Have you ever watched someone paragliding and thought how exhilarating it would be to glide through the air, admiring the scenery from afar. Riding the thermals and taking cues from birds to find the next riser…
So whats stopping you? There are plenty of BHPA (British Hang Gliding And Paragliding) approved schools that provide week long introductory courses and follow on courses to gain pilot qualifications.
Having seen paragliders launching off mountains in Austria, soaring above Sugarloaf mountain in Rio and traversing the ridge off Miraflores in Lima I realised there was nothing stopping me have a go for myself. I had visions of landing on the beach of Ipanema to the awe of admiring Brazilians. I’d obviously seen one too many milk tray adverts at a susceptible age.
Where to Learn to Paraglide
So, where’s the best place for you to learn? In the UK, paragliding is affectionately referred to as parawaiting. The gusty maritime winds make for unpredictable and risky conditions for flying.
After a modicum of research I settled upon a reputable paragliding school in Spain setup by a Sideshow Bob lookalike from Brighton. Flyspain.co.uk was established in 2002 and is run from Algodonales in the heart of Andalucia.
Predictable Winds Of Andalucia
In southern Spain the conditions are perfect for paragliding; nice predictable winds, not too strong or gusty can be relied upon day after day. The intense Andalucian sun heats the ground and creates lots of columns of warm air, known as thermals. These thermals can be tapped by experienced pilots to quickly gain altitude. You’ll occasionally be joined by a bird looking to gain altitude too.
Up And Flying Straightaway
On day one we spent a couple of hours running on the ground with the paraglider wing trailing above us, getting a feel for inflating and raising the wing. By late afternoon we were on the top of a rise and taking it in turns to run down. Everyone was elated to get a bit of air for the first time, even if it was only half a metre off the ground for a few seconds!
Airtime And Flightpaths
One of the instructors would head off first to show us the rough flightpath we should follow. We would then follow, one by one, being talked through the whole flight on a walkie talkie.
As the day progressed the hot sun meant the conditions got “thermally”. The rising air can make paragliding a bit too choppy for novice pilots. As you pass through thermals you can feel the uplift and the wing can start flapping. More experienced paragliders can take advantage of the thrilling conditions and rapidly rise hundreds of metres.
Thermal Activity And Mid Afternoon Breaks
As the thermals became stronger us novices were grounded for a few hours. This gives great opportunities for leisurely exploring the surrounding villages and countryside; or a siesta if you’re worn out. Just down the road is Zahara, a picturesque white-washed town clinging to a hillside, overlooking a pristine reservoir, great for a quick dip to cool off.
After a few hours break we would clamber back in the trusty van and summit another hill to the sounds of pumping tunes. As we disembarked the van and prepared for each flight we were just brimming with enthusiasm and positive energy.
Paragliding Training Techniques
A paraglider hung from the HQ ceiling is a great learning tool for practicing manouevres without fear of collapsing your wing.
A local cafe serves as the setting for a lesson on interpreting weather signals and reading the wind. As a Brit, being able to take polite chit chat about the weather to the next level is always handy.
Showing You The Ropes
Various rises, hillocks and mountain locations are used as launch pads as your group progresses and gains in confidence and ability. Rob will explain the lay of the land and accurately gauge the wind speed using a unique method honed over the years – feeling the wind blowing across his legs. Lots of beeping gadgetry serves to verify his measurements for the disbelievers.
Throughout the week there are generally 3 instructors on hand to demonstrate, encourage, observe and help correct any mistakes you are making. You are shown the ropes quite literally; untangling the multitude of tiny cords that connect you to the canopy takes a bit of practice. Imagine trying to untangle a bowl of spaghetti and you’ll get the picture.
Flight paths were sketched out using a stick and a patch of dirt as brush and canvas. Another time honoured technique that served us well.
Rapid Progression – How Fast Is Too Fast?
After three days of training we were flying hundreds of metres above the ground for about five minutes at a time. This seems a scarily quick progression but it didn’t feel forced and no one was out of their depth or flustered. All of the basics were mastered in measured steps allowing everyone to gain in confidence as we moved to higher ground and longer flights.
“Flight Reviews” With Fellow Pilots
My fellow wannabe pilots were a great bunch, each from different parts of Europe, all with interesting stories to tell. So the evenings were passed with glass in hand enjoying the balmy summer climate and great conversation.
A few plates of tapas are a delicious way to replenish energy after a hard days paragliding. This can be followed by a languorous stroll around the main plaza in the village. The plaza is the centre of village life, it’s a hubbub of activity in the evenings with generations of families congregating to chat and pass the warm summer evenings.
