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Flying A Mattress

Date: 01/01/1989
Author: Alan Russell
Contributor: Chris Jones

For about a year I have harboured a slightly daft desire. To wit, the slightly suspect wish to lob off a hill with only a saggy mass of ripstop and string attached to my back, rather than my more usual solid Magic.

Towards the end of May the ideal opportunity to satisfy this death wish presented itself. I had to call in at the Airwave factory to collect a new Kiss and decided to book a day's Paragliding course with Mike McMillan. For those of you who, like me, wondered what Paragliding is really like, here are a few impressions.

I travelled down to the Isle of Wight on a Thursday and collected the new diver too late to fly it that day. Lynne (my girlfriend) and I then took ourselves off to Mike's palatial headquarters at Tapnell Farm to book in for bed and breakfast. Friday dawned bright and breezy with a fair Northerly and after a huge breakfast, Lynne and the rest of the novice paragliding students headed to the bottom of Afton for ground handling lessons whilst I slugged up the hill with my new "light" glider. After ascertaining that the colours were quite as disgusting as I'd suspected and that the wing worked as well as anyone could hope for I plonked it in on top in front of the golf course and strolled down the slope to join the paragliding class.

It has to be said that the average hang glider pilot will find conversion onto one of these Flying Blancmanges exceptionally straightforward. The most difficult thing to master is ground handling. In stronger winds you face away from takeoff and after inflating the paraglider spin round and run off down the hill. In nil or light winds you simply face forwards and run to get the canopy up and inflated and then run off the hill.

The only controls on the simpler models are the "brakes", one on each end of the trailing edge. Pulling on the brake pulls down the trailing edge the left brake cord makes you go left and the right, right. Pulling on both makes the canopy fly slower and lifts you more, like pushing out on a hang glider. If you keep pulling on the brakes you can make the canopy stall and even collapse. If you are stupid enough to do this it can take an awful lot of height to recover. I heard talk of 400 feet, aargh! To take off you run with little or no brakes and pull on both brakes a little to actually lift off. Again, very similar to take off in a hang glider. Due to the slow stalling speed in quite a gentle breeze there seems to be little need to run, so long as the slope is steep because the glide angle is absolutely awful. With intermediate canopies reckon on about three to one. This means that you'll need a hill as steep as, say, Westbury to simply take off in nil winds. The super top notch canopies claim six to one but take that one with a pinch of condiment. Another thing to watch out for is the shear inefficiency of canopies. I found to my cost that it is impossible to convert speed to height to avoid Gorse bushes.

After ten minutes running about at the bottan of Afton under the expert eye of Dave Sollom (the first BAPC and BHGA registered instructor and very good, too) I was off up the 100' hill for my first solo. Hops from lower down are a waste of time for anybody with flying eXperience. Take off was a doddle, despite twisting the wrong way after inflating the canopy (you simply let go of the brakes and rotate yourself back to the correct position, the things are amazingly stable).

During the remainder of the day I successfully proved to myself that you can land them downslope, upslope, sideways crosswind, dowwind and even amidst the large patches of not so rare thorny bushes dotting the slope !

By the end of one day Lynne, who has no flying experience other than a couple of dual flights was competently launching herself from near the top of the hill and landing where she wanted. Had the wind been any stronger she would have found soaring very straightforward. Paragliding is significantly easier to learn in the early stages than hang gliding.

For a P2 pilot one day should get you your F2 rating, the equivalent of EPC level. Lynne spent two days learning and is now about Fl.5 standard (for complete novices about 2.5 to 3 days is needed to achieve F2). Mike and Dave have been finding a lot of wives and girlfriends of hang glider pilots are coming on courses.

Paragliding is to hang gliding what hang gliding is to sailplaning, that is, it is simpler, has less high performance equipment and is much less fuss. It is not intrinsically safer or much cheaper.

Paragliders pack into bags complete with harness, which are about the same size and a bit less weight than a Pod Lite. An intermediate will cost about £700 new and the latest wizzo one (Falhawk are the market leaders) about £1500. Those who know recommend strongly that you do not purchase this year's "hot" model, unless you really like being a test pilot. The sport is undergoing it's early rapid development rather like hang gliding in the early 70's. It also appears that none of the British made canopies are as good as the Continental ones (although I saw the latest Harley matching a Comet (no, not the hang glider) for glide angle). There are rumours of Airwave producing a canopy. The average hang glider pilot would probably find a simple canopy a bit limited in performance and buying last year's proven super model may be a good plan.

Canopies can be made to spin, stall and can collapse in rough air. Experienced pilots apparently do this for fun. They appear to thermal quite well, being very slow and easy to turn they centre in the strongest lift more easily than a hang glider (similar to our advantage over sailplanes). I certainly wouldn't consider attempting to thermal one without a back up 'chute. Special paragliding 'chutes are a must and there is a German one with Gutesiegel which Jim Bowyer is importing. It costs about £275 and has ten proven "saves" to its name in Germany. Jim also tells me that, this summer Parapenting in France and Germany has been hospitalising and killing about one person A DAY on average.

Mike runs longer courses which include winching to sufficient height to allow spin and stall recovery practise. As the cost of running the winch is quite high (it needs two instructors) he can only run these for groups and not individuals.

Being so compact paragliders can be thrown in the car along with the rest of your flying kit and you can use the when conditions are unsuitable for hang gliding, despite their narrow soaring windspeed "window" . You can land a1most anywhere. They are lots of fun. There's no aluminium to bend and they take about 60 seconds to rig.

On the other hand the performance is still very poor (the very top models are nearly as good as a Stubby) they can be extremely dangerous: canopy collapse; being blown back, being trapped over unsuitable landings areas due to poor penetration and glide angle. They do cost a lot.

The bottom line is would I buy one? Well, if money was no object I certainly would. In reality I am more likely to wait a bit. Unless, of course, I cane across an offer I can't refuse! Pound per point on the performance scale they don't compare with hang gliders. Pound per smile they certainly do.

Contributor's Notes:

Alan was an experienced club pilot, famous for producing one of the first Hang-gliding travel videos in the 1980's "the Ager Tapes". Alan now mostly flies paragliders and is still a club member.


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