Don't confuse paragliding with parasailing, hang gliding, or skydiving. It's none of the above.
Sure, it's an adventure sport. But more than that, paragliding is a great aesthetic thrill.
Obviously, though, all of these sports are related. Paragliding evolved in the late 1980s when mountain climbers in Switzerland got tired of having to climb back down a peak after they had summitted, according to Dean Leyerle of the United States Hang Gliding Association. They started with regular parachutes, leaping off the mountain in a sort of BASE-jumping maneuver. They later refined the parachutes to make them more aerodynamic. So now, jumping off cliffs or out of planes is completely unnecessary. While parachutes serve mainly to slow down your fall, paragliders actually allow you to soar, gaining altitude in the proper wind conditions. (Paragliders can fly as high as 15,000 feet above sea level. Advanced pilots can stay aloft for three hours, and the longest flight on record was 11.5 hours.)
The sport remains more popular in its European birthplace than in the United States. "You can't go anywhere in the vicinity of the Alps without looking up and seeing them all over the place," said Jabe Blumenthal, owner of Airplay Paragliding. "They're like flies."
Paragliding's popularity is growing in the United States, but very slowly. When the hang gliding group first took the sport under its wing in 1991, there were about 2,200 paragliding members, Leyerle said. Now there are about 3,000. These low numbers are surprising, since paragliding is easier to learn, involves lighter equipment (it folds up into a 25- to 45-pound backpack), and is a lot less scary than other flying sports.
"Everybody who's in the business scratches their heads and asks, 'Why aren't there 10 million people doing this?'" Blumenthal said.
Perhaps paragliding simply hasn't been around long enough. But Blumenthal said there are also issues of access. Many landowners, fearful of lawsuits, are unwilling to let paragliders launch or land on their property. And the Federal Aviation Administration classifies paragliders as ultralights, which are not allowed in wilderness areas. "But I can imagine nothing that fits in better with wilderness than this sport," he said.
Already, paragliders are lobbying on behalf of their sport to reduce the fear of the unknown. For example, an active campaign by Northwest pilots, Blumenthal said, has increased access to the state parks. That leads him to believe that, given enough time and public education efforts, paragliding can look forward to a bright, thriving future in the United States.