…A paragliding adventure – with a bird's eye view
by Roman Frommelt
20 April, 8.30 p.m., the weather models have just been updated and I take another look at the cloud forecasts, the wind at altitude, and the air stratification diagrams: Wednesday looks like it might be a good day for a longer trip to Hohenneuffen (in the northern foothills of the Swabian Alps). Let's hope I can get the afternoon off…
Two days later, I'm standing at the launch site at 2 p.m. I gently tug on the front lines and check my equipment one last time. The next gust of wind fills the paraglider, I take a couple of steps through a half turn, and my green canopy quickly lifts me up and away from the forest cutting. A bird of prey can be seen near the wooded mountainside on the right, visibly climbing higher in a kind of corkscrew trajectory. It is showing me the first thermal that can lift me up towards the clouds. Since the altitude difference at Neuffen is 'only' 60 m from the landing site, my options are limited and I have to 'exit' the narrow thermal quickly to avoid returning to the landing site after just 2 minutes.
I get lucky this time and am able to spiral upwards to an altitude of 1,300 m with two other paragliders. I now quickly tune into the recorded message on the radio and check whether the 'Alb Nord' gliding area is clear, so now we can continue spiralling to an altitude of 1,600 m – just below the clouds. With a light north-westerly blowing today, the wind sends us towards Ehingen. Together with the two others, it is still quite easy to fly as a team at first, with each of us continuing to spot new thermals all the time and helping each other along in the process. But soon we go our separate ways, with one peeling off towards Ulm, while the second one stays with me until just before Ehingen. On the hunt for thermals, we scan the sky for active thermal clouds ('fine-weather clouds'), get a feel for the air mass, and keep a constant lookout for birds spiralling upwards. Up here in the air we are merely guests, and our human senses only offer a pale imitation of the flying skills that birds possess. But we are almost always welcome, with our new neighbours approaching for a closer look before leaving us standing as they fly away.
I've now been in the air for almost 4 hours, as the wind and clouds carry me ever further. I can see Biberach from above for the first time. And I can't help smiling as I fly over the KaVo site and past the town centre and open-air pool on the way south. At around 6 p.m., I catch another nice thermal directly above the Liebherr paintshop, which carries me up to an altitude of 1,300 m where the smell of paint is still strong. After a short sortie towards Fischbach, I start battling against the wind as I head back to Ummendorf and land in a meadow. Now for the second part of the adventure. How can I get back to my car – some 75 km away – at 6.30 p.m. on a Wednesday? Most times it's a case of thumbing a lift, because sadly no trains or buses will stop where you are starting from. But it's this return trip as a hitchhiker, with all kinds of different people, which makes long-distance outings so exciting.
Everything goes perfectly today, and my girlfriend drives me straight back to Neuffen for the obligatory glass of local beer and a pizza. That evening, through an online database, I discover to my astonishment that I was the only one of the three of us who made it all the way to Biberach. A personal highlight for me, but no big deal in the sport of paragliding, with some people now flying up to 400 km in perfect conditions.
Paragliding is an adventure every time and an element of risk is always involved. So here is a selection of important questions and answers for anyone interested in finding out more.
- How old do you need to be to go paragliding and is there an upper age limit? Is there any form of 'pilot's licence'?
The 'Sport Pilot Licence' can be taken by anyone 16 or above. Any 'upper' age limit is effectively determined by the individual's mental and physical condition. The licence involves taking 40 flights at altitude with a suitable flying school, followed by a final practical and theory examination.
- What physical attributes are required?
A normal, basic level of fitness is a good idea as you may need to run a short distance in the absence of the perfect launching or landing wind. Otherwise, most paragliders are just normal people, who head for the hills by cable car, drive there, or take the bus. In any case, mental strength is far more important when it comes to paragliding!
- Isn't the sport extremely dangerous?
No. I wouldn't say it's extremely dangerous. The normal kit includes an emergency parachute to give you a second chance. This can be pulled in an emergency. The important thing is to make sure you've got enough altitude below you so the emergency parachute can rise and take your weight.
But the sport is not without its risks either, and you'll do well to find a pilot who hasn't had at least one 'incident' or 'accident' in their gliding career. Just like any other challenging sport, it's all about self-perception and knowing your own limitations. And we're not talking about a kind of 'Sunday' sport you might do three times a year if everything goes to plan. Those who fly on a regular basis will tend to be safer.
The weather also plays a decisive role in terms of both safety and enjoyment when it comes to paragliding. I believe you need to adapt your routine and social life to accommodate this sport –this passion – because you'll rarely find the weather is perfect for flying when you happen to have a Saturday afternoon free.
- How can you still land safely when there are problems with thermals?
Launching and landing are the most critical phases of paragliding. The important thing is not to land in the lee of obstacles, because this is where the wind tends to swirl and become dangerous.
- What does the equipment cost and what does it include?
A used set of equipment costs around €1,500, while a new one will cost double that at around €3,000. Paragliding equipment consists of the canopy, the harness (based on sitting, lying, or a strap-type arrangement – depending on what the pilot wants), one or two emergency parachutes, and various flying instruments such as a variometer, GPS including aerial maps, and of course a helmet.
- What does the sport allow you to do?
These days, paragliding offers plenty of different options:
- Using the canopy as descending aid 'just' to fly back down the mountain after a hike (complete sets are now available that weight just 4 kg!)
- Acrobatic flying for adrenalin junkies
- Long-distance/bivouac flying (travelling as far as possible) with the option of spending the night in the hills, or
- Hanging suspended over dunes in the sea breeze