Below are some comments on gear and some low-cost hacks I applied to make my flying more comfortable.
It has other informal names like the wing, the canopy, and the glider. They have different ratings like: EN-A, EN-B, EN-C, EN-D, CCC, lightweight, paramotor, tandem, acro, etc. (and even in-between ratings like "mid-B" or "high-B").
You will learn to fly on an EN-A, the safest classification of glider. Over time, some pilots want a wing that performs differently (faster turning, for instance), at the expense of reduced passive safety. The rule of thumb is to fly your wing "until you get bored of it".
At time of first writing this, I've flown 180 flights (110 hours) on my used mid-B glider, Flappy. If I lost her, I'd replace it with exactly the same type / rating of glider, since I'm anything but bored and I don't want anything "hotter".
A newer or higher rated wing isn't going to make you a better pilot: flying more is going to make you a better pilot. (The same applies to foolish beginners buying the fanciest electric guitar or set of golf clubs.).
You will probably end up in the bushes quite a bit in the beginning, so a gently used wing will depreciate in value slower than a brand new wing full of small holes and scratches.
The thing you sit in. You'll learn in a seated harness and many people spend their entire flying career in a seated harness - the view is unrivaled. Others might go for a cocoon-shaped pod harness, a lightweight hike-and-fly harness, a reversible harness, or a tandem harness.
I love cross country flying (where you try to cover distance), hike-and-fly (where you, well, hike up something and fly down) and I'm very keen on bivouac adventures (where you fly somewhere, camp for the night, and fly/hike out the next day), so I'm flying a lightweight pod harness with lots of pockets and storage space (at the expense of increased risk of riser twists and reduced visibility).
Tip: leave a copy of your important information in your harness and your carrying bag / backpack, in case you misplace it or you need medical attention. Include your ID, license number, insurance information, next of kin etc.
Note that pod harnesses may be less safe, especially as a beginner. The reclined position means that it takes more time (or you are generally less likely) to be in the parachutal landing fall (PLF) position. They may also be prone to more yaw and line twists.
Your harness has space for a reserve parachute, under the seat or connected to your chest. If things go wrong with your paraglider, this is the thing that might save your ass.
I have a relatively lightweight reserve parachute (again, I hike a lot with my kit), which makes it more expensive and fragile.
You need to get your reserve checked and repacked every year. Why not add a potentially life-saving lesson to it? The day before your service/repack, tie your harness to some rafters, have a friend spin you around to simulate a collapse or riser twist, and throw your reserve! It's great to find out what it actually feels like on your harness. Get someone to record it to see if you can improve anything.
"A shitty helmet to protect a shitty brain." Some dad, somewhere.
In some countries, like South Africa, you're allowed to paraglide in an unrated helmet (like a cheap skateboarding helmet you get in a toy shop). In Europe (and to participate in FAI events), you'll need a helmet that conforms to the EN 966 standard: meaning it is specifically made and tested for paragliding (and paragliding incidents and accidents). It might be tempting to get a snowboarding or scooter helmet, but this is the one place where you shouldn't skimp or buy used (since you can't necessarily verify the structural integrity -- if the helmet has been in an incident or not).
I have a huge cranium and tried several types, and searched for ages for something that fits my dome nicely. I also like that mine has removable ear pads (great for switching from colder to warmer weather). There is a debate about open-face or closed-face helmets, I simply prefer the better visibility of an open face helmet (over the added safety of having my chin and teeth covered).
Keep your helmet in its carrying bag and pad it in your backpack to protect it. When you're traveling on a plane, keep it in your carry-on luggage or wrap it properly before slapping fragile stickers on your luggage.
Using a flight instrument (or two!) helps you keep track of your flights over time, including the date and time, flight duration, location, and so on. Eventually you'll want to get a variometer (or "vario"), something that helps you determine your rate of climb or descent.
As a beginner, start by downloading FlySkyHy (iOS) or XCTrack (Android). As a student, you can start a flight (or even set it to auto-start once it detects you are gliding) and keep it in your pocket with your screen and even the volume turned off. This way you'll have a log of each flight. In time, turn on the sound and vario feature (where it notifies you with ascending or descending beeps if you're going up or down) to help you thermal. Modern smartphones have pretty impressive barometric sensors (to determine changes in pressure; i.e. altitude) that are certainly good enough for a beginner. You can also get a leg strap or mount your phone to the cockpit on your harness or on your risers.
