with engines that are flown in much smaller numbers than the unpowered kind.
Hang gliders and paragliders each have advantages and disadvantages relative to the other :
Hang gliders are better at flying in strong winds because they fly faster through the air. This means it takes a stronger wind before a hang glider is no longer able to make forward progress against the wind (a situation known as being "parked").
Not being able to make progress against the wind can be dangerous if it prevents you from reaching a safe place to land. With both aircraft, prudence is necessary about the amount of wind expected during the flight; the threshold windspeed for problems is higher with a hang glider.
Hang gliders perform better and are safer in strong turbulence. Paragliders are vulnerable to collapses of the fabric wing, which require pilot control, and in strong turbulence they can be very difficult for even expert pilots to control. Both aircraft have limits with regard to safe amounts of turbulence that require attention not to exceed; in neither case is the limit very high, in the world of atmospheric turbulence, but again the limits are higher for hang gliders than for paragliders.
Paragliders are easier to transport. They pack up in to a large rucksack weighing less than 50 lbs (22 kg) including harness, helmet, flight suit, everything. The rucksack can be taken as checked baggage on a commercial airline, allowing paragliders to fly their own wings at sites all over the world. The rucksack can be carried up a mountain by a fit person, allowing safe launching from many places not accessible by roads. Most hang gliders require a lumber rack on a car or truck for transport; one model folds up small enough to take as checked baggage on an airplane, but most people don't fly that model.
Hang gliders are easier to launch in strong winds (when a paraglider pilot is often best advised not to launch at all). Paragliders are easier to launch in very light winds.
Paragliders are easier to land. An expert can land a paraglider in a very small field, 50 feet (15 meters) on a side or less, as long as there aren't tall obstacles around the field. A hang glider takes more room, a hundred yards or more, and even experts have minor accidents landing with some regularity.
Paragliders are safer in mild conditions because they are easier to launch in light winds and easier to land.
Paragliding is easier to get started at than hang gliding; the amount of training required for your first mountain solo is a lot less. To be an expert at either sport requires similar numbers of flying hours and a lot of continuing education.
Paragliders climb the best in narrow thermals, simply because they fly more slowly, so they can make tighter circles. Paraglider pilots routinely "core up" inside circling hang gliders and sailplanes.
Hang gliders (and sailplanes) have better (or much better) glider performance than paragliders, meaning from a given altitude in the same wind they will fly farther over the ground before they have to land.
For "cross country" flying (see description below), hang gliders have the advantage of flying faster with better glide ratios, which means they can cover more ground and they are able to glide safely to more distant landing fields. Paragliders have the advantage of requiring a much smaller space to land, so in many place there are many more options for where you can land if you need to. Also, if you land some distance from a road, the paraglider packs up into its rucksack and is much easier to carry than the hang glider. People have hiked tens of miles out of the mountains carrying their paraglider, where as hang gliders get abandoned in similar circumstances, requiring difficult and costly retrieval later.
And finally, a paraglider costs less money than a hanglider.
The origin of paragliding has roots in the sport of parachuting. In the early 1960's, American parachutist Pierre Lemoigne was successful in cutting slots in the round parachute canopy to allow for air to flow through the canopy. This had a dramatic effect on the lift to drag ratio and allowed the pilot to steer the chute in a predictable manner.
In 1962, Walter Newmark of England took note of Lemoigne's design and modified it so that the chute could be towed aloft. During the 1960s, parascending became a popular sport among the English. Newmark was responsible for the creation of the British Association of Parascending in the early 1970's.
In 1964, Domina Jalbert of Florida invented a square canopy called the Ram Air Para Foil. The Ram Air worked by allowing air to pass through the double surface glider allowing for better maneuverability and increased lift. Walter Newmark soon adopted this canopy for his parascending activities. Using specially designed ram-air parachute canopies, instead of wings of aluminium and dacron, paraglider pilots launch, glide and soar in much the same way that hang-glider pilots do.
Not until the 1970s did the sport take off. Gerard Bosson, Andre Bohn and Jean Claude Betemps introduced paragliding at the 1979 World Hang Gliding Championships.
