Free Flight Glossary

Free Flight Glossary by Paul Villinski

Hang glider and paraglider pilots, like any group gathered around a common passion, cement their identity with a unique lexicon. Surfers speak of “point breaks” and “entering the green room”; motorcycle racers talk about “high sides,” “apexing early” or “taking a soil sample.” The patois of free-flight is an equally arcane one, and like the pilots who created it, it’s colorful, humorous, at times even poetic.

I have a friend who jokes that he wants to learn to fly just so he can insert jargon like “glass-off” and “cloud street” into his cocktail-party conversations. In an effort to save him some time, I’ve assembled the following unofficial, incomplete and highly biased glossary.

big ears: A descent maneuver in which a paraglider’s wingtips are intentionally collapsed, reducing the surface area, and lift, of the wing. The deflated tips hanging below the wing may suggest ears to the anthropomorphically-minded. There is no comparable technique for hang gliders.

biwingual: Competent in flying both hang gliders and paragliders.

blown out: Too damn much wind. Since a paraglider flies incredibly slowly, winds of 25 mph can result in a paraglider going nowhere, with a hang glider being able to handle winds only slightly stronger. Better just hike back down if it’s really honkin’. See: parked.

bounce: A very hard landing in a paraglider. For related hang glider term see: whack.

bullet thermal: A very fast, compressed, sharp-edged thermal, typically found on high-pressure days. See: bump tolerance.

bump tolerance: An acquired ability to fly in and withstand rough, thermic air.

chuck off the hill: Technical term used by instructors to describe assisting new students in launching.

cloud street: A line of cu’s stretching for many miles, under which a good pilot may fly a great distance.

core up: To fly circles in the center of a thermal where the lift is strongest. Results in a rapid climb. See: speck out.

crispy: The stiff, crinkly fabric of a new wing. If your wing is still crispy a year after you got it, you’re not flying enough.

cu’s: Cumulus clouds, the prototypical puffy white cotton balls. As warm air rises and cools, the moisture it contains condenses out to form these clouds. Indicators of good lift. Also known as cumies.

cycle: Like sets of waves, thermals and the wind they produce seem to occur in cycles. Pilots wait to launch into either a strong or weak cycle, depending on their bump tolerance.

death spiral: Paragliders only. An aggressive spiral dive maintained till just above the ground, then exited at the last second for a showy spot landing. Exited an instant too late, results in a sizable health-insurance claim.

down cycle: A period when the thermal activity ebbs, and pilots begin to sink out. See: flushed.

epic: An amazing flying odyssey, or spectacular flight or conditions. “Epic glass-off, man!”

flushed: What goes up must, unfortunately, come down, especially if it has a glide ratio of 8 (or 12, or 15):1. The sky may be full of gliders, then the lift mysteriously shuts off, flushing everyone back down.

foamie: A five-inch-thick foam back protector built into a paragliding harness, which will become your spine’s new best friend in the event of a bounce.

glass-off: Lovely, glassy-smooth lift. Occurs in the early evening at mountain sites as warm air collected in the valleys lifts off and gently rises into the cooling upper atmosphere. In the dinner menu of flying conditions, glass-off is crème brûlée. See: magic air, wonder wind.

hang driving/paradriving: An off-shoot of hang gliding/paragliding, practiced en route to hangwaiting/parawaiting sites.

hang waiting/parawaiting: An ancillary sport to hang/paragliding, practiced while sitting on launch hour after hour until the narrow window of flyable conditions finally opens. If it does.

honkin’: Really strong wind conditions. “It’s not too bad in the LZ, but it’s honkin’ on launch.”

LZ: Landing zone. It’s a good idea to get there before landing.

launch potato: Ever notice how there’s always someone at the head of the line taking forever and holding up everyone else – putting down roots? When it’s a line of pilots ready to launch, that person becomes a launch potato.

locals: The resident avian life, especially birds capable of soaring. Generally, if these guys are flying without flapping, it will be soarable for their clumsy human counterparts as well. When pilots spot the locals soaring near launch, they unpack their gliders in a hurry.

magic air: A gentle lift that is so widespread one can stay aloft effortlessly, magically. See: glass-off.

parked: The inability of a paraglider or hang glider to move forward into a headwind. Also referred to as zero penetration.

pound: Worse than bounce.

pucker factor: The degree of anxiety experienced by the pilot. See: spanked; tossed.

ridge soaring: Soaring in the “lift band” created when a prevailing wind encounters a ridge perpendicular to its direction and is forced upward. Pilots may soar up and down the ridge in this “mechanical” or “dynamic” lift for hours, prompting some to refer to it as “ridge boring.”

rotor: Turbulence produced by a large obstacle (such as mountain or ridge) in the path of the airflow, causing a swirling effect on the lee side. You don’t want to go there. Really.

run, run, run: What bystanders shout to encourage launching pilots. Always repeated three times.

scratching: Flying very close to the terrain.

sled ride: A short flight directly to the landing zone, with no hope of finding lift to extend the flight. At least you get your feet into the air.

sink: The opposite of lift. As masses of air rise in thermals, nearby air sinks to occupy the space left behind. Nature abhors a vacuum. Soaring pilots loathe sink.

sink out: Taking the express elevator back to the ground.

sky god or goddess: What you become if you manage to speck out while everyone else gets flushed.

sky out: No one knows for sure if sky out or speck out is higher. See: speck out.

speck out: To climb to great altitude. From the ground the glider looks like a little speck in the sky.

tossing the laundry: Throwing the reserve parachute.

trashy: Turbulent, inconsistent air, producing little lift. Not much fun, either.

tree landing: You guessed it. Popular with paraglider pilots in the heavily-wooded Northeast and Northwest, feared by hang glider pilots in general. Also known as “making friends with your local hook-and-ladder operators.”

turn on: Pilots wait in calm air for the wind to turn on, creating soarable conditions, which is, of course, a “turn-on.”

washing machine: See: rotor. Also, spanked, pucker factor.

whack: An inelegant landing in a hang glider, where the nose of the glider impacts the ground with an audible “whack!” sound.

white room: The interior of a cloud. Venturing up into a cloud is “entering the white room,” and is as dangerous as you’re imagining, as well as being illegal.

wonder wind, wondering: If you want to see a dozen pilots scramble to get into the air, fly over launch and shout, “It’s wondering!” See: glass-off, magic air.

Paul Villinski is a New York City visual artist whose work deals with the poetics and metaphors of flight. His artwork can be seen at and A paraglider and sailplane pilot, his favorite view is from above.