The early and mid 60's saw advancements to ripstop nylon descent devices in both France and the United States. Ripstop nylon is a material that was used to replace silk parachutes in the 1940's. The official Ram Air Canopy was invented in 1963 and in the next year a contraption was built and launched off a hill. It wasn't until the late 70's when three adventurous French guys launched from a mountain and one of them glided down 1000m to the valley below. This feat of flight with the combination of material technology set off an evolution of aircraft that today allows any mere human to gain the gift of Flight!
If you asked me what super power I would ask a genie for, growing up I would say "I want to FLY", that wouldn't be my answer anymore, because I have a magical backpack!
I was introduced to this sport in a cow field in France in 2010. (the last two images above are of my first flights)
I didn't start training until 2012. After I did, there was no going back.
With a simple aircraft made of light weight cloth, and some high tech strings not much thicker than dental floss humans can take to the sky, riding dynamic (wind) or thermic (convective) lift as far and as long as the day or their mind allows.
Its a full earth experience. Our earth gets blasted by ~1400W/m^2 of radiative heat from the Sun. This drives our world. Heat is absorbed by the ground and ocean and is re-radiated to the surrounding air driving our weather. Thermals and wind are a paragliding pilots main concern. Weather related fluid dynamics happen at various scales all the way from turbulence from a single bush in wind, to a hurricane half the size of a continent. The variables are ever changing, making each day and flight unique and an opportunity to learn something. What time is it? What season? What is the ground made of? Has it rained recently? Is there irrigation? Buildings? Roads? A river? What are the large and medium scale weather systems in the area up to, how does it feel, how do you feel?
It is a personal journey for flight. It helps in everyday life as well.
One main goal: Manage the Cascade. (there are many forms of cascades)
Step 1: Do You Really Want to Fly?
Humans flying is not safe.
The ground is hard, and doesn't move.
Gravity is ON!
Is this for you? Do you care about doing this a lot? Then realize that it is a long process and enjoy it.
Your goal is to minimize risk.
It's not safe.
It's also magical and wonderful if you can manage a few items: YOU, the conditions, and the equipment.
If you are not 100%, don't fly.
You are the pilot in command.
There are courses called simulated incident in vol (flight) or SIV. These are done over water, with instruction. You practice maneuvers to put your wing in all sorts of non rigid airfoil shapes! It's exciting and educational. These are a must if you are really serious about flying safely.
Step 2: Find a Local Instructor
Depending on where you live there are either paragliding schools or there are not. It does not mean that your home town is not flyable! If birds fly, most likely you can, even on a bump of a hill in some wind.
Instructors are all unique, it is important to try to gain knowledge from as many pilots as you can, there are always many opinions, and not all of them are right, or wrong. A good pilot is more than a pilot who has good flights.
Every local site will have local pilots, its important to ask them about the day, and about other days. If no one is flying often there is a reason.
Each situation experienced is unique, there are common threads, but in the moment the right thing to do that lands you safely and gets you home was the right thing to do. You will hear people say "never do this", or "always do that." I think it's important to understand the mechanisms of what they are talking about and ask others what they think to get a complete picture.
Step 3: Learn to Love Kiting
If you liked to play with kites as a kid.. the fun does not need to stop!
Kiting is the best thing to do when you get the chance. It will let you connect with your wing and allow you to launch well.
Launching and landing are the most critical times flying (any time near the ground)
Many pilots want to fly right away.
The whole experience will be awesome if you embrace kiting early on. You will have a sense of pride with clean launches in high pressure (crowds), maybe sketchy situations (rocks/steep).
Sometimes you have a crappy launch, or a bad cycle. Good kiting skills will help you more then anything in this situation. Kiting also provides the opportunity to get good at packing and folding your wing. If you put it away with the intention of a clean launch you will have a wing ready to fly after your preflight.
The best pilots in the world were little kids playing with trainer wings for years before they were allowed to fly.
Step 4: There Are Many Types of Pilots and Flying.
What kind of bird are you?
Do you want to chill along the coast and watch whales?
Do you want to take comfy sled rides on occasion?
Do you want to fly acrobatics?
Do you want to Race?
Do you want to Explore the Earth?
Do you not care to define yourself?
There is a huge spectrum of pilots, and pilot communities. You can find most anything you want, or make a new category. For the most part the B class wings are all you need. Every year wings improve. People are flying all day and 300km on these wings... so unless your doing that.. you probably dont need any more performance.
You fly for YOU.
I have learned a lot from going to XC (cross country) weekends in Northern California. A large group of pilots all take off and try to go around a predetermined set of waypoints in their gps. This is really good training, and you get to talk to really good pilots. It is helpful so that when you are alone you understand what works to get to where you want, and what doesn't, or... your about to find out and make sure you learn something and make safe choices ;)!
Some helpful Mantras
Never leave lift,
Take the lift all the way to the top,
Always have a safe landing within glide.
Step 5: Lifetime of Learning
The learning never stops. The passions that hold this character are very rewarding.
Launch and land, kite your wing, learn every flight.
Patience, Persistence, Positive Attitude
Most of the Mountains are not going anywhere. The wing, harness, and reserve easily fit in a backpack suitable for checking on a plane. Turns out.. you can fly most everywhere in the world. I have gone to places I would never imagine because people figured out its good to fly there. You can easily take a train, bus, hitchhike, or hike!
Every day is unique, learn about weather, learn to observe, and learn about yourself.
There are bold pilots and there are old pilots
but there are no old, bold pilots.....
Step 6: SKY CAMPING!
The ultimate goal for me is to do Vol Biv (Sky Camping). In a recent trip where I tested the prototype gopro mount I got very close to this dream. I am patient. It will come in time. I made two flights back to back moving north along a Colombian valley with a friend of mine. Each day we made about 40km progress. We carried everything with us. It was liberating to land, and know you didnt have to go back anywhere, you could sleep under the tree that you packed your wing near.