Paragliding, like hang gliding, developed partially out of designs created for the NASA space program. Other designs, along with test flights completed independently on the other side of the world, also helped provide the foundation of paragliding and contributed to its development.
American pilot David Barish created one of the first airfoils that helped jump-start the evolution of modern paragliding. After the end of WWII, Barish left the Air Force to study aerodynamics at the California Institute of Technology, then became a consultant for NASA. In 1955, he designed the Vortex Ring, a lighter, more stable parachute with improved gliding capabilities. Then, in the early 1960s, he built on his previous work to design a parachute, called the Sailwing, to aid in the return of NASA space capsules to Earth.
Barish first flew his Sailwing—a single-surface, rectangular parachute—in 1965 from a ski resort in New York. He called the activity “slope soaring,” and in the summer of 1966 he toured ski resorts all the way to California to try to popularize the ground-skimming hobby. After NASA decided on other methods to recover the space capsule, however, Barish largely shifted his focus to other projects.
Around the same time, others were also furthering parachute designs. In 1964, American Domina Jalbert patented the Parafoil, a multi-celled, double-surface, ram-air type parachute. The design used the motion of air blowing through the cells to inflate the parachute, giving it an airfoil shape that allowed it to glide.
The sport of paragliding finally took off in 1978. On June 25, skydivers Jean-Claude Bétemps and André Bohn decided to try to get aloft by launching from the steep slope of Mont Pertuiset in Mieussy, France. Bétemps took off first, and both glided to the valley below. Their flights gained attention from the media, attracting others to the sport, and Bétemps became known by many as the inventor of paragliding.
After that, the sport grew rapidly. The first paragliding school was founded in 1979, with Bétemps serving as an instructor. In 1985, Laurent de Kalbermatten began manufacturing and selling the first wing intended specifically for paragliding, and other companies soon followed. Paragliding began spreading to the U.S. in the mid-to-late 1980s and continued to grow during the 1990s.
New paraglider pilots quickly started competing. The first Paragliding World Championships were held in Austria in 1989. The same year, Hans Jörg Bachmair set the first straight distance world record of 69.15 km that was recorded by the World Air Sports Federation (FAI). It was broken by two other pilots by the end of that year, then jumped to nearly 150 km by December 1990. Records for straight distance flown on a paraglider continued to increase, breaking 400 km in 2007. The current straight distance record of 564.3 km (350 miles) was set on October 13, 2016 by Donizete Baldessar Lemos, Rafael Monteiro Saladini, and Samuel Nascimento.
Now, it’s easier, safer, and more exciting than ever to learn to paraglide. Glider designs are continuously improving, making paragliders lighter, more stable, and easier to fly, as well as giving them increasingly better performance. And with thousands of participants worldwide, paragliding has something for everyone: hiking (and even camping) with your wing, soaring the coastline, flying cross-country to beat your personal—or world—records, performing aerobatics, and participating in competitions, to list a few options. The sport is also continuing to evolve, with new designs shrinking paragliders into speedwings and mini-wings that allow pilots to fly low and fast down mountainsides.
If you’ve ever dreamed of flying, paragliding offers the most accessible way to soar like a bird. With over 400 paragliding instructors and 40 schools certified by the Professional Air Sports Association (PASA), you won’t have to go far to get into the air. There’s no better time to get started, so find a school or instructor and join us in the sky!
History of Hang Gliding