Attach a leash to your phone's case and attach the other side to your trousers or harness.
Many pilots attach a piece of velcro to the back of their phone case to mount on their cockpit, but I find that the velcro always snags on my clothes and makes it difficult to take my phone out of my trouser pockets. Instead, I got a bicycle / motorcycle phone mount and attached it to my cockpit flight deck.
Power bank and charging cables
You probably already have one. If you're flying with your phone's paragliding app running (using the GPS and usually with the screen on for the duration of your flight), you'll run out of battery pretty fast.
My phone's charging cable got frayed pretty quickly (the side that plugs into the phone) from all the bumping and rough handling, so I upgraded to an L-shaped charging cable.
I experimented with various wireless induction chargers and magnets, and all of them were fiddly at best. None of them gave my phone enough charge, and when it wasn't placed perfectly, it wouldn't charge. Also, the magnets are weak, so my phone kept falling off.
After flying for a while and if you're interested in thermic flying, invest in a basic, used vario, which is (usually) more accurate than a smartphone. You don't need all the bells and whistles as a beginner. As long as it beeps when you're going up, you'd be good to go. Oh, and those thermal sniffer screens (with circles showing where you need to turn to climb higher) are great. You can get a leg strap, mount it to your risers, or put it on your flight deck.
I find music to be calming on long or stressful cross country flights. I never turn it so loud that I won't hear other pilots shouting at me / the wind. Whenever I'm taking off, landing, or flying in crowded areas it is turned off.
Garmin InReach Mini
Since I do a lot of remote cross-country trail running and hiking (and now paragliding) I'm often in areas with no cell phone reception. The InReach Mini is affordable enough (around $350 new, about half that if used) and with the $15/month subscription you get to send unlimited pre-programmed messages to your contacts via SMS or email, anywhere in the world you have a clear view of the sky. Things like: "Starting my flight of the day", and "Please pick me up". Their software is maddening (basic things like adding a contact takes patience), but they make good hardware. It also has an important SOS feature for when you're in real trouble. I clip it to my harness before every flight.
Read the full article on emergencies and insurance: Emergencies.
My flight deck
I keep my power bank zipped up in the cockpit compartment, with the speaker and vario attached with some velcro, and my phone in the bicycle mount. I use Siri: "Hey Siri, call such-and-such" or "Hey Siri, open the Windy App" for hands-free operation and in smooth air I will unscrew my phone and take photos with my one hand.
I use old paracord or paraglider lines for my leashes, with loop knots to secure my devices to my harness. I once had a slip-type carabiner (the ones you just push to open) snag one of my glider's lines. This is something might be trivial to fix on the ground, but could be deadly in the sky or on launch. If you want to use a carabiner, use the threaded or twist-lock kind.
As a beginner, your instructor will probably tie a radio (sometimes called a "walkie talkie") to your harness, and they'll give you instructions on what to do ("Look left. Now lean left. Steer a little to the left. Now ease off and fly straight."). You will keep your hands on the brake lines and won't need to talk back to them (and something like kicking your legs together works well enough as a response of "I hear you".
That said, over time you'd like to ask questions from the sky, communicate with other pilots, or with the retrieve driver. You can buy a pre-programmed radio for $100, but it's easy and cheap to buy and program one yourself. Here's what I did.
I don't like punting brands, but this is one of the cheapest and most readily available radios on the market. You can buy them on places like Amazon, Craigslist, Gumtree, Facebook Marketplace (or Bidorbuy or Takealot in South Africa) for under $40. You don't need a computer to program new frequencies and replacement parts (if you lost your aerial, battery or charger) are all also affordable and readily available.
Programming your Baofeng UV-5R
After unboxing, fully charging the battery and screwing in the antenna (don’t over-tighten it or it will strip), you can turn on the radio with the big volume knob. Do yourself a favour and watch a few tutorial videos on Youtube on how to operate the unit, it will help a lot (and I won’t go into all the features here).
