Paragliding is a an extreme recreational and competitive sport that involves flying a lightweight foot-launched free-flying aircraft. A paraglider flight can last for many hours and cover long distances. The current world record for distance is 502.9 km held by Nevil Hulett and for altitude 4526 m held by Robbie Whittall.
The paraglider has no rigid structure and the pilot is loosely buckled into a harness suspended beneath a fabric wing that supports him in the sitting and standing position. Air enters the front vents of the wings with pressure and is forced over the outside. Modern harnesses are very comfortable and usually have foam or airbag protectors under the seat and behind the back. A second parachute is attached to the paraglider. The aircraft is meant to be easily portable so all equipment fits into a rucksack.
Pilots use radio communications to report their landing positions and talk to airport control towers or other pilots. Most carry a cell phone so they can call for pickup if their desired landing destination is not reached. In competitions like the Paragliding World Cup, pilots carry GPS receivers to record their flight track. The GPS recording is used to analyze flying technique.
Paragliding launches and landings are done into the wind. In a forward launch with low winds, the pilot runs forward with the wind behind. A reverse launch is used in harsher weather conditions, because the pilot runs facing the winds and then turns around under the wing and runs in the opposite direction. A tow-launch can also be used if the terrain is flat.
When attempting to land, a pilot “flares” the wing before touching the ground so the speed is reduced. In stronger winds he can even go backwards, and before touching the ground apply momentary breaking and then release to reduce vertical speed. Flapping the wing can make it lose performance. Collapsing after impact and breaking prevents the pilot from being dragged. If the weather rapidly changes, three paragliding techniques are used to reduce altitude: a spiral descend, a B-line stall and “Big years”, more suitable for beginners. The pilot holds a control in each hand for breaking, flare and steering. Shifting the weight is also used to steer.
Paragliding is an important commercial activity in regions with mountains and cliffs. Schools offer courses for beginners and experiences guides can lead groups of pilots. Power paragliding is a related sport that involves a similar aircraft with an engine attached. Hang gliders are made from aluminium alloy and have a delta wing design.