Freqently Asked Questions about Hang Gliding

1.  Basic Performance Questions
	 A.  How do you steer ?
	 B   How high/far can a hang glider go ?
	 C.  How long do flights last ?
	 D.  Where can hang gliders launch and land ?
	 E.  What are typical performance specifications ?
	 F.  How safe are hang gliders ?
2.  Flying Conditions

	A.  Is lots of wind necessary to launch/fly/land ?
	B.  How do gliders gain altitude ?
	C.  What sort of temperatures are encountered in flight ?
3.  Pilot Requirements:

	A.  Is hang gliding physically demanding ?
	B.  Do pilots need to be of a certain age, gender, weight or size ?
	C.  Do pilots need to be licensed to fly hang gliders ?
	D.  How does a student go about learning to fly ?
	E.  How much does all this cost ?
	F.  How to get more information

1.  Basic Performance Questions:

	A. How do you steer ?
       Hang gliders are controlled by shifting the pilot's weight with 
       respect to the glider.  Pilots are suspended from a strap 
       connected to the glider's frame (hence the name "hang" glider).  
       By moving forward and backward and side to side at the end of 
       this strap, the pilot alters the center of gravity of the glider. 
       This then causes the glider to pitch or roll in the direction of 
       the pilot's motion and thus allows both speed control and turning.
	B. How high/far can a hang glider go ?
       This depends a lot on the conditions in which they are flown, but
       flights in excess of 300 miles in length and altitudes of well over
       20,000 ft. MSL have been recorded.  (These last have all been with
       FAA permission for the rules nazis reading this).  More typically, 
       pilots in the summer in the western US will frequently achieve 
       altitudes of 5,000 to 10,000 ft AGL and fly for over 100 miles.
	C. How long do flights last ?
       Again this depends on conditions, but a high altitude flight is
       frequently several hours in duration.  On good days, pilots don't
       have to land until the sun goes down.
	D. Where can gliders launch and land ?
       Pretty much any slope that is relatively free from obstructions, 
       is steeper than about 6 to 1 and faces into the wind can be used
       to foot launch a hang glider.  The pilot just runs down the slope
       and takes off when the air speed reaches 15 to 20 mph. 
       Alternatively, towing by trucks, stationary winches and ultralight
       aircraft allows gliders to get into the air when no hills are 
       Where a hang glider can be landed depends somewhat on the skill of 
       the pilot.  An experienced pilot should be able to put a glider 
       safely into any flat spot clear of obstructions bigger than about 
       50 by 200 ft.  This area requirement can vary somewhat, though, 
       depending on wind conditions and the surrounding terrain.
	E. What are typical performance specifications ?
       Just like in sailplanes, hang gliders come in various combinations
       of ease-of-handling and performance, ranging from docile trainers
       to full-on competition ships.  For a modern (ca. 1995) competition 
       glider, typical performance will be on the order of:
       Speed range:  16 - 19 mph (stall speed) to about 70 mph.
                     (VNE is conservatively set at 50 - 60 mph)
       Best L/D:     13:1 at about 30 mph.
                     Degrades to about 6 or 7:1 by 50 mph
       Minimum Sink Rate:  About 180 ft/min. at 20 - 25 mph.
                           (Depending on wing loading)
       For training gliders, typical numbers are more like a 
       16 - 40 mph speed range with an 8 or 9:1 best L/D.
	F. How safe are hang gliders ?
       Like any form of sport aviation, hang gliding can be dangerous if 
       pursued carelessly. That said, however, hang gliding can be a very
       safe sport.  Gliders in the US are now certified for airworthiness
       by the Hang Glider Manufacturers Assn. (HGMA) so structural failures
       on recent equipment flown within its placarded limits are a thing 
       of the past.  In addition, reserve parachutes are used on all high 
       altitude hang glider flights now and provide a measure of safety 
       in the rare instances of severe glider damage or complete loss of 
       Also, hang gliding instruction has been standardized and most 
       students learn from certified instructors using a thorough gradual
       training program.  So the days of untrained pilots trying unsafe
       maneuvers at dangerous sites are also largely gone.  
       Despite these advances, people still make judgment errors and 
       aviation is not very forgiving of such.  The bottom line is that 
       out of about 10,000 active pilots in the US, 5 to 10 will have a 
       fatal hang gliding accident in a given year and perhaps 10 times 
       that many will have an injury requiring treatment.  The majority of
       pilots fly their entire careers without sustaining a serious injury.
2.  Flying Conditions:

	A. Is lots of wind necessary to launch/fly/land ?
       Hang gliders can be launched, flown and landed in winds from zero to 
       about 30 mph safely.  When winds get above about 40 mph, the 
       associated turbulence makes all aspects of flight substantially less 
       comfortable.  Generally, ideal winds for launching and landing are 
       from 5 to 20 mph depending on the flying site.  Wind speed is less 
       important in flight since the pilot controls the air speed of the 
       glider whatever the wind speed may be.
	B. How do gliders gain altitude ?
       In addition to the horizontal wind we're accustomed to on the ground, 
       air moves vertically as well.  If a glider encounters an upwardly
       moving chunk of air, it will go up along with it.  The whole trick
       of soaring a hang glider (or any other glider for that matter) is to
       figure out where the air is going up and then to get there.  While 
       there are many sources of upwardly moving air or "lift", the most 
       commonly used by hang gliders are ridge lift and thermal lift.  Ridge
       lift occurs when horizontal wind hits an obstruction (like a ridge,
       for instance) and is deflected upward.   Thermal lift occurs when 
       terrain is heated by the sun and transfers this heat to the 
       surrounding air - which then rises.  
       Typically ridge lift exists in a "lift band" on the windward side of
       a ridge and pilots get up by flying back and forth through this band.
       Thermal lift on the other hand usually starts at some local "trigger
       point" on the ground and then rises as a column or bubble of air.  To
       get up in a thermal, pilots thus typically circle in this region of 
       rising air.
	C. What sort of temperatures are encountered in flight ?
       Hang gliders are flown in sub-zero conditions in the winter and in the
       hottest deserts in the summer.  Since the air temperature typically 
       falls by about 4 degrees (F) for every 1000 ft gain in elevation, 
       however, high altitude hang glider flights are frequently cold.  
       Pilots expecting to fly over about 12 - 14,000 ft in the summer will
       generally wear warm clothing to protect against exposure. 
3.  Pilot Requirements:

