Although the terms Paragliding and Parasailing are commonly mixed up, most people have an idea of what the two sports look like. As a quick refresher, paragliding is the act of non-powered, foot launched flight (not being towed behind a boat). To make things even more confusing, now there is a new sport thrown into the mix. It's called Speed Flying, and as of the time of this writing, most people will have no idea what this is. So let's shed some light on the subject and compare this sport to the more commonly known paragliding, as well as answer some Frequently Asked Questions about both.
Paragliding involves piloting a very large "ram air" canopy with the ultimate goal of soaring for extended periods of time. The wing is long and narrow, which creates a large amount of lift with very slow airspeeds. Paragliding is a cruising sport, where the pilot makes strategic use of the winds and other natural lift sources to sustain flight. Those individuals that would be drawn to sailing a boat are the same types that would enjoy paragliding.
Speed Flying on the other hand, is for the fighter pilot at heart. A speed flying wing is shaped more like a high performance parachute and meant to descend out of the sky at adrenaline inducing speeds. The pilot begins her flight at the top of a mountain, launching from a healthy sprint, and then racing slalom style through the different terrain features on the way down. Speed flying is certainly a cousin to paragliding, but it's the cousin that the rest of the family loves to share stories about, but not necessarily join in the adventure.
We will now answer the most common questions specific to each sport:
Is paragliding safe? - The sport of paragliding has evolved tremendously over the last decade, and with this evolution there has been a significant increase in the safety. Like any other adventure sport, there are always risks, and it is up to each individual to determine their risk threshold. With proper training, a modern paraglider, and good judgment, one can fly injury-free well into old age. Of course, an individual can also do the exact opposite of all this, continually scare themselves, and maybe even get lucky enough to not get injured. It is completely up to the pilot.
Is speed flying safe? - Speed flying is a new sport here in North America, but it has been popular in Europe for a few years now. In that time there have been significant improvements to the safety aspects of the wings, as well as the piloting techniques. With a modern wing in the right weather conditions, one can easily make thousands of incident-free flights. Although speed flying is a faster sport than paragliding, there are a variety of speeds to choose from, as explained below.
How long does it take to learn paragliding? - An individual will typically fly solo on their very first day of training, and it takes 5-10 days to master the required skills to earn a "P2" rating. Believe it or not, the flying is easy. What takes a good portion of time to learn is "kiting", which is controlling the wing overhead while standing on the ground. Not only does this make for a better pilot, but it is fun! Also, one can go out and practice kiting just about anywhere. So if a budding pilot does their kiting homework, they can get through the P2 course in minimal time.
How long does it take to learn speed flying? - A new student will fly solo on their very first day of training, and within 3-5 days they will have the necessary skills to fly unsupervised. It will be up to them to only fly in good weather conditions when solo. This good judgment and a proper attitude will be what keeps a pilot safe in the sport. New pilots will work toward their "S3" rating, which requires a minimum of 10 flying days and 25 flights.
How much does paragliding cost? - Training through the P2 license is about $1,500, and is typically discounted $300 or so with the purchase of paragliding gear. There are also 1-day lessons for around $200. A complete paragliding system, which includes the wing, harness and reserve parachute, will range between $4,500 and $5,500. When properly taken care of, this gear will last hundreds, and maybe even thousands, of flights.
How much does speed flying cost? - The range is $200 for a 1-day lesson, up to $1,250 for the training through the S3 rating. Like paragliding, there is typically a training discount with the purchase of speed flying gear. A complete speed flying wing and harness combo will cost between $2,100 and $2,500. This significantly lower cost than paragliding gear is due to its much smaller size and no need for a reserve parachute (speed flying pilots will typically not fly high enough). When properly taken care of, this gear will last thousands of flights.
What kind of flying can I do with a paraglider? - There are five different types of flying one can do: "Sledders", ridge soaring, thermal soaring, cross country and acro. These are listed in order of difficulty to learn. The Sledder is simply flying from the top to the bottom of a hill, and a student will do many of these in their training. The next goal is to master soaring techniques, with ridge soaring being the first since it is generally the easiest and safest to do. This type of soaring occurs at a hill, mountain, ridge or cliff, where the winds are coming straight in and strong enough to sustain flight by being deflected upward. Thermal soaring involves riding "heat bubbles" high into the atmosphere, and very large climb rates and altitudes are possible with this type of flying. Cross country flying is achieved by connecting the thermal dots in the sky to fly large distances, sometimes hundreds of miles. Finally there's acro, short for acrobatic, which as you might guess is radical maneuvering of the wing such as spinning and looping. It would not be incorrect to call this a risky activity.
What kind of flying can I do with a speed wing? - As mentioned earlier on this page, a person will feel like a fighter pilot when speed flying. There are two types of speed flying that cover the range of how radical a pilot can get. "Proximity Flying" is slalom-style racing down the mountain only a few feet above the ground, while contouring the terrain. "Speed Soaring" is sustained flight in high winds, similar to that of paragliding, but with very fast and agile maneuvering capability under the small wing.
Hopefully this article has presented clear insight into the well established activity of paragliding, and the up and coming sport of speed flying. You will now be ready to speak intelligently when somebody asks if you've seen that cool new sport that looks like high speed paragliding (or parasailing for that matter).
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Troy Hartman is an aerial sports enthusiast and pilot. His background includes Hollywood stunt work, hosting television shows, and earning an X-Games gold medal. Perhaps his most memorable performance was skysurfing with a goose in Pepsi's 1998 award winning Superbowl commercial. Troy is a California native and splits his time between Mammoth Mountain and San Diego. Be sure to check out his Speed Wings site.
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