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Hang Gliding: Basic Questions

See Support FAQ for configuration, ordering, tuning, maintenance and other advanced questions.

Hang gliding is sport flying in a light weight glider which can be launched by running down a hill.
The most common type of hang glider is controlled by shifting of the pilot’s weight. Pulling your body to the left makes the glider turn left, pulling your body forward makes the glider speed up, etc. Some hang gliders have moveable control surfaces like an airplane.
The most common way to launch is to pick up the glider and run down a slope until the glider has enough speed to fly at which point it lifts you away from the ground. Hang gliders can also be towed aloft, either by a truck or car, by a boat, by a winch or by an ultralight airplane.
Flight in a glider does not depend on the wind, and gliders can be flown when there is no wind at all. Flight in any winged aircraft does depend on what we call “relative wind” which is the movement of the air over the wings, or, from another perspective, the movement of the wings through the air. It is this “relative wind” or air movement over the wings which creates the “lift” that supports an aircraft against the pull of gravity.
You don’t have to hold on to remain attached to the glider. In the most common type of hang glider, the pilot is securely supported in a harness, which is then attached to the central balance point of the wing. You hang in this harness (hence “hang gliding”) within a triangular “control bar.” You hold on to the “base tube” of this triangular bar in flight, to give you a place to push and pull against to shift your weight in order to control the glider.
It depends on your skill and on the weather conditions on that day. On a good day, a reasonably skilled pilot can stay up for as long as he or she wants to. On some days, even the best pilots will only manage a flight of a few minutes duration.
In the United States, the answers are no and maybe. Hang gliders come within the Federal Aviation Administration definition of “unpowered ultralight vehicles.” The federal aviation regulation which governs operation of these vehicles specifically states that you do not need a license to operate one. However, the United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association does administer a pilot rating program, under which pilots achieve ratings for skill and experience which are similar to pilot licenses given by the FAA to airplane and sailplane pilots. At many hang gliding sites, it is required by the administrators of the flying site that you hold an appropriate USHPA pilot rating to fly there. In other countries, other regulations apply.
Under the guidance of a competent instructor, just like you would learn to fly an airplane. Many hang gliding instructors offer “dual” instruction, where the instructor is with you in a specially designed two place hang glider. Your first solo flights are normally made from a small, shallow slope, where you will get just a few feet off the ground for just a few seconds on each flight. As you learn and practice proper techniques for take-off, landing, and speed control and steering control you will move up to higher and higher launch points for longer and longer flights. For a list of instructors offering hang gliding lessons in your area, click on the Dealer Directory.
The learning of the physical skills is roughly comparable to learning other physical skills such as riding a bicycle or snow skiing or water skiing. In addition, a pilot needs to learn at least some basics about weather, and the aerodynamic principles of flight.
That depends. A skilled pilot can fly a hang glider in mild weather conditions with very little physical exertion. A day on the training hill for a new student, or a long soaring flight in strong weather conditions for an advanced pilot, can be pretty tiring experiences. To a large extent, you can adjust the way you choose to participate in hang gliding to fit your physical abilities. With the availability of alternate launch methods like towing, there are few physical limitations that would be an absolute barrier to hang gliding. For foot launching, the basic requirement is the ability to lift and balance the 45 to 70 pound glider on your shoulders, and run down a slope with it at a moderate to fast jogging speed.
Brand new hang gliders range in price from $2800 to about $5000. Other required equipment would include a harness, which costs $400 to $800, and a helmet, which costs $50 to $300. Equipment designed for beginning pilots will usually fall at the lower end of these price ranges. Good used equipment is readily available for half the cost of new equipment. When new pilots start making flights at altitudes of more than about 200 feet above the ground, they will normally also purchase a backup emergency parachute, which will cost between $400 and $700. Intermediate level pilots who are beginning to learn extended duration flight – called soaring – will usually add some simple instruments for measuring altitude and rate of climb, which will cost between $100 and $1000.
Statistically, in the United States, hang gliding has a fatality rate of about one fatality per thousand participants per year. This rate is computed for regularly participating pilots beyond the student level, and is based on all fatal accidents reported divided by the number of pilots who participate on a regular basis. This is about five times greater a statistical rate than traveling in an automobile, and it is comparable to other sports which are considered to be high risk. If all hang gliding participants are included in the denominator, the statistical rate is much lower, as fatalities are fairly rare among student pilots, and there are a significant number of student pilots who do not continue as regular participants beyond the student phase. Hang gliding shares with all other forms of aviation the inherent danger of being high above the ground. Anytime a pilot loses control of an aircraft, there is the potential to hit the ground at a high rate of speed, which is dangerous. There is no inherent reason for hang gliding to be any more dangerous than other forms of aviation, and there is one inherent reason why it can be safer. That reason is that in hang gliding, the pilot need depend only on his or her own decision making to control his or her level of safety. In other forms of aviation, you must always depend, to some degree, on other people. From a statistical standpoint, hang gliding is more dangerous than, for example, traveling by commercial airline. The reason for this is that the operation of commercial airlines is very tightly regulated by the government in order to ensure the safety of the public. Hang gliding is largely unregulated, so safety is up to each individual.
Your best course of action would be to find a hang glider dealer/instructor in your vicinity and have him or her evaluate your acquisition. You can expect a reasonable, honest answer from any of our dealers and schools listed on our website

