How Skydivers Learn to Paraglide

Transition Smoothly From Parachute to Paraglider

Paragliding: it does not suck.
Paragliding: it does not suck. Image By Annette O'Neil

Paragliding owes much to skydiving.

From the early footage of a group of 1970s skydivers “foot launching” their parachutes off of small hills to the ram-air skydiving canopies used for quick descents by French mountaineers, the sports have had innumerable points of crossover. The sports only truly split in the later 1980s, when engineers started to redesign the ram-air canopy to stay in the sky like its triangular free-flying cousin, the hang glider.

The modern paraglider is, indeed, similar in some points of design to a steerable skydiving canopy -- but don't be an idiot. The differences are plentiful – and important, especially to athletes aiming to bridge the gap between them.

A paraglider is not a parachute. It is a foot-launched airfoil, only packed into a bag for storage and transport, then laid carefully out on the ground at the launch and coaxed into the airflow by the strapped-in pilot. Unlike a parachute, a paraglider never has to deploy. Therefore, designers are able to focus on building much higher-performance flight characteristics into the wing than a skydiving canopy can deliver. A paraglider has no drogue, slider, container or potential for “opening shock.” It has thinner risers and many more cells than a parachute.

To the untrained eye, a paragliding wing may look similar to a skydiving canopy at first glance. However, any skydiver looking to kick off a ground-launching career must be crystal-clear on one concept: the two airfoils have very different flight characteristics, which require completely different pilot technique in order to fly well and safely. Here’s how.

1. Check your ego.

Do not make the mistake of thinking that, since you’re a skydiver, you’ll be able to pick up a paraglider and teach yourself to fly. It is vital to seek out proper paragliding instruction.

As a student paraglider pilot, you won’t throw yourself into the air right away. Instead, you can expect to spend plenty of time on the ground, ground handling (“kiting”) and launching a beginner wing in various conditions.

You’ll also be learning how to manage an airfoil that is very large (and very opinionated) compared to the wee little scrap of nylon that saves your life when you jump from a plane. This author knows one very famous, legendarily talented BASE jumper and world-champion skydiver who has suffered exactly one bad injury in his airsports career. The mechanism of injury was a self-taught paragliding kiting session gone terribly awry. As a paragliding student learning under a licensed instructor, you’ll learn the procedures for managing these dynamic changes in flight characteristics. Often, the appropriate response is entirely different to the actions you’d take as a skydiver.

2. Shake your bad habits.

If you ask a paragliding instructor what it’s like to teach the sport to an experienced skydiver, they’ll tell you that such students tend to have a few bad habits:

  • Immediately running for take-off instead of kiting the wing (which is one of the best ways to gauge the conditions and warm up for the flight)
  • Over-reliance on the brakes as opposed to weight-shift, leading to dangerously “toggle-happy” behavior
  • Poor handling of collapses and stalls, leading to a tendency to choose lower-performance wings
  • Little patience for the important work of learning aerodynamics and meteorology
  • Reduced caution regarding flying conditions and personal limitations

If you see yourself exhibiting these traits, buck the system. Don’t be a “typical skydiver” on the hill. (Everybody kinda hates that guy.)

3. Become an amateur meteorologist.

If you’re an experienced skydiver, you’re undoubtedly used to knowing exactly two things about the weather: if it’s too windy to jump, or if it’s too cloudy to jump. Once you start paragliding, get ready to add hundreds of layers of complexity.

Launching, landing and flying a paraglider isn’t the end of the game. The heart of paragliding is lots of time spent in a very active sky, so students of the sport must learn a lot about both macro- and micro-meteorology. You must learn about the effect of terrain – literally, from mountains to molehills – on wind patterns, about the different types of clouds, about atmospheric stability, about daily weather cycles and about thousands of other subtleties of the sky you play in.

You'll be doing some book-learnin'.

4. Get used to “parawaiting.”

In paragliding, there will be no announcement from manifest telling you to get your gear on. You and you alone will make the call as to whether or not it’s safe and appropriate to fly. Especially if you branch out into the solo-launch-intensive hike-and-fly side of the sport (as many BASE jumpers choose to do), your individual skill, judgement and discipline will rule the day.

In many cases, your judgement will tell you to sit down and wait – sometimes, hours – for conditions to improve. In other cases, you’ll have to bin flying for the day. Hike-and-fly pilots may have a long, grumpy hike back to the car. “Parawaiting” is part of the sport. Accept it (and make the best of it).

Sure, it’s not skydiving – but that’s why you want to paraglide, no? Done intelligently, cross-disciplinary training will only make you a better, stronger, smarter athlete.

Rise to the challenge.