The story of Paragliding

By TACK FARINAS

Where was Paragliding Invented?

Opinions differ on who the first person was to ever paraglide. Many believe it was David Barish in the early 1960s, who at the time was developing a space capsule recovery device called the “Sail Wing” for NASA. He tested his work personally in 1965 on Hunter Mountain, New York, terming the activity “slope soaring.” His invention piggybacked off the earlier work of Domina Jalbert, an American who helped to advance aerofoil technology and subsequently patented the Parafoil in 1963. The Parafoil, with its ram-air design incorporating a row of inflatable air pockets into an aerofoil shape, would prove to be a precursor to the modern-day paraglider. There is also video and photo documentation taken sometime in the late ’70s of a group of skydivers flying their parachutes in eastern Montana, launching off small hills in the area.

When and Where Did Paragliding Originate?

Meanwhile in the French Alps, climbers were utilizing similar technology. They found that after reaching the summit, they could make their descent from the peak safer and more efficient by using small ram-air canopies to help them “float” down the mountain. These parachutes weighed only 8 pounds, flew at a speed of 20 mph, and dropped the rider 3 feet of height for every foot traveled. By the mid-1980s, those interested in this mode of air travel started to focus on maximizing the flight potential of rising air, which was found to be the secret in increasing the duration of flights and thereby covering longer distances.

Many advances were made in product design in the ’80s, all of which helped to improve parachute glide performance: increased wingspan, the introduction of nonporous fabric, and modifying the shape and trim of the airfoil. A newly enhanced design meant changes in the flight characteristics, and therefore new skills and techniques were needed to pilot the aircraft. The most successful designs were produced in large numbers to meet the growing demands of paragliding enthusiasts, whose numbers were increasing dramatically. By 1986, the sport was well established in Europe.

Over the last few years, a wide range of paragliding equipment has been developed in Europe, Asia, and the United States. Manufacturers test their products thoroughly to ensure the pilots’ safety. For a long time, the development and marketing of paragliders in the USA had been restricted to three manufacturers of skydiving equipment. Though their products were very safe and stable, they lacked the performance of the European designs. A few radical new designs incorporating wings had emerged by the early ’90s. Production was concentrated on paragliders with stable handling characteristics, making them suitable for the general flying population. Little by little, the wings became classified into different groups, according to their usage. There were different canopies designed for student pilots, intermediate (recreational) pilots, and competition pilots. In France and Germany, standardized procedures were established for testing and certifying paragliders; nowadays, this standard represents the benchmark for all manufacturers worldwide.

As paragliding evolved, the sport eventually separated into two different sports: skydiving (parachuting) and paragliding. In fact, in some regards, the two sports came full circle to meet again to a modest extent in appearance and design. For example, there are presently several different sport-jumping canopy designs. Their wings are nonporous, elliptical shaped, and have thin-profile airfoils, which allow higher speeds, better glide performance, and greater aerodynamic efficiency. These features, which were developed especially for paragliders, are now being incorporated back into skydiving parachutes. Of course, even though some paragliding wings seem, at first glance, to be quite similar to certain skydiving canopies, the two structures have very disparate flight characteristics that require unique pilot techniques.