Paraglider design has come a long way in a relatively short amount of time. Advances in wing design and construction technology have helped make major leaps forward in performance and safety. Each new generation of glider represents a significant improvement over the previous generation. This is one of the most important reasons to make an informed decision when the time comes to purchase your first glider.
There are many companies out there making great wings, and just about every school has a relationship with a paraglider manufacturer that makes something suitable for a beginner pilot. Each manufacturer has their unique take on what works best, but all gliders are made in a similar way and out of similar material.
Paragliders are constructed using different types of nylon, line material, and webbing. The glider itself is usually made from rip stop nylon produced by one or more manufacturers. Commonly, different weights (g/m2) of material are used for the top and bottom surface, as well as the ribs and reinforcement points in the glider. Manufacturers produce fabrics with various strengths and weaknesses. Almost all of these fabrics have some sort of UV coating to increase longevity. It’s a good idea to do some research on the type of material used in a particular glider before purchasing it.
The lines are made up of a core that provides the strength and a sheath that provides UV and abrasion protection. The core is either Kevlar (aka Aramid) or Spectra (aka Dyneema) in varying diameters measured in mm. The sheath is made of polyester. Kevlar is the line core material of choice for most glider manufacturers; it has good strength and durability and doesn’t shrink or stretch. Spectra line is about 40-percent stronger than Kevlar, but can shrink or ‘creep’ over time or after it has been exposed to water, and can require maintenance to keep the lines the proper length. The lines connect to the glider at attachment points that are reinforced with Mylar. At the other end they are connected to the risers via triangular quick links made of stainless steel. The risers are most commonly made from pre-stretched nylon.
A typical harness is constructed using a combination of Cordura, Neoprene, and webbing. Cordura is a tough nylon material that provides abrasion resistance. Neoprene has the ability to stretch and is form fitting, so it is mostly used in competition style harnesses or for pockets and reserve parachute containers. Webbing will make up the support portion of the harness, consisting of leg, shoulder and chest straps along with the carabiner attachment points. Carabiners come in an assortment of styles, you should only use those that are designed for paragliding and have a good locking mechanism. Most harnesses have a seat board that is made of wood, fiberglass, carbon fiber, or composite materials.
Last, but certainly not least to consider is the back protector in the harness. It comes in several different forms and levels of protection. The most common types are either foam or airbag system. Both are sometimes coupled with a plexiglass sheet for puncture protection. There are also hybrid versions of these types of back protection. Back protection should be high among your considerations when selecting a harness, so discuss it with your instructor prior to making a purchase.
Reserve parachutes are also made from rip stop nylon – however, it is a much lighter material than what is used for paragliders. There are several different styles of reserve parachutes on the market, but most are very similar in design and performance. Reserve parachutes are covered in more detail in the next Chapter which focuses exclusively on Reserves.
The biggest enemies to your gear are sunlight and abrasion. When you are not using your gear it should be stored in a cool, dry, dark place. UV exposure will deteriorate the strength and cosmetic appearance of your equipment. Try to keep your gear as clean as possible. Avoid leaving it in the dirt or stepping on it. The Kevlar lines are susceptible to kinking and can be damaged if pinched against rocks. The kevlar core may break while the sheath stays intact, hiding the problem. Do not step on your lines!
If you feel the need to clean your glider, use a damp sponge and some warm water. Avoid washing it with detergent or soaking it (eliminating salt water may require a soak). This may have a detrimental effect on the UV coatings designed to protect the glider. If it is a little dusty try kiting it in a grassy field. This should remove some of the dust. You can also kite the glider upside down or shake it out to remove the dirt and other debris from the cells. Some gliders have velcro ports on the wing-tips which will allow you to clean debris from cells.
Other items you should avoid having around your glider are solvents of any kind (including oil and gasoline), extreme heat, damp storage, and sharp or abrasive objects. Watch out for sunscreen, the oil can leave a stain.
Once you have your own glider you should adopt a routine maintenance schedule. Maintenance should include an inspection of the following: Risers, (for fraying of webbing), lines (kinking, sheath damage, or breakage), and the sailcloth (tears and punctures). This will help you identify any area of your glider that needs repair. If the repair is minor, such as a small tear, you should be able to do it yourself with simple instructions. If the repair is major, you will need to have someone skilled in glider repair fix it for you. Any repairs needed to a reserve parachute should be done by a certified rigger.