Alternatively, you could ascertain where the nearest flying site is to you and take your glider there for evaluation by financially disinterested pilots. Chances are that your glider is totally obsolete and/or non-airworthy without investment in new cables and other hardware, which would likely cost more than you paid for the glider. Very often the cost of a garage sale glider plus the cost of hardware to return it to airworthy condition is more than a much newer and more appropriate glider would cost from a dealer or pilot.

A very important issue is the type of glider you have, if it happens to be airworthy. Gliders are made for various pilot skill levels – high performance gliders made for speed are too responsive for new pilots to fly safely or even enjoy flying. There are gliders which are very easy to launch and land and which are very docile in responding to control inputs, so that new pilots can have enjoyble flights and landings as they learn the intricacies of the air and efficient glider piloting. Furthermore, gliders are sized according to pilot weight, since they are steered with weight shift. A glider that is too big will be slow to respond and might not go where one wants, while a glider that is too small will either be “twitchy” and over-responsive to small control inputs or will likely fly oddly due to deformation of the frame by the heavy load (though it probably won’t break in flight).

It is great that you are interested in learning to hang glide, and we’d love to sell you a new wing someday. There is really no reasonable option for getting into the sport other than finding an instructor, taking lessons, getting some equipment, and flying with a little supervision at first. This is the way to become a hang glider pilot instead of someone who “tried hang gliding once.”

There is a lot of information on our website that is worth taking a look at. We do supply parts for gliders we’ve made in within the last 15 years or so, so if you do have a Wills Wing glider that merits some parts, we can help.

HG/PG: Advanced Questions

You coast. The best analogy to help you understand is to think of a bicycle without pedals. On a bicycle, you need to be moving to ride; if you slow down too much, you fall over. In a glider or airplane, you need to move through the air to produce lift on the wings. If you slow down too much, the wings cannot make enough lift to support the weight of aircraft and occupants, and you fall. On a bicycle without pedals, if you coast on the flat, you will eventually slow down, due to friction. If you have a hill to coast down, you can keep coasting until you get to the bottom of the hill. In a glider, you coast downhill through the air, and you can keep coasting until you run out of altitude above the ground, at which point you have to land.
Extending the duration of your flight is called soaring, and it is accomplished by taking advantage of vertical air currents. Just as air moves over the ground horizontally (what we call “wind” is simply the large scale motion of the local airmass over the ground), it also moves vertically, both upwards and downwards. Soaring is the art of finding, and flying within areas of upwardly moving air, so that even though you and your glider are descending within the airmass you’re flying in, your downward motion is canceled out by the large scale upward motion of the air. There are two primary types of soaring, and it is likely that you’ve seen both of them. If you’ve ever been to a beach with a sand dune or cliff which ran along the beach at right angles to the onshore breeze, you may have seen sea birds gliding back and forth, in front of the dune or cliff, maintaining their altitude without flapping their wings (no motor). What is happening is that as the wind meets the dune or cliff face, it is forced to go upwards to pass over the top. Above and in front of the obstruction, there is therefore a band of air which is rising. The birds can coast downhill in this rising air without losing altitude, just as you could walk downstairs on an up escalator without ever reaching the bottom. In fact, if the wind is just right, a bird can glide downwards and forwards at the exact rate that the air mass is flowing upwards and backwards, and, as a result, hover at a single point in mid-air.

