Hang gliding equipment
Note: The BHPA pilot handbook is essential reading on this subject, as it is on most aspects of hang gliding. See the BHPA web site (link farther down). The USHGA also provides pilot reference materials. See the USHPA web site (link farther down).
First, you need modern equipment. By that I mean no more than a few years old and in good condition. Ideally, you should buy new gear.
If you are new to hang gliding, take your instructor’s advice on equipment to buy. He or she might be an importer or agent for a manufacturer and might also have used gliders for sale. Do not fear that those facts limit your choice. Your instructor wants to maintain his or her good reputation and will give you the best advice. Rest assured, he (or she) is not in hang gliding to make a fast buck.
There isn’t any reason to get anything but brand new equipment. If you’re absolutely poor and cannot afford it…well…that’s usually just an excuse. People say they can’t afford a thousand-dollar glider yet if you offered them a brand new Cadillac for a thousand dollars, they’d have a thousand dollars.
— Long time instructor Ken de Russy interviewed by Carol Price in Hang Gliding, November 1980
As a hang glider pilot, you are one of aviation’s elite. Do not waste mental effort in worrying about whether you are getting the absolute best value for money. You are automatically getting more value for money than nearly the entire human race can ever aspire to.
As pilots, we are special. We are not better than others, but we are luckier.
— Lauren Emerson in her Birds Eye View column in Hang Gliding, January 1981
High-performance hang gliders just a few years old tend to be in good condition and are very inexpensive. However, they are totally unsuitable for a beginner or intermediate pilot. Do not be tempted to go that way.
The beginner or intermediate pilot needs a modern beginner or intermediate glider. They are more expensive than used comp wings, but they are lighter, quicker to rig, safer, and more pleasant to fly than competition wings — especially out-dated competition wings. Flying a scary glider will reduce your performance vastly more than the reduced glide at speed provided by an intermediate compared to an ‘advanced’ rated wing.
Incidentally, how do you remember the rigging procedure? It is an important question because getting things in the wrong order can get you in a stuck situation and can even damage the sail. My Airborne 154 Sting 3, although a simple glider, was particularly sensitive to the correct order of rigging and, especially, de-rigging. The solution is not to have to remember it. I have a short check list written on a piece of paper stuck to the keel tube with clear sticky-back plastic. It is aft of the haul-back fittings and faces upwards. I can read its thick black wording without even having to bend down.
The benefits of a checklist far outweigh the extra thirty seconds it takes out of your life.
— Hang glider pilot and astronaut Mark Stucky, call sign Forger, in Hang Gliding & Paragliding, November 2009
If you launch via a towing operation of any kind (winch or aero-tug) each winch operator or tug pilot, launch marshal, safety observer, and you (the hang glider pilot) must use specific check lists.
Harnesses nowadays tend to be made to fit the individual pilot. (The order form includes instructions for providing a bunch of measurements the manufacturer needs.) Modern harnesses are more streamlined and more comfortable than older harnesses. They are also more expensive, but a good harness is at least as important as the right wing.
Your hang height should be correct. Pilots have individual preferences. I find it uncomfortable to be too low, that is, too close to the control bar, resulting in doing a chicken-wings impression with my elbows just to avoid unconsciously doing a push-up on the bar. Therefore, I use a shorter than standard hang loop.
At least one experienced pilot in Britain (army Captain Jim Taggart) was killed when he clipped into the wrong part an inadequately made hang loop to compensate for the different hang height of a borrowed glider. Use only a modern hang loop that enables you to clearly see whether you are attached securely.
See the video of a similar serious accident in 2019, The flight that almost killed me, linked farther down.
The parachute is stored in a container either on the chest of the harness or, more commonly nowadays, on one side. When you deploy it (should you suffer a misfortune dire enough to need to) the whole rig including the hang glider descends under parachute. You do not ‘jump out’.
A looked-after pre-owned emergency parachute of the right size can be a bargain. I put ‘of the right size‘ in italics because, when the first emergency parachutes were developed, they tended to be too small and the pilot’s safety on impact relied on the airframe of the hang glider (or wreckage thereof) absorbing some of the impact before the pilot. Otherwise, you could hope to land on a slope, in trees, or in deep snow, all of which happened, but you cannot guarantee such eventualities. However, modern parachutes are made the correct size to provide you with a better last chance if all else fails. (Such failure in hang gliding is likely to result from mid-air collision.) They are also lighter and they pack smaller than older parachutes. They have a peculiar ‘inside-out’ middle, known as a pulled-down apex, so a given size of canopy is more efficient at letting you down to earth slowly.
It is hard to part with money on an expensive item that you hope you will never use, but overcoming such psychological challenges is part of becoming a hang glider or paraglider pilot. (It is no different for other branches of aviation and–before flying was invented–sea-faring.)
You must be able to deploy the parachute with either hand. There is evidence that Dave Broyles broke an arm (the bone ‘exploded’) by exerting excessive control force in an emergency (a lock-out under aero-tow). In other words, his arm muscles broke the bone! He deployed his parachute with the other hand and, although it did not open fully, he was saved. (Source: Hang Gliding, October 1991.)
For a 2015 update on my parachute, see Stateside view in Hang gliding 2006 to 2009. (There is a logic to those apparently conflicting dates.)
A jacket or flight suit with a sleeve pocket is essential. The sleeve pocket contains a signal mirror and mobile phone in case you land away from the hill (or tow field) in circumstances that prevent you from either getting out of your harness or reaching the harness pockets. An emergency whistle is a good idea too. The sleeve pocket also contains a handkerchief, which you need just before you take off from a cold and windy hillside.
