Paragliding: Thermal riders risk all for the thrill of flight

Paragliding has become more competitive, but pilots are putting their lives on the line in search for victory.
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The Independent Online
THE SCORE at the end of the recent European Paragliding Championships in Piedrahita, central Spain, was Switzerland 15,529 points, Italy 14,167pts, France 14,040pts, one dead pilot and two seriously injured. In this sport you do not need drugs to go as high as a kite: the thrills come from soaring like an eagle and exposure to extreme risk.

What recreational paragliders claim is a relatively safe hobby transforms itself under competitive conditions. In essence, paragliding involves running from a hilltop to launch a fabric wing from which the pilot hangs, as though under a parachute.

There the similarity ends. Not only are paragliders very manoeuvrable - through the use of control lines to turn, or to increase or decrease airspeed - but they can climb as well as descend, in favourable conditions. Their original appeal lay in their portability and minimal set-up time. Fitting into an oversized rucksack, they offer mountaineers a sensational way to descend from a climb, and have even been flown off Mount Everest.

The developing challenge in the sport has been to fly ever-increasing distances, which Britain has excelled at over recent years. The team's fifth place in the European Championships this year was disappointing in the light of a run of World Championship second places, particularly with John Pendry, the 1997 individual world champion, and other strong contenders on the team. Gill Hartley came third in the women's individual ratings.

In competition, pilots score cumulatively over a given number of flying days, by flying round courses set by the race organiser and a "pilot jury", according to the day's weather.

Both of the major accidents in this year's championships occurred in reasonable conditions. It will probably remain unclear exactly why they occurred, but one involved a mid-air collision between a Slovenian and a Swede, resulting in the death of the Slovenian. One day's flying later in the week was cancelled mid-race due to thunderstorms, which pose the ultimate threat to paragliders, sucking them upwards to almost certain destruction.

The competition is about distance and speed, with the day's cross-country "task" taking pilots round a circuit which can be 60 miles long or more. With 150 competitors in the European Championships, massed starts were spectacular both before and after take-off. Until moments before flying, the field looks like a surfing scene on a mountain top, only the stakes are higher, the tattoos bigger and the hair longer. Colourful canopies cover most of the available flat ground while competitors maintain a seriously relaxed attitude. Then helmets and flying suits go on, wings rise into the sky in swarms, and spiral upwards in "gaggles" to around 12,000 feet or more; the pilots look even more laid back than when they are on the ground.

Each turn point of a course must be flown over and photographed before flying onwards. Competitors are timed into the goal field where they land, and results are known once pilots' films have been checked to establish that all of the turns were flown over, in the correct order, by the various finishers. Only about 30 per cent of the field made the goal each day - normal at this level of competition.

The recent accidents have brought a number of issues into focus: pilots pushing harder, and risking weather conditions they would normally avoid, have made incidents common. At last year's World Championships, also in Spain, more than 30 pilots were forced to resort to their reserve parachutes when they got into extreme difficulty. Most recreational pilots would expect never to use this last resort during the course of their flying career. Competitors also suffered large numbers of "minor" injuries - mainly broken arms and legs.

A major factor is the use of very high performance paragliders. These are so unstable that they leave little or no margin for surviving major turbulence which tends to occur around thermals. Essentially, the faster the wing, the more prone it is to collapse, even when flown by top pilots. The invisibility of the hazard adds to the threat; riding thermals is sometimes likened to canoeing down rapids without being able to see the water.

One of Britain's foremost pilots is Robbie Whittal, ex-hang-gliding and paragliding world champion, who competes as well as designing and test- flying paragliders for a living. Moments before the start of day two's race, in which a Frenchman was badly injured, he gave his views on the competition: "You've got to race on the limit to be competitive. If you can use a wing which you think gives you an edge, you will. I'm really good, and over 150 of my flying hours each year are on prototype wings, but even I can get caught out - so what chance have some of the others got? Standardisation of the wings we compete on is essential."

He later saw the accident take place and is in no doubt that the pilot would have stayed aloft with a less twitchy wing. Though it's of relatively minor consequence, compared to the injuries, there's also the competitive aspect: "Flying similar standard wings will make the racing better too," he continued, "At the moment it's a manufacturer's race."

Last month's fatality seems finally to have brought the issue to a head, with a proposal from some of the leading competitors to the sport's governing body that only certified wings be admitted in competition, in time for next year's World Championships.

With the competitive side of paragliding looking for - and starting to receive - recognition, it deserves to become known for spectacular fun and thrilling races rather than for its disasters.

Small wonder that the drive for increased safety comes from the front line. It's a case of self-preservation and they know it: there are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.

EUROPEAN PARAGLIDING CHAMPIONSHIPS (Piedrahita, Spain): Men: 1 J Pacher (It) 3986 points; 2 P Luthi (Swi) 3980pts; 3 K Henny (Swit) 3797 pts. Women: 1 S Cochepain (Fr) 2552 points; 2 C Bernier (Fr) 2344 pts; 3 G Hartley (GB) 2292 pts. Teams: 1 Switzerland 15529 points; 2 Italy 14167 pts; 3 France 14040 pts; 4 Austria 13383 pts; 5 Great Britain 13089 pts.

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