I get frequent questions about what glider is best for beginners.

Training accidents show this to be a critical choice. Several trainees have died in accidents that would not have happened had they been flying benign, appropriately sized school wings. A good instructor will help choose within these boundaries, or better yet, provide such wings for training. Chapter 26 covers the topic thoroughly.

Beginner or Intermediate Glider

Most modern beginner gliders are both forgiving and fun to fly. Unlike earlier incarnations, they have good handling, performance and launch characteristics. But dogs remain. Good beginner wings will tend to be short and fat rather than long and slender. Here are some tips.

  • Start with a certified glider. You’ll hear that certification doesn’t test them with a motor. So what? It’s a start. A really important start that avoids being a test pilot without the experience to handle odd behavior. Save that risk for when you know better how to handle it.
  • The wing must be sized so that accidentally pulling full brake is not a death sentence. “I won’t do that” was the refrain said by at least one former walker who is now crippled for life.
  • It should be easy to launch. Largely, that means easy to inflate. Yes, you can learn to launch anything, but why make it hard? I’ve watched too many people struggle, and a few give up, when exerting against a hard-to-inflate pig.
  • Buy new, if possible. Paragliders get harder to inflate with age. Lightweight fabric is great in how it improves inflation.
  • If you have a good instructor who’s intimately familiar with his wing then his expertise will help you through a more challenging brand. As with anything in life, beware when a salesman/instructor starts saying “this is the best blah, blah blah.” Your snake-oil salesman warnings should go up.
  • Skip the temptation to get a more advanced glider. Nobody looks cool under a gravestone. Advanced means dangerous until you’ve really mastered certain flying skills. This is especially true given that you’ll be learning it solo. It doesn’t matter how many hours you have skydiving, F-35ing or heading selecting 737’s around: advanced paraglider wings are more dangerous for new pilots! After gaining certain very specific skills then they can be nearly as safe as any other glider. The fact that some students have survived after learning on such wings is misleading with such small numbers. Make sure to read Perfect Beginner Wing, too.

Paraglider wing loading chart with “Sweet Spot”

Choosing Wing Size

Chapter 26 covers how some gliders are intended to be flown heavy and others light. Flying heavier means sportier, faster and easier inflating. It also means running faster on launch, more power to fly level, and a higher descent rate during glide (glide angle remains the same). The best measure of heaviness is wing loading: how many pounds per square meter the wing is lifting.

The chart at right is for experienced pilots. New pilots should be lighter loaded, namely within the wing’s recommended weight range, NOT over it by any amount. Not yet. Survive training then look at getting into the sweet spot.

Using projected area is best but we use flat area by convention since wing makers typically advertise that way. It’s a Viper 18 flat, not projected. On average, curvature makes the projected area about 12% less than the flat area. Beginner wings have more curvature, thus giving up closer to 15% while comp wings only give up about 10% of their area in flight. Don’t worry about these numbers for the purpose of this graph.

Newer pilots pilots are best served using an appropriately sized glider. The chart at right will help determine that size. Exceeding the placard weights, a common practice, means that you’ll be operating outside the flight tested envelope.

If flying from high elevation, favor being light, like 7 to 8 lbs per square meter. If you’re a sky-diver type in good shape and don’t mind a bit more risk, lean to the heavier side. The risk comes from running faster and extra-sporty handling.

Yes, we mix units. Wings are all made outside the U.S. and thus are metric. But since I’m in the U.S. I’m saddled with pounds. Thus pounds per square meter.