WITHOUT BREAKING THE BANK
You would like to learn paragliding? Find a captivating hobby and regain a sense of freedom in the age of social distancing? But you think you can’t get started unless you have lots of money? Good news, it’s perfectly possible to learn how to fly cheaply without compromising on safety. You just have to put in a little more time and effort.
A Word on Safety
Yes, you guessed it, paragliding is a potentially dangerous undertaking. One simple mistake can seriously injure or kill you. Use certified equipment and instructors. There are ways to save money without compromising safety. It’s possible to push it even further, but the risks grow exponentially. Don’t be a hero. And use the advice below at your own risk.
Buying Your Own Wing Early
Most paragliding schools offer gear rental. This is what many students opt for at the very beginning. Chances of landing in a bush or a tree are significant during the first week(s), so this is not necessarily a bad idea. Plus wear and tear is higher during your clumsy beginnings. But rental fees very quickly add up.
Having your own gear from the start will save you a lot of money. We’re talking about hundreds and even thousands. Just get a second hand beginner wing in good condition, and take care of your baby. Afterwards you can easily resell your first wing when the time comes for an upgrade. So no need to worry about finding the perfect paraglider, you can do that later when you have more experience.
Buying your first second hand wing
Buying a paraglider as a beginner is a daunting task. Get some advice from an experienced instructor, pilot friend or helpful shop owner and start hunting for second hand bargains. Wings are rated based on their performance and handling, which directly reflects safety. As a beginner you need a low rating, which translates to the EN-A or LTF-1 classes. Higher classes are a big no-no at this stage, even if attractive prices on fairly new competition wings might be tempting. Good low class wings are in high demand, and therefore depreciate more slowly.
The rating is valid for a given weight range, which depends on the size of your wing. Too heavy or too light and your wing will behave differently. To determine your in-flight weight, hop on a scale. A standard kit will add around 15-20kg, while modern lightweight variants can check in at less than 10kg. Being in the upper half of the weight range is ideal.
The other important safety factor is the overall condition of the wing. Some have relatively few hours but many rough takeoffs and landings on the counter. Wear can be hard to identify to the untrained eye. Get it inspected. Get the porosity of the fabric tested. Porosity is an excellent indicator of the remaining lifespan of the wing. Schools and shops can usually perform the necessary checks. It’s worth the little extra cost.
Buying A Harness and Reserve Parachute
For the harness as a beginner you’ll want a model with sufficient padding and back protection. They tend to be quite heavy and cumbersome, but maybe you can borrow an old one from a friend or the school for the first few weeks and directly acquire a lighter model, usually with airbag. But for your safety keep the ultralight mountain harness for later. Again, you can buy and sell second hand equipment as you progress.
Add a reserve parachute to the mix and you are almost ready to go. The reserve has usually a lifespan of 10 years, and prices decrease accordingly with age. But depreciation is not linear, so bargains can still be found. No need to buy new. Also have a look at the Windtech SOS Ultralight for an affordable lightweight design usually selling at around 450 Euros new.
Finally, don’t forget the helmet! Paragliding helmets have a special EN966 certification, and tend to be quite pricey. Many pilots choose cheaper models from other sports, such as climbing helmets. But you might end up sacrificing a little on safety.
Forget about the fancy cockpit equipment, beginners don’t need much. On many sites and with a lot of schools you might want a radio. A Baofeng UV-5R radio typically sells for around 25$ and is perfectly adequate. For another 15$ you can get a better antenna that significantly increases the range of the unit.
After having achieved some autonomy, many pilots acquire a variometer, which measures vertical speed and helps using thermals. Your smartphone might be able to act as a vario if it has a pressure sensor. The internal GPS of your phone can also give accurate readings, albeit with a small delay compared to a dedicated variometer. Make sure your device is secured to your harness!
Alternatively, Blue Fly Vario sells a great cheap bluetooth device for 100 AUD including worldwide shipping. It works as a standalone vario or turns any smartphone into a flight computer with a free app such as Flyme.
How Much For a Second-Hand Wing?
As a guideline, entire kits in good condition can sometimes be found starting at around 500-1000$, and may even include a helmet and electronics. Yes, they will be quite old, bulky and heavy at that price. In the 1000-2000$ you’ll find the real bargains, with some wings almost new at less than half the retail price. But you’ll have to spend a lot of time searching, and be ready to act fast!
Look online, in paragliding schools and shops. Facebook groups in Europe are full of excellent deals, often including a certified inspection. The shops and schools tend to be a bit more expensive, but they usually inspect the gear thoroughly and can give you precious advice.
Rich countries with a big paragliding community (hello Switzerland, Austria, Germany and France!) usually have excellent second hand markets. Many pilots have sufficient funds for indulging in the latest models, but lack the spare time to really rack up hours in the air. This means that older models in excellent condition regularly get flogged at bargain prices. Be on the lookout at the end of the autumn, or when a new version of a popular model comes out.
If you have something very specific in mind and have no luck on the second-hand market, ask retailers, shops and schools for demo wings. They usually only have a dozen of short flights on the counter, but already command a 15-30% discount on what is basically a brand new wing.
