A Brief History of Paragliding

people paragliding

As is sometimes the case, historical accounts of ‘who really invented what’ can stir the pot a bit when it comes to narrowing down an actual inventor of a certain item or device.  When it comes to the history of paragliding, individuals or groups of individuals get various levels of credit for inventing prototypes for the first para-glider, or for perfecting designs that optimized para-glider functions.


Paragliding Takes Off


Plain and simple, parachutes are considered the true fore-runner of para-gliders.  Once the ‘para-commander’ was invented, the whole idea of para-gliding was entrenched in the minds of those who wished to perfect it.  The para-commander was an oblong parachute designed with air vents that would allow for enhanced user-control.  Advances to the para-commander were made; and this is where a Canadian by the name of Domina Jalbert comes in.  This creative thinker invented the Ram Air Canopy in the 1960’s.  It, too, utilized vents; and these particular vents created a wing-shape from the sail which permitted increased control for direction and speed.  The ram-air, double-surfaced, fully-flexible airfoil was about to change para-gliding, forever.


Again, in the early part of the 1960’s, a man by the name of David Barish was developing a space capsule recovery device for NASA known as the “Sail Wing”.  A few years later, he decided to ‘test drive’ his creation in a more-recreational way and labeled the soaring activity as ‘slope soaring’.   The research of Barish was a ‘take-off’ of the work performed by Jalbert who was attempting to perfect aerofoil technology, and wasted no time patenting his Para-foil during that same year.  Many historians feel Jalbert’s Para-foil is the precursor to modernized para-gliders.


As they say, ‘great minds think alike’; and while Americans were toying with their air-gliding ideas on their own turf, French Alps mountain climbers were doing their own research concerning this exhilarating sport.  These European daredevils were working with small ram-air canopies that were successfully allowing one to glide down from various peaks.  Their ram-air canopies, or gliders, traveled at a comfortable speed of 20 mph.


If we fast-forward to the 1980’s, the flood gates were opening towards perfecting air gliding designs and activities.  It was becoming apparent that the optimized potential for flight using glide-type contraptions was dependent on rising air –  this was the secret to maximizing the duration and length of individual flights.  Also, other advances were quickly emerging such as increased wingspan, the use of non-porous fabric, and perfecting the shape and trim of the airfoil.


New skills and techniques came into play, as well; and by 1986, interest in the sport of para-gliding had gained impressive momentum, especially in Europe.  In fact, Europe was taking the lead over America with producing types of para-gliders that offered superior performance.  By the 1990’s, various countries became involved with other more-detailed advances including stable handling features, different wing designs that catered to different types of flight, and multiple canopy designs.  These newer advances meant new piloting skills and techniques would be required.  As far as actual procedures are concerned, France and Germany get credit for their standardized procedures that are, to this day, considered the unquestioned criteria for testing gliders’ performance as well as certification for users.  These two country’s standards represent the benchmark, by which, para-gliders are manufactured the world over!


Para-gliding forked out into what we know today as skydiving.  Para-gliding and skydiving are similar in some aspects such as the equipment that is used.  Though the equipment can be the same or can be very similar, equipment for each sport is used in different forms.  Also, respective wing designs for each of the two sports demand unique piloting techniques.


Fantasy Come True


To fly without the use of an engine is considered the most exhilarating experience known to mankind; and has been a fantasy of humans ever since birds were viewed, in flight.  Flying without mechanical intervention offers an experience of complete freedom and ecstasy; and for anyone who is a Clark Kent wanna-be, para-gliding turns that Superman fantasy into a virtual reality!