paraglider paragliding

I rode a gondola last week in Austria to 6600 feet to ponder the magnificent view of the Alps and take some summer snaps. As I started walking back to the gondola station, I passed a serious hiker carrying an enormous black, cylindrical backpack, maybe four feet tall and 20 inches in diameter. He totally ignored me on the three-foot wide trail—I thought he was a bit unfriendly, as we were the only two people on the ridge. But I was awed that he was going to camp out for weeks, I thought, and had to plan so carefully, be sure to take enough food, water, countless other supplies along with the tent that was obviously crammed into his bag. I have enough trouble remembering to take a cell phone or pen when I go out for a walk.

When I arrived at the gondola, the clock showed that the next descent wasn’t for 15 minutes, so I decided to go back near the ridge and throw a snowball in July while standing in the white patch of snow just near the cliff. Imagine my surprise to see this “hiker” in black maneuvering a large curved wing made of parachute-like material that was attached to his harness somehow and also by maybe 20 lines or risers half going to each hand for controlling the wing.

The wind was somewhat brisk, and I took three or four videos of him trying to organize his wing and keep the lines untangled. But one end of the wing kept crashing to the ground. Finally he looked away from the edge, toward the wing, inflated the fabric, then reversed his direction by 180 degrees so his back was to the wing, and he ran off the cliff. This is called a reverse launch, and the sport is called paragliding. Breathtaking.

I have to admit there is a difference between watching some life-threatening, death-defying activity on TV or in photos and seeing it right up close. Even for me, after parachuting in the army. I am still wondering precisely how you learn the skill, because there must be a way to practice parts of it in advance. And what if the wind is too strong and drags you off the mountain in the opposite direction from where you intend to go?

flying in the Alps

Anyway, this guy made it, and it was very exciting to watch. He fell off the cliff and out of site until a thermal (patch of hot rising air) picked him right up, and he was high above me. You could hear a slight whistling as he passed close by…right with the birds who were soaring effortlessly as well.

Although thermals are perfect in this sport, I was reminded of my first week at Fort Benning Georgia in 1963, where I went to jump school. In combat jumps, the planes are stacked, so that those in front fly lower than the ones behind, presuming that by the time the second or third wave of jumpers is out of their planes, the earlier jumpers are way down toward—or on—the ground in the designated drop zone. Unfortunately when I arrived, we heard how the first jumpers met thermals and were taken up, rather than down, and were shredded and killed by the propellers of the following waves of planes. Very gruesome, and just for training, not even combat.

After people heard that I had jumped, they often said how brave I was. But it was relatively safe…the stats proved that fewer people were injured or died from parachuting (percentage-wise or when considering miles traveled) than from driving cars (see details below). On the other hand, when I did it, I was 22, single and had no kids depending upon me for emotional and financial support. As an older guy, the risks seems much greater if I happen to be that one in a million jumper whose lines become tangled or whose chute doesn’t open properly.

closeup of harness and risers

Happily for me, the cables holding up the gondola didn’t break and no jet fighters ran into them, as happened in Italy in 1998. It was all quite beautiful, spectacular, and eventful. Ready to jump?

In case you want many more, very specific details and distinctions about and between para-sailing, paragliding, hang gliding, gliding, ballooning and other kinds of non-motored flying for humans, check out this Wikipedia reference:

Just found an article about the relative danger—or safety—of the sport. I think the author is Tim Parish, who has a great site about the sport and whose background is described at the end of this excerpt:

For some reason, people who have a passing interest in paragliding also have an interest in the statistics of the sport. Particularly the fatalities count. Fair enough, I guess we all instinctively try to assess our risk of dying when trying something new and exciting! So let’s get the death-and-gloom out of the way first. The figures are actually quite reassuring, given the many, many thousands of people flying and the flight hours they are accumulating.

The stats for horse-riding and paragliding make for an interesting comparison. And… you guessed it, more people die from being thrown off a horse than crashing a paraglider! In a similar vein, I came across an insurance report that listed paragliding fatalities per participant to be less than motorcycle riding. Now that doesn’t surprise me, I’ve never trusted those things! Motorbikes that is.

Another outdoor activity which compares with paragliding in terms of injury rate per participant is snowmobiling. Of which I know nothing, coming from The Great Dry Flat Land, Australia.

Despite there being quite a few thousand active paraglider pilots in the U.S. during 2005, only 3 people died in paraglider accidents. This continued a trend towards fewer paragliding fatalities each year in the U.S.

Now, to be accurate and truthful, the situation in Europe has been much worse in recent years, in terms of total fatalities. But in Europe, there are many times as many active pilots as there are in the U.S. And a big percentage of them are ‘pushing the envelope’ by flying in challenging weather over very challenging terrain. The Alps, no less!

As a beginner, you will not fit that category, hence those particular stats need not worry you. Enough of death and dying, I’ll just touch on a couple of U.S. stats now. In 2005, only 50 accident reports relating to paragliding were received, which was a 5 year low. Also in 2005 in the U.S., 32 pilots or passengers suffered paragliding injuries. 15 of these people required an overnight stay in hospital.

Browsing through some material the other day I came across a tandem pilot who has flown many passengers over the years. In all his 350+ hours of tandem flying, he has never had a passenger injured. This should give you a good feeling, since a great way to ‘just try’ paragliding is to go for a flight in a tandem paraglider! The pilot is behind, the passenger hangs in front. Air in your hair, and views to die for.. ooops.. I mean really really great views!

Tim Parish is a motorless flight enthusiast who’s had the pleasure of soaring in sailplanes, hang-gliders and paragliders in the past, both real and simulated. His enthusiasm for these activities is evident in his writing, which he hopes will inspire others to fly.