“It’s my Anniversary’ I repeated
“That was in March” she answered, looking very confused.
“No. Not that Anniversary. The one when I started paragliding!”
She did not look impressed.
So, the 12th August 2019 marks 30 years that I first strapped myself into a paragliding harness and tried jumping off a hill in Mid Wales under the instruction of the two Mikes at Welsh Borders Paragliding Centre. They knew what they were doing, after all, they had been paragliding themselves at this point for almost 6 months.
God, those were exciting times and I have the scars to prove it. We all started with the very safe designs that had come directly from parachuting. Ram air canopies with huge cell entries that you could fit a sheep into (yes, really) and the glide ratio of a brick. The windspeed needed to be 16mph to stay up but you were going backwards at 18. Within the next 4 years, development moved at a blistering pace with more performance and elliptical designs. Now we could take off and stay up for an hour or more. Our harnesses morphed from a bit of plank hanging on a couple of straps to something that looked like a bucket seat straight out of a racing car. Meanwhile, in crazy Frenchland, they were putting lawnmowers on their backs and flying for miles under power. Well, that’s what it looked like to us lot. That saw me on my first paramotor, 40kg and made from a military drone engine. It was terrifying. The 18kg of today would have only been a dream.
4 years into my flying career seemed like a good time to go all in and start my own school. Do what I love most in life and get rich in the process. Well, I suppose I was half right. Training students at Paraventure Airsports would take up the next 24 years and what adventures did we have, but that will be the subject of future blogs and blackmail projects.
So how different is the equipment today than it was 30 years ago? I would say that a big part of the development was during the period of 89-93. This is when the shape of paragliders changed from the original square ‘jump chutes’ to the more recognisable elliptical shapes we see today. Stretching out the wing and therefore aspect ratio was the obvious way towards performance but unfortunately, it was also the road to instability. 1995-2000 saw this idea pushed too far and the rise of the ‘Deathships’ was the result. This was our affectionate term for some of the gliders of the day. Everyone who flew one was an unpaid test pilot. You never knew what was going to happen next. It has to be said; some of the manufacturers made some awful mistakes. Ground handling was an afterthought; getting off the deck was your problem.
These days, paragliders have for the most, gone in the opposite direction and breakthroughs using computational fluid dynamics have allowed the aspect ratios to be reduced yet maintaining performance. High-performance low aspect ratio became a thing.
New pilots to the sport can now benefit from the safest, highest performance and best handling machines that paragliding has ever had to offer. Paramotoring wings have also benefitted from these breakthroughs together with the development of Reflex airfoil sections which lend themselves particularly well to powered flight and stable high-speed cruising.
But the odd thing is this. After 30 years I somehow thought that paragliders would be a lot different than they are today. I was expecting some huge breakthrough that would see the sport go off in a completely different direction. I just expected them to look a lot different. I don’t know how they would look different, I just did. Maybe semi-rigid, like inflatable sailplanes and blow them up before launching. Maybe a seat in the middle of the wing with your head poking out of a hole in the top surface with jet turbines in the wingtips? Who knows. I just thought they would look different.
But the devil is really in the detail. Paragliders might not look a lot different from what they did 20 years ago, but to fly, the difference is staggering. A couple of years ago I managed to get a flight on a 1994 Apco Supra which with low airtime, was still airworthy.
I flew for 15mins on a mildly thermic easy local site. 15mins was all my nerves could take. It was terrible, wobbling all over the sky like it had a life of its own. Response to control was slow and imprecise, feedback through the harness felt like a post-frontal spring day at St Andre. It was more like riding an animal than flying a machine.
Is this the wing that I used to fly all those years ago? I must have been nuts. But we didn’t know any different back then. Still, we had a lot of fun and gained a lot of airtime.
And paragliders of today? In a word, refined. They are precise and feel mostly like they are on rails. They are highly agile and feel completely solid, moving as a single unit above your head. They are also highly pressurised allowing these wings to cut through the roughest of air undisturbed. Modern gliders may look very similar to their cousins from 20 years ago but the way they fly bears no resemblance. They are aerial surgical instruments and are truly outstanding.
Remember us old pilots the next time you fly. We flew all the dodgy contraptions so you new pilots don’t have to!