by Ronnie Juhans
Paragliding is an outdoor adventure activity that many people like myself enjoy watching from the ground. However, watching the pilots launch from a cliff sail through the air while circling or performing maneuvers and coming in for precise landings gave me the urge to join in on the fun.
A couple of years ago I decided to enroll in a weeklong solo paragliding course in Ramsau, Austria. I was a bit apprehensive and concerned about safety and what to expect until arriving. I was relieved to hear that all my instructors were seasoned, free-style and stunt paragliders.
The first day was six hours of safety briefing, equipment knowledge, ground handling and weather conditions followed by hiking up the small training hill, running down it and going airborne. This was a major confidence builder because you only glide for a few seconds at about 10-feet high and learn how to land safely on your feet or like me learn from a few mistakes resulting in a few face plants or grass skid marks on the back of your pants.
When our group arrived for day two of instruction we all shared the same feeling. Tired and sore from hiking back and forth up that hill endlessly, dirty looking, a bit scraped up but ready to keep rolling.
Having more confidence and a feel for the sport, our instructor pushed us a little harder by putting us into an outdoor simulator that teaches turning, slowing and stopping skills. And of course a few more hours of honing our skills, and getting into better physical shape.
On the third day, the winds in the Ramsau valley picked up so high that our instructors did not allow us to fly. Instead, they used the opportunity to teach us some of their advanced skills such as kiting. This training was basically remaining on the ground and catching the wind from different directions to learn how to maintain control during unexpected wind direction and speed change while being aware of yourself and equipment reactions.
The last two days of our training were mid-level and high-level solo flights. The altitudes required us to take the gondola to the launch field escorted by instructors that would once again take us through more safety training and emergency procedures before taking the big leap over the cliffs. We were also outfitted with earpieces in order to take instructions from the ground during the flight.
As we checked our equipment and spread out along the field we were called by name to be ready to fly based on the wind. I have to admit that when I heard “Ronnie the winds are good, run down the hill now and bring your wing above your head,” I was thinking about my next face plant or newly acquired grass skid marks before reaching the edge of the cliff. However, I was gently lifted off the ground and proceeded to glide over the valley without effort.
One after the other we were all flying over the valley at a safe distance from each other and being instructed by amazing professionals via radio. Being the lightweight in our group the thermals lifted me up higher than I expected. I was a bit worried until my instructors said “nice altitude, remember your training and just enjoy the flight. After instructing me to go on a series of previous taught turning maneuvers and descending, I landed on point, this time on my feet.
If you don’t have a week to spend learning solo paragliding there are many opportunities to enjoy a tandem flight with a skilled instructor who will take you through all of the required safety instructions, expectations, and let you just go for the flight of your life.
What to consider (Tandem Flights or Solo Training)
Going as a small group:
In my experience going with a small group that you get to know instead of booking for yourself increases your level of confidence and decreases your fear and apprehensions. This is a great team-building bucket list adventure that will not only allow you to be motivated by others but will also give you peace of mind.
Anticipating falling over the edge of a cliff is one of the major fears of this sport. No worries. The thermals will get you off the ground after running a few steps with the wing over your head, and you will enjoy a smooth flight with a soft landing.
Of course, the question of how safe is paragliding in comparison to other outdoor activities. There is always an element of risk when it comes to high adventure activities. However, it is vital to check an organization’s safety records, certifications, training programs, as well as reviews from former participants.
Health, level of fitness and age:
As with any outdoor activity, there concerns when it comes to ability. When in doubt consult with your doctor if you have certain medical conditions. Don’t let your age be a deciding factor. I have flown with paragliders from teens to senior citizens and have never experienced a problem. Body weight can be an issue. Make sure that you discuss this with the paragliding company prior to booking. Most issues can be addressed and corrected based on conditions, and available equipment.
Paragliding high season is from spring to fall when the heat of the thermals keep you up longer and give you a better flight. However, based on weather conditions and what a company offers this can also be a great opportunity to see the snow-capped slopes from the air during the winter. Check with the companies well ahead of time.
Comfortable sturdy shoes or boots.
All weather clothing