If you’ve never tried paragliding before (…..or maybe you’re not entirely sure what it is!) then Courchevel is a great place to learn how to fly. Known as “parapenting” in France, today there are a great number of clubs and organisations in the area whose sole purpose is to get you flying. So, if it is something that you have always fancied trying, or if you would just like to know a bit more about what it involves and who can do it...
From the heights of the mountain tops one can glide down to the bottom of the valley on a tandem paraglider controlled by the instructor. He manoeuvres the parachute while the passenger enjoys the ride and fantastic views. Taking off is the only scary moment; once you have been equipped with a helmet and strapped to the instructor behind you in a rather intimate way, both of you simply point your skis (or board) downhill, and carry on getting faster and faster until the parachute lifts you into the air.
An early intermediate skier can manage the take-off, but for boarders a good technical level is needed. In summer one simply runs down a slope until you take off; no particular level of fitness is required, just the ability to sit back and enjoy the view! One then peacefully glides above the pistes for ten to twenty minutes, aiming to catch thermals to keep you up for longer. Landing is very gentle and no more of an impact than jumping off a step. Top tip: go on a sunny, warm day when the thermals will keep your airborne for longer.
Often described as the "purest and simplest form of aviation", stemming from man’s long term ambition to be able to fly, others simply call it "a pure joy"! Either way, it is currently one of the fastest growing air sports in the world with much of its attraction being in the portability of the equipment; a canopy that weighs relatively little, fits in a rucksack & can be taken all over the world!
Flights can be undertaken solo (but only with prior training from a qualified instructor) or in tandem with a qualified paragliding pilot, therefore opening up the experience to pretty much anyone. Pilots (and passengers!) wear a comfortable “seated” harness that is securely attached to the paraglider (and also to each other, with the pilot behind in the case of tandem flights). The paraglider itself is laid out flat on the ground of the take-off area and the pilot then fully inflates the wing by moving forward when a gentle gust of wind blows. Once inflated, both pilot and passenger run forward a few steps on a downward incline and, with a little manoeuvre from the pilot, you’re airborne!
So how do they stay up there? Paragliders originally developed from parachuting canopies, although it soon became apparent that the two required very different design criteria. Whilst a parachute has to withstand the incredible stresses of opening in free-fall and enable the pilot to descend at a fairly rapid rate; a paraglider is fully inflated before take-off, launched from the ground and requires a good gliding performance and a slow rate of descent. Once this realisation was made, paragliders began to take on more of the design features of the hang glider with a high-lift aerofoil shape and long slender wings.
Now for the science bit……when a paraglider is fully inflated it forms a solid “wing” which creates lift in the same way as that of a conventional aircraft. In order to fly it must create enough lift to carry its own weight and that of the pilot and any passengers, and it achieves this with “gliding flight”. This means that the wing is constantly flying forwards and downwards through the air and in doing so provides a flow over the aerofoil section.
The pilot controls the wing with a series of suspension lines that are thin, but very strong, in order to minimise drag and weight. These lines converge into “risers” (usually 25mm webbing straps) that are attached to the harness and spread the weight load evenly over the wing. They also provide the pilot with a convenient single point to hold when launching, and channel the control lines down to the pilots’ hands so that he/she can steer. The controls are the equivalent of the brakes and steering wheel of a car and so by turning left and right and into and out of the wind or thermals, the pilot is able to speed up, slow down and gain or lose height. Modern paragliders are made out of super lightweight nylon meaning they can soar effortlessly through the air for hours on end in the right conditions.
Pretty much anyone can paraglide from little nippers to your granny, as long as they can run approximately 10m. Flying itself does not require much physical effort (especially if you’re the passenger!), hence why people of all ages and occupations can experience the delights of soaring above the mountain tops with only the birds for company! The main take off areas can be accessed by one of the chair lifts, and from the top, it is usually just a short walk to the take off area.
Clothing is an important factor when flying so you want to wear something that offers a degree of protection from sun/wind/cold etc, even if the weather is hot. Long trousers, a wind proof top, sunglasses and sun cream are essentials, as are good sturdy footwear such as walking boots (with ankle support), which will reduce the chance of slipping on take off or landing.
If this is catching your interest so far, then let us explain the different flying opportunities available...
Who can I paraglide with in Courchevel?
As mentioned earlier, there are quite a number of flight schools based in and around the area that offer tandem flights and many also run the “Learn to Fly” courses during the summer.