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Fly Away Paragliding

The Bad Old, Good Old Days
The fifteen year perspective


I'm driving with the heater on full blast. My teeth are numb from the cold. 15 years ago to the date I took my first flight on a paraglider. Today I marked the occasion with with a numbing flight on my paramotor, climbing up beyond the inversion for warm, skimming the beach around the lake for the sheer foolishness of in all.

15 years ago I saw what I thought were parachutes floating down into the town of Verbier Switzerland. And, although we’ve all heard, “Where’s the plane you jumped from?” back then the difference between sky diving rigs and paragliders were few and the mistake was easily made. I had taken my first few sky dives earlier that year and was curious. I signed up for lessons.

My first day of instruction stays with me to this day. I think, “How can I spare my students from the experience I had”. The Instructor would fling unexplained terminology at us, “What was string? Was it the same as Lines and or wires?” We were stuck in gliders and told to run down the hill till, “We got it.”. After flailing around for an hour the Instructor came by and said, “You don’t have it, try more.” and walked off. “That’s #@%ing helpful.” I thought.

For those of you that missed the “Bad Old, Good Old Days” consider yourself lucky. The gear was poor and low performing. The Instructors knew only a tiny bit more than you did because back then no one knew all that much.

PhotoHere a picture of what went on.

- My first glider, (which was typical of the gliders of that time), had nine cells, boasted a glider ratio of 4/1, a sink rate of, somewhere around, five hundred feet per minute, weighed about ten pounds. The weight range was 60 - 80 kg with a flat surface area of 23 Sq. m. Each cell was large enough to crawl into making it possible to use it as a nine man bivy sack.

- The American Paragliding Association, (APA) was the regulating organization, not USHGA. They had a magazine and Instructor program.

-Everything about paragliding was bright! Glow in the dark, clashing colors. Fluorescent colors were big.

- The industry hadn’t figured out what colors and materials were U.V. resistant. Some gliders were used up in as little as a year or two!

- There was no internet! No flaming posts, no way to find an Instructor, sites, organizations. I flew for over a year and a half before finding out about the APA.

- You had to do a FULL STALL to get what was called a “Class one” rating. “OK you’ve got twenty flights, time for your full stall.”

- You couldn’t do a B-line stall because the gliders only had front and rear risers.

- When gliders got B risers, pilots would use B-line stalls for landing
approaches in tight LZ’s. (That didn’t last long!)

- There were two ratings, Class One and Class Two.

-“V” ribs were already invented. Pro-Design had a v-rib glider in ‘86 and the Excaliber was very heavily marketed in the U.S. Then “V” ribs went out of favor till the late nineties.

- As most early gliders were square, rounding the wing tips was a revolution. One manufacture claimed a patent on the idea of an “elliptical glider” and attempted to sue all the other manufactures.

- There actually were gliders made in the U.S. once.

- By the early Nineties there were two dominate players importing paragliders, Pro-Design and Edel. Last time I counted there were 17 brands in the U.S. and I’m sure I missed some.

- The use of reserve parachutes was a hot topic of debate. “What do you need a parachute for when you already have a good canopy overhead.” was the argument from those with a sky diving background.

-Photo Back protection didn’t exist.

- Neither did speed bars.

- The first back protectors were hard plastic plates. Although they did serve to distribute the impact of a crash over a larger area, they did nothing to absorb that impact. Often the ground was softer than your back protector.

- Trim tabs were the first device used to change angle of attack. Trim tabs were often added to those old slow gliders, (thereby voiding it’s certification) especially at high wind ridge soaring sites. I had my Pro-Design Compact modified to race at the “Torrey Pines Air Races” in 1993. A full thirteen inches of travel was added to my “C” risers. Due to the instability of such excessive travel the last 5 inches were marked "death" in magic marker. Note: Some modern glider are sold with trim tabs. These gliders have been certified with trim tabs.

- Speed seats, A speed seat extended your risers under your seat board of you harness. If you leaned forward you would pull your “A” risers down, lowering your angle of attack and speeding up the glider. Lean back, slow and increase your angle of attack. Weight shift as normal. You could always tell a speed seat glider in the air, they were very agile. The idea was to give a paraglider true three axis control, pitch roll and yaw. One big problem, gliders stall when the angle of attack gets too high. Enter a thermal on any glider and because the rising air has a greater vertical component your angle of attack becomes higher When increasing your angle of attack the glider slows down and the pilot swings forward. This oscillation also increases the angle of attack. When you swing forward you legs go up and you sit back in your harness. In a normal harness sitting back in your harness doesn’t change your angle of attack, in a speed seat it does. That adding of a whole new factor of angle of attack, in some cases, made the difference between a bit of pitch oscillation and stalling. Speed seat have been abandon as far as I know. ( Well, expect for this one guy I know in San Francisco.)

- Collapses, It was thought that the best way to prevent collapses was to make the gliders stiffer. To this end some gliders had battens or stiffeners on the bottom of the leading edge. These battens were a foot or two long running front to back. My Pro Design Airbow had stiff mylar load ribs. One glider had two plastic battens that ran along the top and bottom of the ports from wing tip to wing tip. This glider was the winner of the “All time hardest to pack” award. You had to coil it up from one wing tip like a giant spring and then wrestle it into you pack, while it tried to unfurl. Stiffening the glider, alas, is a two way street. Stiffening impedes collapses, but in also impedes re-inflating your glider. I had more than one flight on my Airbow that, after getting a collapse, ( A much more common event on those old crappy gliders.) that I went all the way to the landing zone to land, cursing, being unable to get the wing tip inflated again.

- In the early 90’s speed bars became an option on the new super trick three riser gliders.

- In the summer of 1990, with 75 flights (Expert pilot at this point, right!?) I ordered, over the phone, a new DHV level three glider. After flailing around for a few days I called the guy who sold it to me. “Why can’t I get this glider overhead?” I said, “How much “A” riser are you pulling” He asked, “You mean I’m supposed to pull the “A” risers?”

- I survived flying a glider that would just as soon spin as turn. Made it till 93 when the first crop of reasonable gliders appeared, such as, The Pro-Design Compact, Edel Space, Firebird Apache. All these glider were sold as entry level gliders. They were DHV 2!

These Days:

A new pilot can get a brand new DHV 1 beginner glider that will well out perform the nastiest competition gliders of the bad old days. That’s the cool thing, the new beginner gliders have gotten so much more stable and perform so well that many old time pilots are down grading from the DHV 2 and 2/3 advanced gliders. I’ve given up flying DHV 2/3. There is no point for any recreational pilot to fly a glider at that level, the performance gain is so small and what you give up in stability and fun are too great. I’m jealous of you new guys just starting out. I wish I had, back then, the cool gear you have.



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