For years, whenever I saw a paraglider flying above, the pilot having jumped off a mountain top, my first thought was always: ‘How do you learn to do that? You must either learn very fast, or you only ever make one flight...’ However now I know that paragliding schools use two-man tandem paragliders so the teacher can teach you in the air. Before that you will have done a lot of training on the ground, learning about the paraglider and its controls. It is estimated that you need 10 days training in good flying weather to reach a safe standard.

Paragliders have been around since 1952 – the original ones were made from parachute silk, whereas the modern more sophisticated designs are made from rip-stop polyester. As the pilot you have no seat, but hang beneath the ‘aircraft’ in a harness. You may be able to stay in the air for up to two hours, riding the rising air currents, although be prepared to land up to 10 or even 20 km from where you started! While you are “flying”, you will probably be weighed down with equipment; most pilots carry a variometer (for registering speed of ascent/descent), an altimeter, a GPS receiver, a radio and a reserve parachute. All of this kit packs into a rucksack along with your flying suit, boots and helmet, so that you can walk to your jumping off point, which is usually a hill or mountain.

Ideally you need a steady wind of the right strength to “soar” from a hill. The skill of the pilot lies in riding the thermals produced by rising warm air – the aim is to keep in the centre or “core” and avoid the edge of the thermal where you may sink rapidly. At the worst “wing collapse” can occur, causing an accident if the pilot has not reached enough height to use the reserve parachute.

If you get hooked on paragliding and want to move on to competitive flying, there are various kinds of competitions to choose from: “Acro”, in which the pilot performs tricks and stunts; Accuracy, which tests your ability to land on a target; Cross Country, which involves navigation and flying in a race; and then there are national and world records to go for, like highest flight, longest flight, and speed over a triangular course.
Related sports: Gliding in an aircraft; Unpowered Hang Gliding (similar to paragliding but the aircraft has a rigid frame); Powered Hang Gliding and Powered Paragliding with a small engine attached; and Parascending (flying under a canopy by being towed behind a vehicle, winch or boat).

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