How Paragliding Works

Launching the Paraglider


To fly a paraglider properly, you must understand not only how the equipment works, but how the wind works as well. But first, perform a safety equipment check. Are you strapped in tight to your harness? Does your helmet fit snugly on your head? Is your canopy properly laid out and are you properly attached to it?

Of course, you can't start flying until you figure out how to get off the ground. We call this the launch. Face into the wind and run or walk forward. Pull on the wing, which will cause it to start filling with air. Soon, the wing will transform from a piece of fabric dragging behind you on the ground into an inflated canopy rising over your head. The term for inflating the wing while you're on the ground is kiting.

At this point, the wing is above you and catching some airflow. Use the brakes to retain control of the wing and do an overhead check to ensure the wing is fully inflated and no lines are tangled. Now it's time for the final phase. Run down your designated slope to work up to flying speed. Sometimes all you'll need here is a brisk walking pace. Your wing slowly rises and gently picks you up with it. You look down and your feet are no longer touching the ground. You're flying!

But now what? How are you going to stay up in the air? Like a hang glider, a paraglider works with airflow to create lift. Air flows over both the top and the bottom of the glider and meets at the edge. Aerodynamics predict that the pressure on the bottom of the glider is higher than on the top of the glider. This creates lift upwards.

One of the most desirable things about paragliding is that, in the right conditions, you can stay aloft for hours at a time, traveling for miles. Paragliders look for rising air in order to catch a current that will keep them aloft for the longest time possible. There are three basic types of rising air:

  • Thermals are columns of hot air that rise from the ground. As the sun heats air near the ground, that air expands and rises. Paragliding pilots know they can find thermal columns near areas like asphalt parking lots or dark rocky terrain. If you notice large birds soaring around in the sky without flapping their wings, thermal activity is likely. Once a pilot finds a thermal column, he or she can circle within it until reaching a desired altitude.
  • Ridge lift occurs when the wind blows against mountains or hills. When wind hits the mountain, it moves upward, forming a band of lift along its slope. Although ridge lift doesn't reach much higher than the mountain or ridge that created it, ridge lift can last for miles -- for example, along a mountain chain.
  • Wave lift is a lot like ridge lift. It also occurs when the wind blows against a mountain. However, wave lift happens on the downwind side of a mountain and can go much higher than the peak. A glider can reach altitudes of more than 35,000 feet or 10,668 meters (using oxygen) by utilizing wave lift. It can be a very dangerous form of lift as it is often caused by very strong winds in the upper atmosphere.

Next, we'll talk about steering and controlling the wing while you're up in the sky.