Similarly, if you’ve ever been to the mountains, you may have seen hawks or vultures flying in circles without flapping (no motor) and slowly gaining altitude. What is happening here is that a thermal has formed from a locally heated parcel of air in contact with a locally hotter piece of ground that has been warmed by the sun. The thermal is a bubble or column of warmer air, which has expanded, and is therefore rising upwards. Again, if the rate at which the air is rising exceeds the natural rate at which the hawk descends while gliding, the hawk can climb by circling in the thermal.

Hang gliders and paragliders can emulate hawks and sea birds, and use both these types of lift to extend the duration of their flights.

Not really. A motor doesn’t help you fly, it just allows you to maintain your flying speed without going downhill. If anything, flying with a motor is potentially more dangerous. Gliding pilots develop a habit of always keeping a safe landing area within their gliding range. In a hang glider, if you’re 1000 feet above the ground, you generally keep a safe landing area within a mile or so. If you’re lower, it needs to be closer, while higher it can be farther away. In an airplane, pilots come to rely on the motor, and if it fails unexpectedly, they may have nowhere safe to land. Also, landing without a motor is more challenging, because you only have one chance to make the proper approach to land within the safe landing area. Power pilots tend to use the motor to adjust their approach, and may have difficulty executing an accurate approach under the pressure of not having that ability.
There are a few systems available on the market that allow you to add a motor and propeller package to a hang glider or a paraglider. (In general they are not interchangeable; a system is designed either for a hang glider or a paraglider. ) Wills Wing does not recommend the addition of any motor package to any hang gliders or paragliders that we sell, because we have not designed our hang gliders or paragliders to be flown under power and we have not tested our hang gliders and paragliders with such motor systems attached.
Seriously, it isn’t a matter of one being better than the other, they are both great ways to fly and they each have their advantages and limitations. Paragliding is easier to get started in, because the initial learning process is quicker and easier. At the intermediate and advanced levels, however, the challenges to the pilot are comparable, and the potential dangers of flying beyond the limits of one’s ability are also comparable. A hang glider is a somewhat more capable aircraft in some ways – they will glide farther for a given amount of altitude lost, they can fly faster, they can fly safely in stronger winds and in greater turbulence. Paragliders, on the other hand, can fly slower, and can sometimes work weak soaring conditions more effectively.
Compared to regular airplanes, hang gliders and paragliders are quite strong. While a single engine Cessna might be strong enough to withstand 6 times the normal flight loads on it, hang gliders and paragliders can usually hold up under eight times the normal load or more. Even so, they do sometimes fail in flight. In most cases, this is a result of the pilot operating the glider outside of the operating limitations recommended by the manufacturer.
There are various programs in existence which prescribe specific testing methods and criteria to test the airworthiness of hang gliders and paragliders. These tests are designed to measure the glider’s strength, it’s aerodynamic stability (which is basically the tendency to recover to normal flight from an unusual attitude), it’s performance and it’s controllability. The tests are usually a combination of flying tests and simulated wind tunnel tests performed on a test vehicle. The general form and content of these tests is patterned after the type of tests required to certify an airplane to government airworthiness standards. In the United States, hang gliders can be certified under the Hang Glider Manufacturer’s Association (HGMA) airworthiness standards. Similar programs are administered in Britain by the BHPA (British Hang Gliding Association) and in Germany by the DHV (Deutsche Hang gleiter Verband). There is no widely recognized U.S. certification program for paragliders, but most paragliders sold in the U.S. are imported and are certified to either DHV standards or to a common European standard known as ACPULS or AFNOR.
It is theoretically possible, at least for hang gliding, but in practice the answer is basically no. Kits were fairly popular in hang gliding twenty five years ago when the designs were very simple derivations of the original Rogallo wing. Hang gliders today are far more complex and sophisticated in design and manufacture, and with the long history of the sport to date, you can find excellent used equipment on the market which is far less expensive than just the materials would be to make one, and which will fly much better than any hang glider you could hope to make for yourself. Paraglider designs are also very complex and sophisticated, and also require a very high degree of precision in manufacture in order to be airworthy.