	A. Is hang gliding physically demanding ?
       Almost anyone can fly a hang glider.  If someone can jog while 
       balancing a 50 - 70 lb. weight on their shoulders they can learn to
       fly.  While flying does not require great strength (since the straps 
       - not the pilot's arms - hold the pilot up) long duration flights in
       turbulent conditions require a moderate degree of upper body endurance.
       This typically develops as the pilot progresses through training to 
       these longer flights.
	B. Do pilots need to be of a certain age, gender, weight or size range ?
       Hang glider pilots range in age from teens to octogenarians.  The 
       limits are more mental than physical.  If someone is sufficiently 
       mature to make decisions significantly affecting their safety and has 
       sufficiently good reflexes to make such decisions promptly, then they 
       probably are of a reasonable age for flying.
       Since flying depends more on balance and endurance than on brute 
       strength, women and men make equally good pilots.  While the fraction 
       varies regionally, about 10 - 15 % of the hang glider pilots in the 
       US are women.
       While pilots of virtually any size can fly, the limits here are mostly
       dictated by available equipment.  Heavier and lighter pilots require
       commensurately bigger and smaller gliders.  Since most hang glider 
       pilots weigh between 90 and 250 lbs, however, it may be difficult to find 
       equipment appropriate for pilots beyond this range.  Specially designed
       tandem gliders are available, however, and may be used for extra heavy 
       pilots.  While height per se does not determine who can fly, again, 
       equipment tends to be most available for those between about 5 and 6.5 
       feet tall.  Harness and glider modifications may be necessary for 
       individuals outside this range.
	C. Do pilots need to be licensed to fly hang gliders ?
       Not really, but a program analogous to FAA licensing exists and is 
       administered by the USHGA (US Hang Gliding Association).  This program
       consists of a specific set of flying skills corresponding to a series
       of pilot proficiency ratings (Beginner through Master) each of which
       carries a set of recommended operating limitations.  Beginner rated 
       pilots, for instance, should only fly from hills under 100 ft in height
       in mild winds and under the guidance of an instructor.  While these 
       ratings don't carry the force of law in quite the same way as FAA 
       pilot's licenses do, the majority of flying sites in the US require 
       that pilots hold some specific USHGA rating to be allowed to fly.
	D. How does a student go about learning to fly ?
       The USHGA certifies hang gliding instructors and schools.  One of the
       major reasons hang gliding is safer now than 20 years is this 
       certification program and all students should thus learn from a 
       certified instructor.  Lists of certified schools can be obtained 
       from the USHGA at (719) 632-8300, or by posting a request to the hang
       gliding mailing list at: 
       The time required for training varies considerably with the student's
       innate skills and with the type of training conditions.  Typically 
       though, a student will spend 5 - 10 lessons to obtain each of the first 
       two USHGA pilot ratings (Beginner and Novice) - a process which generally 
       takes from 3 to 6 months.  At the end of this primary training process, 
       the student is usually flying from moderate altitudes (several hundred 
       to a few thousand ft) in relatively mild conditions.  Progression to more 
       difficult flying conditions continues from then on under the supervision
       of more experienced pilots or USHGA Observers/Advanced Instructors.
	E. How much does all this cost ?
       If a student goes to a certified school in a large urban area and buys all
       new equipment at retail prices, learning to fly can cost $5000+.  If one
       purchases used equipment, however, this price can easily drop to around
       $1000.  Whenever used equipment is purchased, however, it is IMPERATIVE 
		   that an experienced pilot familiar with the equipment inspect it thoroughly.
       Costs vary a lot, but as of 1995 figure on:
		   Training through the Novice level:  $400 - $1000
		   Training glider:                    $400 - $1500 (used)
				                       $2000 - $3500 (new)
		   Harness:                            $50  -  $300 (used)	
		                                       $200 -  $700 (new)
		   Parachute:                          $200 -  $300 (used)
		                                       $350 -  $500 (new)
		   Helmet:                             $80 -  $300 (new)
       Fortunately, this can be purchased in stages.  Usually instructors will
       provide training equipment as part of their package through the Beginner
       rating, but will expect students to obtain their own equipment beyond
       this point.  Parachutes aren't really useful for altitudes below about
       500 ft AGL and thus usually needn't be purchased until reaching the
       Novice level.
	 F. How to get more information:
       There is an active mailing list dedicated to hang gliding, paragliding 
       and related issues.  Pilots and other interested parties worldwide
       participate and can offer a wealth of information on these topics.  To
       subscribe to the list, send an e-mail message to:
       Thereafter, any mail you (or anyone else) sends to:
       will get to all subscribers on the list.

Fred Vachss
USHGA Advanced Instructor / Examiner
Ventura County, CA

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