THE who, what, where, and when of paragliding aren't too difficult to figure out. The how and why, though, is another question. Who is attracted to it? European mountain climbers looking for a quicker way back down, and skiers looking for an alternative way back up (they ski uphill using the wind), form the vanguard of this emerging sport. But any outdoor-oriented thrill seeker may be found trying out one of the newest ways to fly. What is paragliding? It's a four-year-old sport that combines the freedom of hang gliding with the simplicity of parachuting. What began with a few daredevils free-falling off cliffs with conventional square (ram-air) parachutes has developed into an almost-sane sport using a craft that is steerable and easy to fly. It can be launched from just about any knoll, dune, or mountainside, with or without wind. A paraglider can even get airborne from flat ground with enough rope and a headwind.
J. Warren Perry-Richardson, the editor of an American newsletter on para-sports called Para Gliding Review, uses the term ``paragliding'' as a catchall to mean the whole range of para-sports, including parascending and parasailing. The chutes pictured here are called parapentes in French, meaning to ``fly the slope.'' It is this unique way of using parachute-like equipment (with a few technical adaptations) that defines this new sport. In America, the term paragliding is commonly used.
As for the where and when, Europe's Alps, particularly the French village of Annecy where many of the world's paragliders are made, is one home of this rapidly growing sport. But paragliders can also be found flying in Britain, Australia, and Japan at any time of the year, as long as it isn't raining and the wind isn't blowing too hard.
To really understand some of the hows and whys of paragliding, however, took a blustery weekend on Cape Cod, a trained instructor, and 11 adventurous types who wanted to fly.
The seminar began when Marc Chirico, a former hang-gliding instructor now promoting paragliding in the United States, showed us a heap of tangled lines and colorful lightweight material. It seemed unlikely that the pile would ever be untangled, let alone fly. But after some brief instruction, the first of the group was soon strapped into the harness, tied down with rope, and hovering a few feet off the ground.
As gusts blew the paraglider around the flat field, Mr. Chirico assured us of the sport's safety. ``The ground is what can hurt you,'' Chirico said, ``but landing is very simple.'' In fact, International Techniques of Voile (ITV), a French boardsailing company that is the largest maker of paragliders, has emphasized safety by requiring each customer to take a training seminar before buying one of its paragliders (cost: $1,000 to $2,000). ``There have been no accidents involving certified fliers,'' says Philip Villard, a test pilot for ITV who helped instruct our group.
Paragliding differs from other parachute sports. The glider does not open during a free fall from an airplane or a cliff. Rather, it is open and full of air before one's feet leave the ground. It differs from its close cousin parasailing (being towed behind a powerboat or car), because a glider can be launched by one's own power and is made to cut through the air for forward glide, instead of simply descending. A typical parachute descends at a rate of about 1,000 feet per minute; a paraglider's rate is only 300 feet per minute.
The biggest difference between paragliding and hang gliding - and the reason so many Europeans are taking up the sport - is the ease with which it can be learned. ``You can learn how to fly in three days,'' Chirico promised the group.
The first day was mostly instruction, but by the end of the second day, each aspiring paraglider pilot had advanced from soaring above the dune with a safety rope to swooping down the dune in free flight. The successful lessons occurred in front of several disgruntled hang-glider pilots, who spent most of the day waiting in the parking lot for the wind to change.
First, Chirico showed each pilot how the paraglider, a pile of lines, straps, and cloth which fits easily into a pack and weighs only 10 to 12 pounds, is put together. The chute is made up of eight to 10 cells that are open at the leading edge of the chute and closed at the trailing edge. Some paragliders have as many as 44 suspension points from which lines hang. The numerous lines fan out from four or six straps (depending on the harness used) called elevators.
The pilot steers by pulling down on one of two lines (called brakes) that connect to the right and left side of the back edge of the paraglider. Pulling on the right brake bends the back of the right edge of the chute down, making it catch more air and turning the paraglider to the right. The left brake banks the paraglider left. Pulling both brakes down gives extra lift.
Chirico's training technique is much like flying a kite, except that the student is on the airborne end of the rope. The steady wind was ideal for learning. After lunch on the second day, we graduated to free flight.
Jumping off the crest of a 50-foot dune near Wellfleet, Mass., for the first time was surprisingly easy, yet understandably exciting. Each jump was over in a matter of seconds. Once I learned how to use the paraglider to help me march back up the dune, I quickly lost count of the number of jumps I made.
The crowning moment of the weekend came at the end of the day when Mr. Villard took us to the top of another dune, three times the height of the one we had spent most of the day on. The wind was less than ideal, coming in at an angle to the face of the dune. Using two-way radio headsets, we hoisted our paragliders over our heads, hopped off the lip of the dune, made a hard left bank downwind along the dune, and then a hard right back into the wind for a smooth landing. Our moments of glory lasted only about 40 seconds, but those 40 seconds were enough to make most of us decide that this was something we would have to do again.