The first pioneering foot-launched flights on gliding parachutes were made during the mid-1960s by David Barish in the U.S. The sport of recreational paragliding as we know it today was born in Mieussy, France, in 1978 and grew rapidly during the mid-1980s in the French and Swiss Alps as commercial manufacturers improved the glider designs to optimize them for soaring flight.
Paragliders have a low top speed, hence are suited to flying in winds of under 25km/h and relatively smooth air conditions. The non-rigid structure of paragliders relies on a constant angle of attack to maintain the shape and profile of the wing section. Turbulent air changes the angle of attack and can deflate part or all of a wing while in flight. "Collapses" are typically easy to deal with but require some training to manage correctly.
Paragliders are suitable for mountain flying in low-wind conditions, and are often flown in thermally active areas or coastal locations where a sea-breeze is prevalent, allowing ridge soaring.
A beginner should learn from a fully-qualified instructor. Paragliding is aviation, and pioneers in aviation have always had high fatality rates. You don't want to be a pioneer. Teaching yourself is extremely dangerous.
One of the nine fatalities in the United States in 2003 was a self-taught pilot attempting to fly in high winds by tethering to a fixed object on the ground. A bystander was also seriously injured in this accident. Fixed-rope towing and tethering with fixed ropes to objects is extremely dangerous and has resulted in several other serious injuries and fatalities. Training is essential in any form of aviation. Pilots should not sell used equipment to people who do not have proper training.
Safe towing requires a weak link, a proper tow device and training for both the pilot and the tow operator
Paragliding, like other "high consequence" sports such as rock climbing and mountaineering, is as safe or dangerous as you make it. If you get proper training, fly conservative equipment, stay aware of your limitations and are cautious about the conditions you choose to launch in, it becomes very benign. The more ambitious a pilot is in any of these areas, the more risks are possible, but highly skilled pilots can do a lot of things safely while always operating within their limitations.
A big part of learning any of these sports is making it safely through the learning period when you don't realize how much you still don't know. It's common to see relatively new pilots eager to launch their paragliders while other pilots with thousands of flight hours are waiting patiently on the ground for the conditions to change in some way. It's very valuable when you are learning to observe what the experienced pilots are doing, ask them about it, and take their answers seriously even if you don't understand them yet.
Although paragliding is classified as a high-risk sport, technological advances in the design of paraglider canopies have significantly reduced the number of recorded incidents since the pioneering days of the 1980s. On average there are between one and three fatalities a year in Great Britain, or slightly less than 1 fatality per 1,000 pilots in the United States. Though many fatalities involve more experienced pilots using faster, high-performance wings that are less stable in the air, less experienced pilots flying more stable wings are not immune. The most common minor injuries are twisted ankles and back injuries sustained during take-off and landing.
Ninety percent of all injuries occur in the first 10 flights and are, typically, to the lower leg. Once a pilot has achieved a full license (after 40 to 60 high-altitude flights) the injury rate drops significantly until 500 to 1000 flights have been completed. Then the injury rate spikes again and, typically, the injuries are very serious or fatal.
Trained Pilots often take a safety course where they cause a collapses of the wing on purpose to train for the event this happens accidentally. Usually these safety trainings are taken while in very high altitude or over a lake, while keeping radio contact with a trained instructor. In some countries, such trainings are needed to obtain higher-level certificates.
In the early years harnesses were made of a simple parachutist harness, possibly with a wooden board to make the flight easier on the legs, but now safety measures such as back-protectors made of thick impact absorbing foam are commonplace. LIke helmets or other protective geat, there are limits to the strength of impact that can safely be absorbed by a foam back protector in a paragliding harness.
Another safety measure adopted by paragliding pilots is the use of a reserve parachute. A reserve can be deployed in extreme circumstances such as when the wing collapses and becomes knotted into itself without hope of recovery. Fortunatley such events are rare. On most modern wings a partial collapse at high altitude is no big deal. The glider will recover quickly with gentle pumping on the brakes, losing little altitude.