Paragliding: Hanging around? Make sure you've got some good thermals

Once you're paragliding, they say, you'll do anything to stay up there. Sarah Barrell feels what it's like when it goes right - and sees what happens when it goes wrong

Hurdling molehills, dodging cowpats and rolling around in thistles... as extreme sports go, this one is proving less celestial than I'd imagined. "Run," screams the voice behind me. Feet paddling madly, I cover ground with all the elegance of a big-arsed stork. Finally the field drops away from me; I'm up.

Paragliding, it seems, is a matter of patience. Just as I am about to emit a whoop of idiot glee, "Flare!" screams the voice again, commanding me to pull on the brakes. I flare as if my life depends on it – which, faced with a ditch and the A27, it probably does – and within a few seconds I'm back down, feet planted on the Sussex Downs.

"Not bad," concedes Trevor McLoughlin, manager of Sussex Hang Gliding and Paragliding. "Next time, we'll have you up there for a minute or more. Then it's time to sign your salary over to me – you'll be hooked." The statistics indicate Trevor is right. In recent years para-gliding, which employs a combination of parachute and glider, has overtaken hang-gliding (the one with the V-shaped fixed wing) as the most popular engine-free flying sport. There are at present some 4,000 registered paragliders in the UK, as opposed to 1,700 hang-gliders.

Unlike hang-gliding, paragliding doesn't require a lot of strength. It does, however, need maximum concentration. But before you even get into the air there is a wing-tangling array of things to remember. For instance, how to fall out of the sky safely – or as safely as possible – using the Parachute Landing Fall (PLF). This banana-shaped crash position ensures that should something go wrong, you have limbs tucked in correctly and roll into the fall absorbing as much impact as possible. We do this a few times, and then it's on to the pre-flight checks. Unpacking the glider and scrutinising it for structural damage is essential. "Just in case someone put it into a tree last time it was used and was too embarrassed to tell us," explains my instructor, Rob. Next we try a Forward (or Alpine) Launch, the take-off technique favoured in light winds, where the pilot faces away from the canopy (an essential "ground-handling" skill).

"The idea is to run forward into the wind raising your arms up, 'risers' in hand, as if having a religious experience," explains Rob. Sadly, the weather turns on us. With canopies flapping around like bunting, we retreat back to HQ. "Parawaiting," says Rob from his horizontal position on top of a pile of paraglider bags. "You have to be very good at that in this country. Fly on the continent, and stepping off a mountain is like stepping on to an elevator. UK pilots have to learn in difficult conditions, so their ground handling tends to be top-notch." The following day it seems that we too have elevator conditions, but going down rather than up. Having avoided the risky winds of Poverty Bottom, a flying site near Seaford, we make instead for some prettily folding fields overlooking Newhaven. I'm all strapped in and ready to execute "a strong wind-reliant Reverse Launch" (initially facing the canopy) when a man drops out of the sky in front of me. The right side of his canopy suddenly deflates and he starts heading for the hillside at an unhealthy velocity.

As it's meant to do, his wing reinflates, but only 50ft off the ground, which does no more than break his fall a little. Everyone agrees that they've never seen anything like it – not at such a low altitude, at least. As Rob says: "In most conditions you could throw a paragliding sack of spuds off a mountainside and it would float to the ground, but you have to remember this isn't a day at Alton Towers. There are risks." The plummeting pilot executes his PLF successfully, and emerges shaken but uninjured.

After a bit of a collective wobble among the onlookers, spirits are soaring again, and pilots take to the skies. "Once you're up there and catch some thermals, you'll do anything not to come down," says Trevor. The UK paragliding cross-country record is 120 miles. Impressive, but Trevor leaves me with a reminder of the real point of paragliding. "Your variometer is bleeping, telling you how high you're climbing; you get to 5,000ft and then it's just the wind and the sound of your breathing."

The facts
Sussex Hang Gliding and Paragliding (01273 858 170, www.sussexhgpg.co.uk) run courses seven days a week (weather permitting). One-day introductory paragliding course £99 (£125 at week-ends), weekend course £220. Five-day Elementary Pilot's Certificate course £425. Mandatory £10 BHPA membership fee for all flights. Courses of more than one day do not have to be taken on consecutive days; if weather intervenes, course can be completed another day at no extra cost.
The British Hang Gliding & Paragliding Association (0116 261 1322, www.bhpa.co.uk) are the UK governing body, and can supply information and advice.
"Training Wings" is the BHPA's official monthly magazine for novices. "Sky Wings" is the equivalent for the more skilled. Both free for BHPA members.

Do and don't
Do get into the habit of putting helmet on before getting strapped into harness.
Do stow paraglider bag into the back of your harness before take-off; then it's ready to repack again wherever you land.
Don't ever take off without giving equipment the standard pre-flight checks.
Don't sit around strapped into the harness; one gust of wind and you will get dragged across the field/hill/side of cliff.

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