The evolution of the free flight equipment, the case of paragliding…

Fly with iron over your  head… No thanks!

A few words on the evolution of the free-flight equipment…

Beginner pilots regularly hear experienced pilots speak of their old school wings. The free flight old school guys often use the expression “iron” to speak about the flight capacities of their wings, at the time they started to do some paragliding. I have a deep admiration for the original flyers who achieved to keep flying after many years of experience. Learning paragliding in 2018 has nothing to compare with the ’80s or ’90s! And as the common expression says a good pilot is an old pilot!

In this article, I am using a few technical terms that I don’t want to cover here. If you want to dig into the subject, there is a lot of information available on the web, and I have linked a few below (in French).

The gliding ratio, what is it?

The gliding ratio, it is simply the ratio between the vertical descent of an aircraft and the distance traveled horizontally. The first paragliders flew as a steam soleplate, with a gliding ratio of 3! It means that each three meters traveled, the glider went down a meter… In 2018, the performance of modern gliders allow us to fly three times farther, with a gliding ratio of 10! Unthinkable at the time.

A little bit of history

A parachute used to glide, and that’s it! The “para-glide” was born!

The goal isn’t to write here another history of the evolution of the paragliding hardware. The literature is already well provided (see links below, or “La folle histoire du parapente” from Xavier Murillo, in French). Despite everything, it is necessary to situate ourselves in the context. We are in the 1970s, when Steve Snyder uses for the first time the word “paraplane” for the marketing of the first wing with cells (“paraplane” is still used today in English to designate the paramotor). A few years later, the French pilots Jean-Claude Bétemps and André Bohn sign with success the first slope flights with a parachute (in opposition to the parachute from a plane). A parachute used to glide, and that’s it! The “para-glide” was born!
Since then, the technical evolution is spectacular!

But what are the main differences between a wing from 1971 and 2018?

The fabric

The fabric, resistant, lightweight and non-porous, is now coated with a resin to give it a better air sealing. This allows the fabric to inflate easily in the wind and give its wing shape, which ultimately leads to obtaining the lift mandatory to fly! The internal structure of the wing is also more and more complex and numerous, in order to keep the ideal shape of the wing in all the conditions.

The lines

The lines, stronger (by consequence less numerous, and which induce less drag), have a better resistance to chafing and a minimum elongation. The wings need to be “recalibrated” sometimes during a check, by shortening the lines that are slightly elongated.

The number of cells

The number of cells went from 9 in 1988 to 101* today! And some prototypes have even more cells. This characteristic seems to be the one that has evolved the most. On the one hand, the new lighter materials allow additional cells and, on the other hand, the number of cells increased generates a more “solid” wing despite an increased aspect ratio. The picture below illustrates well this evolution, between the huge cells of the “Randonneuse” up to the tiny cells of the Ozone Enzo wing!

“Randonneuse” 9 cells from 1988 / Wing Ozone Enzo up to 101 cells!!!

Passive safety

The certified wings for beginners today are much more permissive compared to the piloting mistakes of the unexperienced pilots. Their geometry (the aspect ratio in particular) provides a level of exceptional serenity for firstimers flight (the first of many perhaps). Despite everything, the performance of flying has also progressed significantly. It is common to hear that the current beginner equipment exceeds the performances of the old times wings.

To summarize these few points: more fabric, but lighter, less lines though stronger, more cells, that weigh less, and improved passive security.

*The “randonneuse” from 1988 had 8 or 9 cells depending on the source. In 2018, the Ozone Enzo 3 wing has more than a hundred, with 101 cells!


Images used:

GNU licence

Many thanks to Dave Hoch for the proofreading of this article in English :