“The air up there in the clouds is very pure and fine, bracing and delicious. And why shouldn’t it be? — it is the same the angels breathe.”
Mark Twain, ‘Roughing It,’ Chapter XXII, 1886
Experience South Africa’s scenic beauty as you sour through the sky. Paragliding is the closest you will get to flying like a bird – other than sprouting wings.
Paragliding in South Africa offers an excellent opportunity to take in the magnificent scenery. Whether you choose to glide over the cool coastal landscape with views of the ocean crashing on the cliffs below or soar above tree tops experiencing the colourful beauty of the rolling hills of South Africa.
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Paragliding in South Africa:
South Africa has a wide selection of excellent Paragliding sites. Coastal sites generally make use of an onshore sea breeze which produces ridge lift off the coastal dunes/cliffs. It is not uncommon for pilots to stay aloft for hours on end, although they are generally restricted to running back and forwards along the ridge where they launched from.
Mountainous sites are abundant in KZN and Mpumalanga and many local competitions are held at these sites for advanced pilots. Flying in these areas offers one an excellent opportunity of taking in the magnificent scenery.
On the other side of the spectrum, local and international pilots are drawn each year to the more bland landscape of the central Karoo, where conditions are conducive to World Record attempts in Summer.
Paragliding, closely related to Hang Gliding, is a sport which evolved from parachuting. Pilots use an enlarged canopy (parachute) to travel vast distances. The pilot sits in a protective harness, which is suspended from a Fabric, non-rigid, wing. As with their fixed wing gliding counterparts, Paragliders use both thermals and ridge lift as a means to gain and maintain altitude in order to fly cross-country tasks.
The most common launch method involves inflating the canopy and running down the side of a hill/mountain until becoming airborne. Winch launching, and car launching are also becoming popular alternatives, particularly where the terrain is flat.
SAHPA is the governing body for legally flying paragliders, hang gliders, powered paragliders, powered hang gliders and para-trikes in South Africa. All pilots that part take in these sports must be licensed by RAASA, as required by the Civil Aviation Act.
Paragliding Equipment for Adventurers:
The paraglider wing (or ‘canopy’ or parafoil) is a self-inflating structure consisting of a row of cells, most of them open at the front and all of them closed at the back, joined together side by side. Moving through the air keeps them inflated as air enters in the front but can’t get out the back. In cross-section, the cells form an aero foil shape to produce lift, just like an airplane wing.
The pilot is supported underneath the wing from a web of lines (each with the strength to support the pilot). The lines are then attached to strap-like risers that are attached to the pilot’s harness.
Controls held in the pilot’s hands, which pull down the trailing edge of the wing, are used to control speed and to turn.
The pilot is strapped into the bucket-seat harness, which usually holds a reserve parachute, and includes a ‘speed system’ which pulls down the leading edge for maximum flying speed. Modern recreational harnesses have a foam or air-bag back protector.
Paraglider wings typically have an area of 20–30 m² with a span of 8–12 m, and weigh 3–7 kg. Combined weight of wing, harness, reserve, instruments, helmet etc is around 12–18 kg.
Glide ratio ranges from 6:1 for recreational paragliders to about 10:1 for modern competition paragliders (compared with an average of 15:1 for hang gliders and up to 60:1 for some sailplanes), and speed range is typically 20–65 km/h (stall speed – max speed): though safe flying range is smaller.
Modern paraglider wings are made of high-performance non-porous fabrics such as Porcher Sport & Gelvenor, with Dyneema/Spectra or Kevlar/Aramid lines.
For storage and carrying, the wing is folded into the harness seat, and the whole stored in a backpack (which is normally stowed in the harness in flight).
Tandem paragliders, designed to carry the pilot and one passenger, are larger but otherwise similar. They usually have higher trim speeds, are more resistant to collapses and have a slightly higher sink rate compared to solo paragliders.
A recent offspring of this popular sport has been the advent of the Powered Paraglider (PPG) – take a standard Paragliding Canopy, strap an over-sized house fan (enclosed in a protective housing) onto your back, and you have a PPG! These rigs are especially popular amongst pilots at the coast, wanting to dod some coastal touring.
Parachutes are generally used for descending purposes (i.e. jumping out of an aircraft) while paragliders are generally used for ascending. Paragliders are categorized as “ascending” parachutes by canopy manufacutures worldwide and involve “free flying” (without a tether) or an aircraft.
The costs of a Paraglider range from R5 000 for a second-hand single rig, to over R50 000 for a new tandem rig.
Tandem Paragliding Safety:
Although you could theoretically run off the side of a mountain if you got your hands on a canopy, this sport is governed by the CAA and there are stringent licencing criteria and approved schools/instructors.
It is now mandatory in many countries for the harness of a new Paragliders to be fitted with back and body support. Much like an air-bag in a car, this cushions your body should your contact with Mother Earth be anything less than dainty.
A Short History of Paragliding:
In 1954, the prescient Walter Neumark foresaw (in an article in Flight magazine) a time when a glider pilot would be “able to launch himself by running over the edge of a cliff or down a slope … whether on a rock-climbing holiday in Skye or ski-ing in the Alps”.
In 1961, the French engineer Pierre Lemoigne produced improved parachute designs which led to the Para-Commander (‘PC’), which had cut-outs at the rear and sides which enabled it to be towed into the air and steered – leading to parasailing/parascending.
Sometimes credited with the greatest development in parachutes since Leonardo da Vinci, the American Domina Jalbert invented in 1964 a rectangular parafoil which had sectioned cells in an aerofoil shape; an open leading edge and a closed trailing edge, inflated by passage through the air – the so-called ‘ram-air’ design.
Walter Neumark shortly afterwards wrote the wonderfully entitled Operating Procedures for Ascending Parachutes, and he and a group of enthusiasts with a passion for tow-launching ‘PCs’ and ram-air parachutes eventually broke away from the British Parachute Association to form the British Association of Parascending Clubs (BAPC) in 1973.
Meanwhile, David Barish was developing the ‘Sail Wing’ for recovery of NASA space capsules – “slope soaring was a way of testing out … the Sail Wing”. After tests on Hunter Mountain, New York in September 1965, he went on to promote ‘slope soaring’ as a summer activity for ski resorts (apparently without great success).
NASA probably originated the term ‘paraglider’ in the early 1960’s, and ‘paragliding’ was first used in the early 1970’s to describe foot-launching of gliding parachutes.
These threads were pulled together in June 1978 by three friends Jean-Claude Bétemps, André Bohn and Gérard Bosson from Haute-Savoie, France. After inspiration from an article on ‘slope soaring’ in the Parachute Manual magazine by parachutist & publisher Dan Poynter, they calculated that on a suitable slope, a ‘square’ ram-air parachute could be inflated by running down the slope; Bétemps launched from Pointe du Pertuiset, Mieussy, and flew 100 m. Bohn followed him and glided down to the football pitch in the valley 1000 metres below. ‘Parapente’ (pente being French for slope) was born.
Through the 1980’s and since, it has been a story of constantly improving equipment and ever greater numbers of paragliding pilots. The first World Championship was held in Kössen, Austria in 1989.