What is The Right Paraglider for You !
Advice on Buying Basics and Glider Classes.
by GODFREY WENNESS CFI
The technology in paraglider design is constantly improving, providing pilots with ever increasing performance and safety. The current modern paraglider, whilst owing its concept to ram air parachutes and a NASA patent in the mid 1960’s, is a far cry from them and the early 9 and 11 cell “flying air mattress” gliders of the late 1980’s. Nowadays designers are excelling in pitch stability / dampening and profile rigidity so much so that the planforms and aspect ratios of race prototypes from just a few years ago are quite at home on school gliders now ! The newest Intermediates are gliding at 11:1 and some race prototypes are achieving 13:1 – all this in just over 25 years since 4:1 glides were the norm.
There is now one main certification standard – the European CEN or more commonly referred to "EN". It replaces the French AFNOR system (which used the 12 tests with A/B/C results) and the German DHV/LTF system (which used 1, 1/2, 2, 2/3, 3 ratings). The standards have evolved in time too, and pilots must be aware of changes which unfortunately make it difficult to compare current gliders certification to those earlier models.
When buying a new glider you mainly pay for design, potential airtime and re-sale value. These factors are directly related to the build quality (materials, construction etc), the quality of the design itself, class of glider, after sales service of the dealer (including trade in potential at a later date), the image and stability of the brand in the market and so on.
When looking at 2nd hand gliders, one must consider the above factors and also physical ones such as porosity, tear strength, repairs and hours. The logged hours factor is also influenced by type and location of use. Factors such towing, paramotoring and aerobatics all reduce the longevity and thus value of a wing. Where the glider spent its hours flying also contributes to its 2nd hand quality – coastal gliders which suffer from moist conditions and mechanical abrasion (sand etc) wear quicker than those used inland on grassy slopes for example. Value itself is directly a function of those factors and the initial build quality. Intermediate and high performance gliders devalue at a much higher rate than entry level gliders due to less demand for older examples of those classes.
The search for a new glider can lead the unwary into a puzzle of conflicting claims. Many new pilots have been burnt with an unsellable and unserviceable “cheaper” new or second hand glider from the Trading Post, web sites, visiting foreign pilots or a non-professional or non-school importer.
When buying a 2nd hand glider remember this: a cheap old 'High Performance class' glider will always be just that, even if the actual performance (or its aspect ratio) doesn't come up to scratch with current beginner gliders. With ever improving efficiency and design, the new breed of higher level 1st gliders (EN-B Low - Basic Intermediates) are performing as well as the high performance wings of just a few years ago with glides well over 10:1 !
With all these issues in mind there needs to be a conscious decision as to the class or type of glider to buy – this is regardless of whether it is your first, second or fifth wing. The class of glider will reflect its safety but not necessarily it suitability to the individual pilot.
Flying a glider above ones ability though, is a sure way to come to grief. We don’t teach on competition gliders for that reason. Whilst the EN-A gliders are as safe as they can possibly be, the bottom line is always that there is no such thing as a 100% safe glider – only safe pilots !
Too many pilots relate the safety of their sport solely to the glider they are flying. Accident statistics prove time and time again that pilot error – which is a lack of pilot skill itself - as being the biggest issue with safety. Not all paragliders require the same skill level to fly and thus it is critical to safety that pilots fly wings appropriate to their ability. Thus in the choice of glider there is “pilot” skill required from the outset before even launching ! A gliders certification assists with that decision but the process is not without its difficulties.
For some pilots a modern EN-A School/Novice glider or new EN-B-Low Basic Intermediate is all they will ever need. For others it might be a EN-B+ Performance Intermediate, EN-C Sports Intermediate and still others may very well go on to a EN-C+ or EN-D High Performance glider. It’s all a matter of how far up the learning curve one wants to or can progress. In every other sport, participants take it one step at a time - not many of us can or want to play against the likes of Lleyton Hewitt at the US Open or take on Schumacher and crew around Albert Park ! Why get out of your league in paragliding with so much to risk? You can have more fun flying a glider suited to your level than one that isn't.
