7 Things You Didn't Know About Paragliding

The first thing you need to know is, it's awesome. I tried it while in New Zealand last month, and speaking as someone who's got issues with heights, I can assure you that once you've hurled yourself off the cliff/mountain/ledge and are airborne, it's just about the most fun you're likely to have. (As proof, check out this video of my flight and my wife's landing; we're practically giddy.)

1. It's not to be confused with hang-gliding

I found this out literally as I was being driven up a hair-raising mountain switchback to the launch point. (I recommend finding out a little earlier.) The major difference lies in the wing shape and design. Hang gliders are solid wing structures, utilizing an aluminum frame to create a V-shaped wing that resembles the stealth bomber. Paragliders are soft wing structures, with no internal frame, which once inflated have an elliptical shape. Because they have a slower flying speed, they're much more forgiving than hang gliders, and as a result the learning curve is usually less steep for paragliding. Also, paragliders fold conveniently into a small bag, so you can take them mountain trekking then paraglide down when you're tired of being on a mountain. (Link.)

2. It's also not to be confused with parasailing

Parasails are essentially just parachutes, and are used by people being towed by boats at the beach or on lakes. They never get more than a few hundred feet high at most. The design of a paraglider wing is more like that of a 747 than a parachute -- it's designed to catch thermal updrafts and rise through the air, not just fall slowly to the ground. It's a much more dynamic experience, which is why glider pilots are called pilots, and people who use parachutes aren't really called anything.

3. It's not as dangerous as it sounds

Before I tried it, I thought paragliding was one of those things that only suicidal maniacs and adrenaline junkies attempted. I am neither. It's actually one of the safest airborne sports. Firstly, you're connected to the wing by at least 30 lines, any one of which is strong enough to support your weight. There is a risk of the wing deforming and/or collapsing while in flight, but this is rare and usually due to pilots unwisely deciding to fly in bad weather. If you're at a sufficient altitude (more than 700 feet or so), the reserve parachute most glider pilots wear will guide them safely to the ground; the danger is to be too close to the ground when performing some dangerous maneuver, in which case your parachute won't have time to inflate properly before you splat back to earth.

4. It was named by NASA

Leonardo Da Vinci may have designed the first parachute, but NASA helped design, and name, the paraglider. In 1961, a French engineer named Pierre Lemoigne took the first steps by cutting strategically placed vents in a parachute which allowed it to ascend into the air and be steered, but it was NASA who developed what was known as a "sail wing," for use in recovery of lunar capsules, into the paraglider.

5. It's more comfy than the chair you're sitting in right now

chair.jpgWell, probably. Unlike most harness-based activities, like rappelling and parachuting, the focus isn't on a series of pinchy straps and clips around your legs and midsection. Modern paragliding harnesses connect you to something akin to a lounge chair, in which your reserve parachute and other goodies are stored, and some of them even feature lumbar support. After you leap from the precipice of choice and the glider inflates, you simply slide the "chair" under your bum, and ride your flying barcalounger wherever the wind takes you.

6. You've got brakes and gas

Well, sort of -- there's certainly no combustion engine on board, but pilots do have a great deal of control over their gliders. Controls held in each of the pilot's hands connect to the trailing edge of the left and right sides of the wing, and these can be used to steer and to adjust speed. The only thing directly under their control is ascent -- that depends on their skill (and luck) at finding rising columns of thermal air, which can loft the glider great distances.

7. You can travel across the country this way

If you're really, really good, that is. Most paraglider flights last between 15-25 minutes, depending on weather conditions. But pilots who are especially skilled at finding and exploiting thermal columns of rising air can use them to hop and skip their way across long distances, like paragliding champ Will Gadd, who holds the world record for longest paraglider flight, at 263 miles.

Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California
The Concept of the American 'Backyard' is Newer Than You Think
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California

Backyards are as American as apple pie and baseball. If you live in a suburban or rural area, chances are good that you have a lawn, and maybe a pool, some patio furniture, and a grill to boot.

This wasn’t always the case, though. As Smithsonian Insider reports, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Americans began to consider the backyard an extension of the home, as well as a space for recreation and relaxation. After World War II, Americans started leaving the big cities and moving to suburban homes that came equipped with private backyards. Then, after the 40-hour work week was implemented and wages started to increase, families started spending more money on patios, pools, and well-kept lawns, which became a “symbol of prosperity” in the 1950s, according to a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit.

A man mows his lawn in the 1950s
In this photo from the Smithsonian Institution's exhibit, a man mows his lawn in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington
Library in San Marino, California

Entitled "Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Back Yard," the exhibition includes photographs, advertisements, and articles about backyards from the 1950s and 1960s. The traveling display is currently on view at the Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum in Temple, Texas, and from there it will head to Hartford, Connecticut, in December.

Prior to the 1950s, outdoor yards were primarily workspaces, reports. Some families may have had a vegetable garden, but most yards were used to store tools, livestock, and other basic necessities.

The rise of the backyard was largely fueled by materials that were already on hand, but hadn’t been accessible to the average American during World War II. As Smithsonian Insider notes, companies that had manufactured aluminum and concrete for wartime efforts later switched to swimming pools, patio furniture, and even grilling utensils.

A family eats at a picnic table in the 1960s
A family in Mendham, New Jersey, in the 1960s
Molly Adams/Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection

At the same time, DIY projects started to come into fashion. According to an exhibit caption of a Popular Mechanics article from the 1950s, “‘Doing-it-yourself’ was advertised as an enjoyable and affordable way for families to individualize their suburban homes.” The magazine wrote at the time that “patios, eating areas, places for play and relaxation are transforming back yards throughout the nation.”

The American backyard continues to grow to this day. As Bloomberg notes, data shows that the average backyard grew three years in a row, from 2015 to 2017. The average home last year had 7048 square feet of outdoor space—plenty of room for a sizable Memorial Day cookout.

[h/t Smithsonian Insider]

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