Paragliding: Soaring Across the Sky Using an Inflatable Wing

PAragliding during Red Bull X-Alps
••• Athlete flies around Piz Palue area, Switzerland during the Red Bull X-Alps on 26th of July, 2011. (c) Felix Woelk/Red Bull Content Pool

Paragliding is a popular sport amongst people who enjoy stepping off a precipice while seated in a harness that is attached to a fabric wing. That wing then inflates to provide support to hold the pilot aloft as they soar through the air hundreds of feet above the ground. Using a series of suspension lines, and working with the pressure of the air entering vents on the wing, these pilots can soar on thermals for hours at a time, crossing many miles in the process.

How long and where they go depends in part on their skills in working the paraglider to take advantage of the winds. Foot-launched flying with a non-motorized inflatable wing is truly a free-flying adventure.

The paraglider's wing is usually made of rip-stop nylon and attached to a harness by Kevlar lines. Wing designs may vary in terms of shape and size but are formed by two layers of fabric connected so they form cells to trap incoming air, which in turn inflates the wing and keeps the pilot aloft.

To see how extreme a paragliding adventure can be, watch this Nightline segment about two adventurers who climbed Mount Everest back in 201, then paraglided from the summit. They would fly for about 42 minutes before landing 15 miles away in the village of Namche Bazaar. After landing, they then took a nearly 500-mile kayaking trip on the Ganges River to the Indian Ocean as well. This unique adventure earned Sanobabu Sunuwar and Lakpa Tshiri Sherpa the 2012 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year award.

Many companies offer tandem paragliding for those looking to make their first flight and learn more about the activity. Some paragliding companies even offer powered paragliding during which the pilot sits in the harness chair and has a motor connected to a large fan in his or her backpack.

Paragliding on Skis and Parahawking

Paragliding can provide some truly unique experiences.

For instance, there is one alternate form of the sport that gives pilots the ability to soar in a tandem glider on thermals chosen by a bird of prey – such as an eagle or hawk – that leads them throughout the flight. At times, the bird lands on the pilot's gloved hand for a quick thank you treat for leading paraglider across the sky. This unusual approach to paragliding is a bit rare and is called parahawking.

Paragliding through mountain passes in the Alps, and then landing on snow before skiing away is one of the ultimate thrills for pilots. Here's a picture of tandem paragliding in Megeve, France, where this alternate form of the sport is a common practice. 

Although not technically paragliding, some skiers will also harness themselves to a kite, so they can ski for miles across snow and ice, occasionally soaring through the air as they go. Snowkiting is another former of high-flying adventure, although participants never reach the same heights as paragliders.

Videos of Paragliding Flights and Races

To get a sense of what paragliding and parahawking are like, watch these videos. The first features is the Highlights of Red Bull X-Alps 2011 an adventure competition where paragliding pilots and endurance athletes have to race nonstop from Salzburg, Austria to the Kingdom of Monaco using only a paraglider and hiking boots.

Some of the scenes on the webcast, as the racers soar around the Matterhorn and high over other mountains in the Alps, make you question the sanity of those participating in the event. The next video clip is a flight over Telluride, Colorado, with the Telluride Air Force, while the final one is from the Bridal Falls Air Races.​