This page is for people curious about our sport, but have perhaps decided not to learn themselves.
A hang glider is rigid and includes a metal / composite framework around which specialised sailcloth is stretched to form the flying surface. The pilot is suspended in a fabric harness just under the wing and uses a wide, rigid control bar to turn and adjust pitch (causing the glider to dive or start to climb).
Paragliders are non-rigid aircraft made up of lightweight specialised sailcloth normally formed with two layers separated by approximately 20-30cm at the most, tapering to be joined together at the rear of the wing profile. At the front of the wing profile a gap is maintained by clever stitching and sometimes semi-rigid plastic rods. Across the wing, there are internal vertical walls at about 20cm intervals (forming what are called cells), so the gap between the two layers is correctly maintained across the wing and front to back. As the wing moves though the air, the gaps at the front allow air to fill the cells and thus form the wing shape. The pilot is in a fabric harness roughly 6m below the wing and controls the glider with two handles known as the brakes. With combinations of applying the brakes at the appropriate time, in addition to turns, more complex manoeuvres are possible.
Both hang gliders and paragliders achieve gliding flight, unlike a parachute. Another difference is that parachutes are normally constructed with semi-porous cloth, whereas both hang gliders and paragliders use non-porous fabrics. This means that when we launch from a hill we are already flying - so we don't "jump off hills" as most people assume.
We don't have engines, relying on wind and themals, instead, to achieve prolonged flights of time and distance. Thermals are where warm air "pockets" rise from the ground, usually forming clouds. There are motorised hang gliders and paraglider pilots using back mounted engines, the latter are known as paramotors. Hang gliders and paragliders can be towed by a winch (or slow aerotug in the case of hang gliders) in flat land areas. Tow launching requires separate training and qualification to acquire the necessary skills safely.
Parascending (also know as parasailing) is an entirely different activity referring to being towed up to an altitude with a parascending canopy that works as a parachute. Parascending canopies do not generate lift and, therefore, do not fly as *gliders do.
Skydiving and BASE jumping are also different activities. Both of these might use "ram air" canopies that do generate some lift, making them vaguely similar to paragliders in design. But the primary aim of those canopies is to allow them to land safely, as opposed to gliding any significant distances. Wing suit flying is related to skydiving and BASE jumping and, thus, is also a different activity to hang gliding and paragliding.
We're highly weather dependent: we can't fly when the wind is too strong, when it's raining / snowing and when it's foggy. We prefer to fly when the wind is between 8-15mph (paragliders) and 15-25mph (hang gliders). The direction the wind is blowing will determine which hill we'll fly, which might explain why you may see us on hill X one day, but not the next - the wind will have changed direction.
As we are flying aircraft, firstly we must undertake training for our own safety, for the safety of others on the ground and also for other aircraft. The training (in the UK) is regulated by the British Hang gliding and Paragliding Association - BHPA, on whose website much more information about the sport, learning, clubs and schools may be found. Airspace is designated with several classes and we are only allowed to fly in a few of these so cannot just fly "anywhere" that we wish. Also, there are issues of access to the land from which we take off and land. This is different in Scotland from the rest of the UK but even with Scottish Statutory Access Rights we may still require permission, not least as a courtesy to the land owner.
Training is provided by regulated commercial schools and not by clubs. It might take 10-20 days to qualify to fly, although due to our dependence on weather, the elapsed timed might span months. Once qualified, pilots normally join a club and then develop their skills and experience within the club.
Flying, by dint of being at any height above ground, does have associated risks. Our first way of mitigating this is through training, both in handling techniques and in assessment of conditions. Other ways of mitigating the risks include: flying with others, letting other know our plans and by flying with an emergency reserve parachute (referred to usually as the "reserve"). The reserve parachute is usually round or square and is not normally steerable.
Flying at high altitude has the additional risks of hypoxia and cold. The former can be reduced with the use of oxygen enriched gas cylinders which adds a different burden of weight and the need to monitor the gas supply remaining. The temperature problem is harder to solve since we need to have a reasonable level of freedom of movement with our hands and arms - flexible gloves and thermal base layers facilitate the balance between flight control and keeping warm. In high summer, it can be hard work on take off when all geared up for flying at cloud base. On a typical UK summer's day cloud base might be between 3000ft and 6000ft. In mountainous areas of the world, cloud base may be much higher - paraglider pilots have landed on the top of Mont Blanc in France, or even flown on the face of 8100m peaks in the Himalayas.
Hang gliders come in several forms, mostly to do with price and performance. Paragliders also come in some different forms, but more to do with "purpose". Miniwings and speed wings are much smaller than "standard" paragliders which make them faster and more manoeuverable but at the cost of efficient gliding. Paraglider pilots ridge soar (on hills), go on cross country trips (know as XC) and, with considerable training and practice, can perform acrobatics - unsurprisingly known as acro. In Scotland, we also often do "hike and fly" - walk up one of our many hills and fly down to the foot of another hill, repeat!
We're often asked "what's that device that makes the beeping noise?". If you've ever been in a smooth running lift, you'll have noticed that in the middle of the ride it's very hard to tell if it's going up or down, unless you have visual clues. We have the same problem when flying. To help with this, we use an instrument called a variometer (known to us as a vario) which makes different sounds if you're going up or down. The frequency and pitch of the sound are used to show the rate of ascent / descent.
Many hang glider and paraglider pilots take part in competitions at local, national and international levels. One type of competition common to both HG and PG is cross country (XC). Pilots must complete a circuit, starting at one place and ending at another, going via a number of intermediate way points. In order to follow the course, pilots use computer-based specialised competition instruments or specialised software for smartphones. Nowadays, the organisers provide each pilot with their own tracker to follow their progress live. These trackers also help with retrieving pilots who don't complete the course and land out, away from the competition bases. Scoring is complex, but principally is about who flew the course fastest or who arrived first.
Paraglider pilots also compete in accuracy competitions where they must land on a very small "target". Scoring is based on minimum distance from the centre of the target.
Some would argue that the most spectator friendly competitions are with paragliding acro. This takes a number of forms but the essence of the competitions is that pilots must perform tricks in the air with their gliders. The tricks are making the glider behave in complex ways - scoring is based on a qualitative assessment of the complexity of the trick, how well it was executed, and the smoothness of transitions between tricks. It's spectator friendly because the tricks are performed over a defined place, making it accessible to spectators, and the movements in the air have a grace that even non-pilots can appreciate.
The records in the two sports are for distance. The hang gliding world record is 761km. The UK record is 330km. For paragliding, the world record is 513km. The UK record is 306.8km. Some people do ask whether the records are for duration of flights - given how relatively slowly we fly, these distance records take several hours to fly. In the case of the world records, it will take almost all the available hours of daylight.