Paragliding is the recreational and competitive adventure sport of flying parachutes with design modifications that enhance their gliding capabilities.
Unlike hang gliders, their close relations, paragliders have no rigid framework – the parachute canopy acts as a wing and is constructed of fabric cells with openings at the front that allow them to be inflated by movement through the air—the “ram-air” effect.
The paraglider wing or canopy is usually what is known in engineering as a ram-air airfoil. Such wings comprise two layers of fabric that are connected to internal supporting material in such a way as to form a row of cells. By leaving most of the cells open only at the leading edge, incoming air keeps the wing inflated, thus maintaining its shape. When inflated, the wing’s cross-section has the typical teardrop aerofoil shape. Modern paraglider wings are made of high-performance non-porous materials such as ripstop polyester or nylon fabric.
Paraglider wings typically have an area of 20–35 square metres (220–380 sq ft) with a span of 8–12 metres (26–39 ft) and weigh 3–7 kilograms (6.6–15.4 lb). Combined weight of wing, harness, reserve, instruments, helmet, etc. is around 12–22 kilograms (26–49 lb).
Despite not using an engine, paraglider flights can last many hours and cover many hundreds of kilometres, though flights of one to two hours and covering some tens of kilometres are more the norm. By skillful exploitation of sources of lift, the pilot may gain height, often climbing to altitudes of a few thousand metres.
Paragliding developed partially out of designs created for the NASA space program. Other designs, along with test flights completed independently on the other side of the world, also helped provide the foundation of paragliding and contributed to its development.
Opinions differ on who the first person was to ever paraglide. Many believe it was David Barish in the early 1960s, who at the time was developing a space capsule recovery device called the “Sail Wing” for NASA. He tested his work personally in 1965 on Hunter Mountain, New York, terming the activity “slope soaring.” His invention piggybacked off the earlier work of Domina Jalbert, an American who helped to advance aerofoil technology and subsequently patented the Parafoil in 1963. The Parafoil, with its ram-air design incorporating a row of inflatable air pockets into an aerofoil shape, would prove to be a precursor to the modern-day paraglider.
In 1966, Canadian Domina Jalbert was granted a patent for a multi-cell wing type aerial device—”a wing having a flexible canopy constituting an upper skin and with a plurality of longitudinally extending ribs forming in effect a wing corresponding to an airplane wing airfoil … More particularly the invention contemplates the provision of a wing of rectangular or other shape having a canopy or top skin and a lower spaced apart bottom skin”, a governable gliding parachute with multi-cells and controls for glide.
From the late 1960s interest in the gliding ability of parachutes grew slowly but steadily. The paraglider developed in the United States and in Alpine areas of France and Switzerland, where it finally evolved fully.
Some mountain climbers saw paragliding as an alternative to rappelling (abseiling) down after an ascent, while other enthusiasts appreciated its potential as a sport in its own right.
Not until the 1970’s did the sport take off. The popularity of paragliding arose when pilots in the French town of Mieussy successfully launched the wing by running down the hillsides of the Alps. Andre Bohn and Gerard Bosson were mostly responsible for developing the sport into how it is today. Bosson introduced paragliding at the 1979 World Hang Gliding Championships. It was not long until paragliding schools were opening up around the world.
From the 1980s, equipment has continued to improve, and the number of paragliding pilots and established sites has continued to increase. The first (unofficial) Paragliding World Championship was held in Verbier, Switzerland, in 1987, though the first officially sanctioned FAI World Paragliding Championship was held in Kössen, Austria, in 1989.
Europe has seen the greatest growth in paragliding, with France alone registering in 2011 over 25,000 active pilots.
The farthest straight distance flight by a female paraglider is 402 km (249.79 miles) achieved by Seiko Fukuoka-Naville (France) when she piloted her Ozone Enzo 2 paraglider in Deniliquin, NSW, Australia, on 9 December 2015 – Seiko Fukuoka-Naville had previously set the record with a flight of 336 km.
The farthest straight distance achieved by a male paraglider is 514 km (319.39 miles) by Frank Brown, Marcelo Prieto and Donizete Lemos (all Brazil) flying from Tacima to Monsenhor Tabosa, Paraíba, Brazil, on 9 October 2015. The three paragliders set off together at dawn and flew for 11 hours using the daylight available to them to cover as much distance as possible.
The greatest height gained in a paraglider by a female is 4,325 m (14,189 ft) by Kat Thurston (UK) over Kuruman, South Africa on 1 January 1996.
The height gain record is 4,526 m (14,849 ft) by Robbie Whittall (GB) at Brandvlei, South Africa on 6 January 1993.
The record for most continuous loops with a paraglide is 568 and was achieved by Horacio LLorens (Spain), near Obero, Escuintla, Guatemala, on 8 December 2012.
The oldest person to paraglide (male) is Janusz Orlowski (Poland) at 91 years and 189 days ( b. 14 January 1926) in Brzeska Wola, Poland, on 22 July 2017.