There is a saying that it’s better to fly an Intermediate 100% than a High Performance wing at 60%. This is true of all glider/pilot levels and it is an unwise pilot who moves up a level without first totally mastering his/her current wing. One of the basics taught at instructor coaching clinics is that everyone learns at different rates. Just because Joe is ready for the next step doesn't mean Jim is or indeed ever will be ! Everyone has their own learning curve and your competent instructor is the one to guide you on the path to full flying enjoyment.
Working your way through the certification systems is difficult. The guide that follows is an attempt to categorise gliders to give a better 'pilots related' determination for each type, with an indication of the likely certification they should have. But first a word on the certification tests:
The EN (and previously DHV LTF) test gives a result by way of a mark for the glider after going through a standard series of tests for all gliders. The overall grade is the mark given for the worst result in a particular manoeuvre.
As well as results for both ends of the weight range, the EN results are also split in two in some manoeuvres : at trim (hands up) speed and fully accelerated. As paragliders react much more dynamically to manoeuvres at high speeds the fully accelerated test result can make a glider look a lot worse than it actually is just flying around at trim speed or with some brake on. Some manufacturers even reduce or limit the top speed of their wings in order to pass with a better result. With all test results it is important to look at all the 'marks' given. For example, two gliders may both be a EN-C class but 'X' only got a C in one test with the rest all A's and B's and glider 'Y' got mostly C's. Glider 'X' is obviously safer, yet they both carry the same EN-C rating!
To overcome some of these weaknesses and to homogenise the certification systems the new EN norm was been developed by by the Europeans. The EN is a hybrid of the aims of the previous systems and its classification ranges from A-D.
The certification tests DO NOT indicate the propensity for a glider to get into a situation - they merely give an indication of the gliders LIKELY reaction and RECOVERY from a situation in nil wind, non-thermic conditions. It is clear that the tests quite often do not reflect real world turbulence induced situations as recent accidents with “hotter” EN-B+ gliders show.
Another important concept to note is that due to the high degree of coastal flying available in Australia there will always be a school of thought that coastal pilots can safely fly higher performance gliders than pilots flying inland. This may very well be the case, as the potential for rough or turbulent air on the coast, as we all know, is lower than inland. For pilots who consider themselves in this situation: It might pay to keep a basic glider for at least your first 50 inland hours (and rough days).
As far as categories go, I have identified six groups. Naturally there is an element of blurring between them. It is important to note that aspect ratio (AR) is continuously increasing over the years as gliders become safer and technology improves. Where the previous generation AR 5.5 was a twitchy, uncertified Competition proto, it is today a safe Standard Basic Intermediate ! When there is a reference made to AR then it is as at mid 2016.
Initially we have the School/Beginner entry level category. This is also called FUN category in europe. These gliders generally have EN-A, low aspect ratio (<5) and are suitable for learning on. They are also suitable for P2/P3 rated pilots who fly occasionally, by offering safe, stable and forgiving characteristics. Most regular weekend pilots clocking up 50hrs per year plus would soon find many of these gliders (especially the older generation ones) too docile, lacking in performance and handling, and are therefore more suited to the next category.
The Intermediate category has changed significantly in the past few years and can now be split in three: 'Basic’, ‘Standard’ and ‘Performance’
The 'Basic Intermediates' are gliders with a EN-B low. They are suited to pilots with a P2 (novice) rating who have achieved a very good and confident solo standard on leaving their school - beware, this is only typically around 10-20% of students ! The class is also suited to weekend 'fun' pilots who might fly a few times a month, logging up around 25 to 50 hours a year and may also have an Intermediate P3/P4 rating. They are typically lower aspect ratio gliders at under 5.5, though some can be tagged as EN-B+ if they are nearer to the top end. The line in this class can be blurred so its best to check what gliders are in the brands range - if they have 2 EN-B gliders then the one with the higher aspect ratio is their B+ and intended as the Sports class glider noted below.