Pressing the VFO/MR button switches between Channel Mode and Frequency Mode. Frequency Mode is used for temporary frequency assignment or field programming – it isn’t saved to the device after you turn the radio off. Channel Mode is used for selecting pre-programmed channels and those channels are saved even when powering off (or removing the battery). All programming is first done in Frequency Mode and then saved to Channel Mode.
When you press the Menu button there are 40 menu items you can go through with the Up/Down buttons. You can see the number of the menu item you are on underneath the battery status on the screen.
You will need to set the following SAHPA frequencies in South Africa:
|0 (not used)||141.750||OFF||OFF|
In short: enter frequency mode, enter the frequency, enter the menu, go to MEM-CH (number 27) and save the channel. For channels 3-8, you will also need to set the frequency of R-CTCS and R-CTCS (number 11 and 13) before saving MEM-CH. It's easy to delete a channel and start over (or to do a factory reset).
Making a hands-free PTT for your radio
I hate taking my hands of my brake lines (and in many instances it is super dangerous, since you won't be able to actively fly and prevent collapses), so I made my own push-to-talk system. It went through a few iterations, but the current version works really well.
But first: things that I experimented with that didn't work well for me:
- Headsets, earphones, or external speakers. Anything stuck into my helmet was too noisy or uncomfortable. Anything in my ears started hurting after ten minutes.
- External microphones. Most of them are really poor quality and there was too much wind noise. There are better units, but they usually work best in full-face helmets. Like with the earphones, there are extra wires that complicate things and may get in the way.
- Bluetooth systems. It prevents the loose wire issue, but they're still uncomfortable to me and it's yet a separate thing to occupy my limited mental capacity (adding a bluetooth transmitter to the radio, charging both the headset and the transmitter, pairing the system, fiddling and reconnecting in flight).
So then, here's what worked for me:
First off, I always wear my radio in the chest pocket of my running hydration vest. Hydration vests nowadays have two bottles in front, as opposed to the big bladder in the back as they used to. This style allows me to keep one side with a water-filled bottle (hands free access to water during my flight, just biting on that straw) and my radio in the other.
Since there is nothing in the skin-tight back compartment, you can comfortably sit back in your harness. I put snacks in the other zippered pockets on my chest.
Most importantly, I am able to clearly hear and be heard with the radio's built-in speaker and microphone 15cm from my face during flight.
Next up, I took an external speaker/microphone unit (I believe the standard UV-5R comes with a cheap headpiece, but you can also get one online for under $8).
The problem is that when you plug these into a radio, they disable the built-in microphone and speaker on the radio (and use the external microphone and speaker).
I found the wiring diagram for this Kenwood-style connector online:
This means that only the two little parts of the pins closest to the connector are used for the PTT (the actual button you press when talking), the others are for the microphone and speaker.
I didn't take photos of the first time I made a PTT cable, but I literally just made another one for this article in five minutes:
One last thing: there will still be a wire running from your radio to your hand, and I dislike anything that can snag or get in the way when I'm flying. I always (always always) fly with a jacket, a long sleeve shirt, or a short t-shirt and arm sun protection sleeves, so I simply run the wire from my running vest underneath one of these. I also always fly with gloves (thick ones in winter, thin, sun-protective ones in summer) meaning all of the wires are always completely out of the way. It's really incredible to just pinch your left hand to respond to people or ask for assistance and suggestions, easy to do even when hooking a thermal in bumpy conditions.
Other radio improvements
I got a larger battery for £12 on Amazon UK. I used it for a five day cross-country workshop (around 12 hours of flying, more usage if you include waiting on takeoff and talking to and waiting for retrieve drivers) and it only went down by one of the three bars in battery usage. It makes the radio slightly taller, but in every other regard it's a great upgrade.
The main reason for the slightly larger battery was that I dislike the clunky charger dock and wall socket that comes with the Baofeng UV-5R, very impractical for traveling. The larger battery has a female charging point, meaning you can charge it via a power bank, laptop, wall outlet, or car USB charger if you get the £8 USB cable, below.
