Story by Cadno Arian June 2015
Starting in the early 1950’s from the first steer able parachutes, paragliding in its modern incarnation began in France in 1978 with pilots taking off the Alps with Ram Air parachutes and gliding down the slopes. Parachutes must be porous or they explode on opening and the next step was to make non porous chutes. Then parachutes developed into the aerofoil shapes that we see today. Research and development was slow in the 80’s but became exponential in the 90’s and 00’s.[divide color=”#”]
Paragliders in the early days had quite a poor glide angle and we were often the subject of derogatory remarks from hang gliders who enjoyed a far better performance. Sadly hang gliding is now much in decline.
The paragliding sport has come on leaps and bounds since those days and wings can even be made to do aerobatic manoeuvres such as loops and can travel great distances. The British record is 253km, not bad for something that can be stuffed into a rucksack!
Torfaen and the South Wales valleys are a Mecca for the paragliding sport, with the Blorenge, or Blorens to give it its proper name, the most famous free flying site in Britain with competitions regularly being held there.
Because of its topography the valleys are ideal for flying, consisting of a series of high ridges that wings can be launched from. The wind must be blowing directly at the hill for takeoff and to ridge soar; this is when the wind hits a hill and is directed upward and forms a ‘lift band’ allowing us to stay aloft.
The other method of gaining height is thermals. This is where the ground is heated by the sun and forms a bubble of warm air that breaks away and rises thousands of feet forming cumulus clouds, a good indicator of lift. This is the way cross country pilots achieve distance by seeking out thermals and gliding from one to another.
To be this proficient, experience and a good knowledge of meteorological conditions is needed. To tell whether the air is rising or descending a variometer is used. This instrument tells the pilot by a beeping noise what is happening.
The wind direction dictates where we go to fly, If it’s westerly for instance it’s Merthyr or easterly, Pandy. A favourite site of mine and many others is Rhosili on the Gower. To get 1,000 feet above the beach in smooth sea air is a sublime feeling.
After dreaming of flying since I was a boy, I started paragliding in the early 1990’s, taking a course with Paul Williams of Paraventure Airsports. www.paraventureparagliding.co.uk.
A very good instructor and personal friend. To be balanced, the other school in the area should be mentioned. This is Axis paragliding www.paraglid/e.co.uk, run by Steve Milson, again another excellent instructor and friend.
A course consists of two parts Elementary pilot (EP) and club pilot (CP). You start by learning to handle the wing on the ground and progress through gentle glides and on to soaring. On average this takes about eight days with a written exam after each part. This then enables you to fly alone but this is not recommended as there is much more to learn.
You can always find an experienced pilot who will take you under their wing and give you good advice. Having said that it’s an eight day course, it can sometimes take much longer because of the vagaries of the Welsh weather. To find out if this sport is the one for you, you can take a taster tandem flight with either Steve or Paul.
What does it all cost?
A paragliding course Ep and Cp is approximately £1,200. A new wing and harness about £2,500. There are plenty of second hand wings available and you could get a bargain for around £500.
Always take an experienced pilot with you, they may all look similar but flying characteristics can vary greatly between a beginner’s wing and a performance wing so bring someone along that knows.
My first wing was a Trekking Ritmo and considered quite good for it’s time.
Today it wouldn’t even get me to Castle Meadows in Abergavenny on a straight glide from the Blorenge; now even basic training wings can easily achieve that.
Since then I have had more than half a dozen wings with each one having a better glide and handling. After flying for 10 years I decided to buy a tandem paraglider and have taken many people for their first flight.
It’s a wonderful feeling to give someone the thrill I had the very first time I flew. Oh, and the price is always the same – a pint of real ale!
I have made many friends through flying and the camaraderie in our sport is second to none. To fly and then go to the pub and tell tall tales of how you got higher and glided further than anyone else is a regular feature of the sport.
Paragliding is more of a thinking sport and does not demand much physical activity. As long as you can carry your wing up a hill, on average about 20kg, you’ll be fine and if you don’t want to walk you can always get a paramotor and take off from anywhere.
Age or sex is no barrier, many youngsters, women and even pensioners are among our members.
We are no longer seen as a lunatic fringe – those intrepid birdmen who risked life and limb to fly.
France alone has now over 25,000 registered paraglider pilots.