Paragliding is not one of those sports that you want to learn on your own by trial and error. Most people end up going through a paragliding school. You usually learn some theory and spend the first few days doing lots of short flights on a small training hill until you master takeoff and landing. You then start doing longer flights, practicing pitch and roll control, and a few other maneuvers. This typically takes around 2 weeks and enables you to start flying on your own.
Try to dedicate enough time to go through your basic training in one go. You’ll progress much faster, and as a big bonus you might be able to negotiate decent discounts on your training. Many pilots are only able to take a few lessons each year. Hence, they usually spend the first days regaining forgotten skills and confidence. Year after year.
Of course if you have a patient and experienced pilot as a friend you could easily bypass the expensive basic training. Just make sure that your friend is up to the task. Some hardcore slavic pilots are even rumored to learn paragliding simply by emulating others, but this is definitely not recommended!
Becoming An Autonomous Pilot
Another important aspect of flying is being able to deal with emergency situations, which is covered in so-called SIV courses. Although not considered a part of basic training, it is best to tackle this early, before doing much thermaling (using the rising hot air to gain altitude) and flying cross-country. Consider this as one of the best investments in your safety.
The rest is just lots of practice, observing and talking to experienced pilots. Some schools offer more advanced courses but this is not necessary. Try to fly on as many different sites as possible.
So how long before you can fly autonomously? It’s difficult to say and depends a lot on your goals. If you just want to start roaming around your local hill, then you should be ready within a couple of weeks or around 30 flights. However if you want to be a proficient mountain pilot, you will typically be looking at 40-50 hours of flight time minimum, including a solid base in thermaling and flying cross-country.
Where to Find
You don’t necessarily get what you pay for. You can spend a lot on poor quality training. Fortunately, the opposite is also true! Another important factor is reliable flying conditions. Some destinations are flyable almost year-round, almost every day. Others, less often. Sadly, options are much more limited these days with travel restrictions.
If you are allowed to travel in the European Union, Spain is a favorite in Western Europe. Training in cheap countries like Nepal and Columbia can still be surprisingly expensive, although the low cost of living makes it more affordable than Western countries if you are staying for a while. However, the best value seems to be found consistently in Eastern Europe. It’s possible to find good flying conditions on certain sites from spring to autumn and quality instruction at very decent prices. As a bonus they are cheap and fascinating countries to explore at the same time.
Freedomflux warmly recommends SkyNomad in Sopot, Bulgaria (no affiliation). It’s a wonderful place at the foot of the Balkan mountain range in a beautiful and underrated country. It has some of the most predictable flying conditions in the whole of Europe, meaning you can progress fast. If you are really roughing it you can even camp for free on the main landing site! A little lift or a 1h30 – 2h walk takes you to takeoff at 1500m.
Overall, it is possible to go through basic training for less than 1000$, including your license if needed. With your own gear in Eastern Europe that could even be 500-700$.
Many countries require pilots to hold a valid license to fly. In practice in Eastern Europe, South America and Asia you can often fly without one. Even France doesn’t require any license, just valid insurance. But go to Switzerland for example, and you should carry always a valid Swiss license. Or the international equivalent, an IPPI Para Pro 4 or 5 card. And don’t forget that insurance could refuse to cover a rogue pilot.
If your home country requires a national license, you should be able to convert a foreign one. Sometimes you have to pass a small exam. And of course pay the fees. If you are traveling a lot, an IPPI Para Pro 4 or 5 will cover you for most countries. I paid 50 euros for the exam and Para Pro 5 license after meeting the requirements in Bulgaria.
Where To Fly
In many countries, clubs and schools organize cheap transportation to takeoff. Some destinations like Pokhara in Nepal or Bir in India are particularly friendly for pilots. There, taxis shared between pilots will take you to the launch site for a few bucks. We’ll have to patiently wait for India to reopen to foreign tourists though!
Heading to these legendary sites also almost guarantees good flying conditions at the right time of the year, and will allow a relatively novice pilot to quickly acquire precious experience.
The ultimate freedom comes from the so-called hike and fly gear. Especially in the past 10 years materials and designs have evolved rapidly, and there is now a whole range of compact and lightweight equipment. This opens up the magic world of the mountains like never before. It’s possible to walk up your local mountain and effortlessly glide back down to the start. Or keep going if the conditions are right.
At the other end of the spectrum you can cross entire mountain ranges over several days, a discipline called vol bivouac. A standard hike and fly kit weighs around 10-12kg, including wing, harness, reserve, backpack, helmet, and even clothes! This means that you can hike up to takeoff or take public transportation, even if it’s an overfilled Indian bus. Extreme designs aimed at climbers and mountaineers now weigh under a kilo! As a bonus you will stay fit.
If you are ready to spend some time searching for quality second-hand gear and can travel to places where good instruction is affordable, you can learn paragliding for 2000$ including the gear. Or even less if you are an enterprising fellow with patient pilot friends ready to teach you the basics, and if you don’t mind older gear. Happy flying!