The standard "rubber duck" aerial that comes with the UV-5R has a great range (on a clear day, I heard other pilots ~80km away), but when you don't have direct line of sight, like when you're around the bend of a hill or mountain trying to talk to your retrieve, it gets a little scratchy. The Baofeng blog suggests that you add a DIY "rat tail" to your rubber duck to improve range, definitely worth a try.
I instead got a £12 foldable antenna on Amazon UK, that I use on cross country and other more adventurous flights. I keep the antenna folded and if things get scratchy, I unfold it. The 47cm model is more than enough and doesn't get in the way while flying, even when unfolded. Anything longer than this will probably be annoying.
Sometimes when thermalling, my harness pushed the buttons on my radio (which potentially can change the frequency or channel in flight). By holding down the key button (bottom right) on the UV-5R, you'll lock it, but I even had the bad luck once of my harness strap both unlocking and changing some settings on my radio (and this was in turbulent air, which made it dangerous to pull the radio out of my running vest and change it back to the right channel).
The solution was to cut an old phone case to shape and use glue and gorilla tape to make hinges for a keypad cover, also kept in place with an elastic.
Note: in many countries radio transmissions are regulated and you will need to have an amateur radio license (or otherwise be certified to use it). My understanding is that your SAHPA license in South Africa gives you this permission. It may be illegal to enter some countries with these types of radios, do your research before flying. Also, just because you can scan and listen in on certain frequencies – used by other businesses like farms, private security companies and the like – doesn’t mean that you should.
Bags and backpacks
In addition to the hydration pack for my radio, water and snacks, mentioned above, I use the following:
- A concertina / sausage bag to neatly fold my wing
- A hiking backpack where I keep my wing, harness, and other gear
- A bunch bag / stuff sack (a bag to quickly bunch up your glider and walk with for shorter distances)
- A small waterproof bag with a basic first-aid kit and emergency information (kept in my harness)
- I keep everything else (instruments and clothes) in a lightweight bag that zips shut
(Many pilots like to wear a moon bag / bum bag / fanny pack, where it's easy to access snacks or cameras).
These are my thoughts on clothing, as they relate to making you a safer pilot.
I always fly with a cap under my helmet (that doesn't obstruct my view) to protect my face from the sun. In addition to that, I wear sunglasses (or infrequently snowboarding goggles; but they obstruct my vision too much for comfort) and a buff around my neck and over my face. You might look like you're going to rob a bank, but it's incredibly easy to burn your face and neck when you always have a cool breeze blowing over you.
Despite all of these things, I still put on sunscreen before heading to the hill (and after a flight).
For my hands, arms, and torso, I cover up with gloves (thin trail running ones in summer, thick ones in winter) and arm sleeves. It gets a lot colder at altitude, so I almost always put on a thin windbreaker or down puffer jacket (or both). Zip them up just an inch or two, so you don't have to fiddle too much, with both hands off your brake lines, if you get cold.
For anything other than dune soaring (and even then) I wear thin jogging shorts underneath a pair of strong trousers made from strong tactical material (blue jeans should also do). I've been witness and guilty of many landings where people end up in the bushes (once a co-pilot lost his balance on takeoff, fell on a dead bush and it poked a clean bullet hole in his leg, losing blood like in a Quentin Tarantino movie (some emergency tape and a trip to the doctor for two stitches put an end to that).
When I need to hike up (or walk somewhere after flying) I simply slip out of the warmer long trousers and I'm already wearing shorts for the mission.
I wear trail running sneakers: good for hiking up, good grip for landing and getting my speed bar, and well, I already have them, so less to buy. Some pilots prefer boots for the added ankle support (I don't, even when trekking).
I use a 360 camera to record my flights. Some of the footage I simply upload unlisted onto YouTube, for me to review frame-by-frame later (things like launches and landings or the millions of other small things I should improve on). I simply slip it into my harness and press the record button (or use the voice-activated commands: "start recording", "stop recording") and edit the footage later on.
I think it's a bad idea to mount your action camera on your helmet, since you always have the glider lines pass close to your head when you do a reverse launch (99% of my launches). If this ever got snagged, it could be somewhere between humorous and deadly. I use a bite-mount on my regular action cam (you can make one from an old snorkel) with a lanyard connected to the camera, around my neck.