Gaining Your Club Pilot Qualification
The week long course served as an introduction, after which you could take another weeks tuition to attain your pilot qualification.
As a qualified pilot you can share the skies with aircraft and the like without getting into trouble with the authorities. Airspace regulations are all covered in the training courses.
More importantly you’ll have developed enough ability to fly around without the risk of doing something stupid and seriously hurting yourself.
At this point you might want to tap into paraglider networks to meet a few paragliding buddies and discover the best places for paragliding holidays and practice hills in your area.
Paragliding Associations & Club Links
British Hang Gliding & Paragliding Association
South East Wales Hang Gliding and Paragliding Club
Thames Valley Hang Gliding Club
Paragliding in South Africa
New Zealand Paragliding Association
Canadian Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association
Is Paragliding An Expensive Sport?
It is a relatively cheap past time compared to gliding or flying. Also in terms of portability because it all stuffs into a big rucksack you can take it anywhere you go with no fuss. Try doing that with a microlight or hang glider.
Buying the Kit And Being Flight Ready
If you decide to stick with paragliding you’ll need to invest in a few essentials, the biggest expense will be buying a paraglider. These retail for anything between £900 and £3000, though you can pick them up second hand a bit cheaper. Bear in mind you’ll be trusting your life to this bit of kit so make sure it’s in tip top condition.
The only other essentials are your harness £250 – £700, a pair of sturdy boots £30 – £100 and a natty helmet £90.
Two weeks of training courses will cost approximately £1400. So with this added to the equation your total outlay will be between £2680 and £5300. This cost will be on the lower side of the range if you buy a second hand paraglider and harness – from a reputable source. Alternatively you could splash out on all the latest gadgetry and top end gear and spend a lot more.
Paragliding Training Books And Manuals
It’s worth investing in a few paragliding books for reading between flights too. These are pretty cheap and represent good value for money.
From Beginner To Cross Country comes highly recommended and is a good reference for beginners and more experienced pilots.
Touching Cloud base is a nice easy read with all the info required to help you pass the BHPA exams.
Paragliding, the complete guide serves as a good general introduction to the world of paragliding.
Preparation Before You Go
A reasonable level of fitness is advisable. The first few days learning involve a fair bit of running with the paraglider dragging over your head and carrying your bulky paraglider up the training hill.
Getting your wing off the floor requires you to lunge forward at the same time as pulling forward on the cords with your arms and shoulders. By the end of the week most people had marks on their forearms from the friction with the cords. This gives you an indication of the force required to get the wing inflated above you. By the end of the week you’ll have mastered this and will be able to execute this procedure in one fluid motion with a fraction of the energy.
Things to Take With You
In terms of kit, you will need to take a pair of boots with good ankle support. This will prevent you twisting your ankles after awkward landings. A pair of sunglasses is always a good idea in this part of Europe too.
Pack a t-shirt for each day because the hot sun and physical exertion guarantee that the men will sweat and the ladies will gently perspire.
Other than that and maybe suncream you should be good to go. A paraglider, harness and helmet will be provided by any decent training centre.
Getting there – Fly to Malaga & Hire Car
I flew into Malaga airport, picked up a hire car and drove the 2 hours to Algodonales from there. Having a car allows you to take advantage of time off to explore the surrounding area. After the training finished I spent a few days exploring Ronda – a beautiful historic town; Cadiz– A modern Spanish city, largely undisturbed by tourists; and out of morbid fascination visited Torremolinos – An ugly fusion of beach and concrete which I hurriedly left.
You can alternatively arrange a pickup from the airport, not recommended, but a good option if you want to save your money for other things – like a new paraglider!
I can, hand on heart, say that the elementary paragliding course was one of the most enjoyable weeks I’ve had; the exhilaration of soaring off a mountain and the sense of accomplishment as you progress make it a really rewarding experience.
It’s a mild physical workout that also taxes your grey-matter as you get to grips with weather conditions, thermals and aerodynamics. Throw in the stunning Andalucian countryside, the best tapas in Spain and the laid back attitude of a traditional Spanish pueblo and you have a recipe for a perfect holiday.
Across the world there are lots of amazing locations with established schools that offer paragliding courses.
My fellow pilot wannabes were also a great bunch. Anyone with an appetite for running off mountains is alright in my book.
So, if you’re the kind of person that might enjoy running off a mountain then give it a try, you wont be disappointed.
Have you ever been on a paragliding holiday? What were the highlights for you? Add a comment below.