Radios and Instruments
Radios are not only useful, but are required at some sites and should be considered part of your safety gear. It’s convenient to be able to communicate with other pilots, to obtain information prior to flight (from pilots in the air), during your flight, and for retrieval arrangements. They can also be a safety tool for information about changing conditions or accidents. You will need to determine the specific frequency being used at each site.
Instruments used by paraglider pilots include variometers, GPS (Global Positioning System) receivers, personal locator beacons, and compasses.
The variometer, commonly known as a vario, indicates current altitude and rates of ascent and decent through a visual display and/or audible tones. Depending upon the brand, model and ability to interface with a GPS, there are other functions such as; maximum altitude reached, average and maximum climb rate, average and maximum sink rate, time aloft, glide ratio, and airspeed. Some models have the ability to download flight information to a computer, allowing you to view a graphic representation of your flights. The GPS receiver uses information from a network of satellites to provide precise ground positioning. This makes the GPS useful as a ground speed indicator, a compass, and for determining your location in the air or after landing. Most GPS units will also interface with a computer, allowing you to view your flights in 3D. Personal locator beacons are expensive and not used by pilots unless they are flying over inhospitable terrain. You can use a GPS interface to transfer your position via satellite to search and rescue services in your area.
Helmets are a strict requirement any time you attach yourself to a paraglider. You should already have an appreciation for how much energy a glider can harness. Most helmets specifically designed for paragliding will give you adequate protection, however, there are exceptions so ask your instructor or do a little research. Along with good protection, you should choose a helmet that will be comfortable and allows adequate visibility. Full face helmets are highly recommended.
The full face provides more protection but a little less visibility, and vice versa for the open face helmet. You will have to decide which one works best for you. Helmets to stay away from include but are not limited to; motorcycle helmets (too heavy but many motocross helmets are fine), climbing and hockey helmets (too thin, not enough foam), and bicycle helmets (not enough protection in back but downhill mountain bike helmets are excellent). Not all helmets are equal; so find one that will give you the best combination of comfort and protection.
Other Safety Equipment
If you are flying over inhospitable terrain where you could be in danger if you landed unexpectedly, there are a few other safety items you should have with you. These include: water, energy bars, flashlight, a compass that doesn’t require batteries, first aid kit, laser flare, warm clothes, a tree kit or pruning shears depending on the terrain, dental floss to lower to a rescue team and retrieve rope with, a leather-man, hook knife, spare batteries for radio and GPS unit, and a camera both for documenting the event and for signaling rescuers with the flashbulb.
When it comes time to purchase your own equipment, there are some important considerations to make. Your skill level is going to determine the class of glider you will fly. Most paragliders are tested by the new European Norm (EN) testing method. After rigorous testing, each glider is given a certification based on how well it performed during the test. The glider is then given a letter to signify its appropriate skill level. The EN system is broken into 4 levels: A, B, C, and D. This system was created to replace an earlier method called the DHV which only had 3 levels.
All ‘A’ level gliders and some easier ‘B’ level gliders are appropriate for a pilot with entry-level skills. This doesn’t mean the glider is not capable of thermal flying or going cross-country. It means the glider is more forgiving on launch, in demanding conditions, and in recovery from malfunctions. The newest entry-level gliders offer a wonderful combination of performance and stability.
The condition of the equipment should be your next consideration. If you are getting a new glider, you already know what condition it is in. If not, there are a few things to consider. The older the glider, the older the technology involved in its design. Gliders have come a long way in recent years, so you should look for something that was made within the last 3-5 years. The next question to ask is how many hours the glider has on it. Most gliders last approximately 300-400 hours, depending on intensity of UV radiation and the original quality of the fabric and materials.
What is the porosity of the glider? Porosity is measured with an instrument that pulls 1 liter of air through the sail-cloth of the glider and is measured in seconds. A new glider generally scores somewhere around 250 to 300 seconds. A glider that scores anything less than 5 seconds is considered un-airworthy and is good for windsock material or other crafty projects. Does it look faded, have repairs, or do the lines look worn and frayed? If you plan on buying a used glider make sure that it has been professionally inspected recently and ask for the results of that inspection. Other considerations when buying equipment should include serviceability of the glider and reputation of the manufacturer. Whoever you buy from, make sure they will take care of you on the service end. Remember, it is your instructor’s responsibility to help you find an appropriate glider, so use their knowledge and experience to help you make the best choice.
If you have any questions about gear you would like to purchase please ask your instructor! They will be straight with you about the appropriateness of the equipment, its condition, and reputation. We don’t want to see you flying gear that could be dangerous any more than you want to be flying dangerous equipment.
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