The 'Standard Intermediate' group accounts for the bulk of gliders in the range of EN-B+ and EN-C Low and are usually identified by their lower aspect ratio relative to the hot EN-C+. They have most EN scores around A-B, perhaps up to two EN-C scores (thus the class) and display much more refined handling compared to the Basic ones. Quite often this glider will be marketed by its manufacturer as the “all round” intermediate or similar. They suit pilots that have been flying for a few years with 50-100hrs logged and 50hrs annually. They should have flown in a variety of areas, have good glider control and find the lower level gliders too docile and not sporty or challenging enough.
The ‘Performance/Sports Intermediate’ category will have EN-C and is often called "Sports Class". Note that Sports Class in competitions often includes B+ rated gliders. They are known for their lively handling and higher aspect ratio (6.0+) and are NOT suited to an average Intermediate P4 rated pilot. They are for pilots with at least a few years of Intermediate P4 or a Advanced P5 rating who fly actively in a variety of places, have probably done a safety course and can perform the critical fast descent manoeuvres easily. Most importantly, they are for pilots who fly regularly with annual airtime usually well over 50 hours on a 100-200hr base. It is generally recognised as the top glider category for regular recreational pilots (ie: most keen sports oriented pilots would progress up to and remain at this level). These gliders provide near high performance, but with superior safety than high performance wings. Currently there are a few “High Performance” class gliders that have slid into the top end EN-C rating and can be confused as being Performance Intermediates. It is only the newer high aspect Intermediates that display high performance handling characteristics that now form the top of the Intermediate class.
The High Performance grouping can be divided into 'High Performance XC' and 'High Performance Comp Class'.
They are both in the EN-D.
The High Performance XC Class are usually EN-D low and can also include some EN-C+ gliders which just achieved the C rating but are in reality a high performance glider by virtue of their handling, aspect ratio and positioning in the manufacturers product line (as the high performance glider). Pilots in this class would fly regular cross-country, fly for performance, fly in all areas, take part in competitions, can control extreme flight manoeuvres and have well above average annual flying time (100 hrs ). If you are flying one and don't fit this description, think hard about your need to fly this type of glider.
The latter 'Comp Class' wings are distinguished by high end EN-D cert, high aspect ratios, thin profiles and very twitchy in-flight behaviour. They usually are a "2-Liner" design - ie they only have 2 risers. They generally use micro lines and can often be serialised or public versions of pure comp prototypes. They are for full time comp/factory/test pilots who have vast experience, fly hundreds of hours every year, and regularly take part in high level international comps. There are only a few hundred pilots in the world who can safely fly such gliders in all conditions. This type of glider is not normally offered to the general flying public by dealers, though they do sometimes appear on the second hand market and should be avoided.
In addition to these high performance glider types there are also uncertified Manufacturer Prototypes - though these are not readily available to the public and only flown by designated factory test pilots.
In addition to regular gliders there are new types which have recently emerged for specific market segments:
Mini- and Speed-wings - Smaller, highly loaded wings for either high wind coastal soaring or fast terrain flying. These wings open up a wider range of conditions and flying options but also add significant risk factor due to the dynamics involved. Pilots require a high level of skill, usually P4 or above, to safely fly such glider, and the appropriate HGFA Speed Wing endorsement. Most speed wings are NOT flight test certified, and some don't even have the basic glider strength test certification. Due to this there are potential 3rd party insurance issues when using such gliders. Pilots should assess their need for such gliders based on their own circumstances
Hike and Fly - These lighter weight gliders allow the entire package to weigh <5kgs for glider, harness and reserve. The compact size and low weight suits those who want to hike and fly but also those who wish to reduce their overall weight and volume for regular travelling. These gliders come in a variety of certification levels. They are made of light materials and thus are less durable than regular gliders.
More detailed information on certification at:
DHV : www.dhv.de
Godfrey Wenness is the CFI at Manilla Paragliding and has logged over 9800hrs flying. He is the Paragliding Rep on the HGFA Safety and Ops Committee, National Instructor Examiner, Prototype test pilot, and has held multiple World and National Distance Records.