I wear either an Ozee suit or an MA-1 flying jacket and jeans. (An Ma-2 gets you a fur collar for paying double the amount for an MA-1.) MA-1s are available in black, dark blue-grey, olive green, and burgundy. Unlike the MA-2, most MA-1s I have seen have a bright orange lining. The idea is that, if you need rescuing, you wear it inside-out to make yourself more visible.
A purpose-made airsports helmet, an eye shield that protects your eyes against ultra-violet, and ski gloves are a good idea too.
In the hot summer of 2014 I had the problem of sweat trickling down my eyeshield as soon as I put it on. It is an amber ‘Eagle Eyes’ type that shields against extraneous light from above, sides, and below. However, to reduce the hot weather sweat problem, I obtained a more lightweight amber cycling eyeshield. While it lets light in through the gap at the top, it allows more air to circulate and I can position it a bit farther out from my face. (I added an adjustable string so it it secures round my head.)
Statistics showed that WWII pilots with 20/15 vision lived longer than those with 20/20… A good pair of glasses can do a lot more than keep the bugs out of your eyes. It may help keep a Cessna out of your face as well.
— From See and Avoid by Joe Gregor in Hang Gliding, December 2001. (Gregor is a hang glider pilot, air transport pilot, and former US Air Force pilot.)
I always have a spare pair of gloves in my bag. I do not often lose a glove, but gloves are cheap (via Ebay) and they wear out eventually, so a spare pair is good insurance against another interruption of your flying day.
Thick trousers afford some leg protection if you land in bushes. Additionally, if you should happen to land too fast and come in on the wheels, long trousers prevent or reduce grazing of your knees. (Guess what happened when I flew with short trousers one day in the heat of August, 2013… It put me out of action for the rest of my summer holiday, leaving me plenty of time to fill out an online incident report form on the BHPA web site!)
If you fly in shorts, or what Americans call cut-offs (shorts being what they call underpants, I think…) wear mountain biking knee pads.
Not many people use a helmet bungee, but I have used one since about 1997. I discovered that it confers a greater improvement in my flying than a new wing and harness! It takes the weight of your head and reduces the strain on your arms and upper body. It is fairly easy to construct.
The pulley allows you to turn your head easily. (Essential!) The chord is knotted inside the perforated ear parts of the helmet.
An old duffel bag clip attaches the bungee to a steel ring on the karabiner. (When I changed harnesses, I found it easier to add the chord to lengthen the reach of the bungee rather than fiddle about lengthening the bungee itself.)
Unlike some home-made gadgets — normally to be avoided in hang gliding — I have never experienced a problem with this. It adds about five seconds to rigging time (clipping the bungee to a ring at the top of the harness riser or karabiner). In fact, the only problem I had was, one day shortly after I installed it, I forgot to connect it before I took off. I was back to the old way of flying and I could not stand it, so I landed after ten minutes.
Important: Jonathan D, whose head support system is more elaborate than this, points out that, in a crash that results in abrupt stopping of forward motion, the shoulder risers of your harness might break. If that happened, the helmet chord would pull your head back while your body continued forward, with possibly disastrous consequences. Therefore, such a head support should be fitted with a weak link.
Incidentally, the thicker piece of metal to which the extra chord is attached, itself attached to the carabiner, is an oval steel ‘quick link’, although its shape is not apparent from this angle. It connects the parachute riser (yellow) to the harness riser, as does the carabiner. Carabiners are reliable, but they have moving parts (the twist-lock or screw gate) so the quick link is there in case of karabiner failure.
As demonstrated in The use of emergency parachutes in hang gliding (in SkyWings, December 2017, page 13) it can be difficult to change to a more upright position after deploying an emergency parachute. Indeed, a prominent pilot in my club was killed in 1994 when he landed under parachute in the prone position.
Altering the parachute connection point to behind the shoulders is an effective method of re-positioning the pilot in the feet-down position. However, it also guarantees a potentially fatal hazard when the parachute opens. (Refer to Accident Reports in Hang Gliding, September 1998, and to my letter in SkyWings, August 1997.)
Here is a mechanism to get into a more head-up position if you have to deploy an emergency parachute in a hang glider:
A chord (I used an old paraglider line) connects the karabiner to a handle lightly attached to one shoulder of the harness. The handle in these photos is a ring of denim attached by tape, but a properly constructed handle secured by Velcro would be better. (The thicker white chord with a metal eyelet hanging down by my neck is my head support bungee. I left it undone for clarity, but my attempt to tuck it away out of sight clearly failed.)
To keep it tidy, the haul-up chord runs down the harness front riser and is secured to it by small rubber bands, which are intended to break when you use the haul-up.
The handle must be reachable by either hand because of the risk of injury to an arm or pinning an arm in the wreckage of a broken wing. (That has happened too.)
Here it is in action:
When you pull the handle forward, which is to say up past your head, first the tape breaks (so it must not be too strong — as mentioned, Velcro would be better) and you keep pulling.
Then the rubber bands break and the chord forms a straight line between your hand and the karabiner, enabling you haul yourself into a more head-up position. With any luck, from there you might be able to get hold of a part of the airframe and get fully upright. In the photo, my right hand is holding the chair only to damp down my oscillations after reaching to press the camera shutter release (on a timer). I am not pushing down on the chair.
As of this writing, I have not flown with it (to check that it does not interfere with normal operations) so it is still experimental.
(I blurred my face out on advice from the JobCentre. Hiring managers use any public appearance as a reason to delete a candidate from the list of applicants. However, they do not have time to read anything, so writing is OK.)
Technical writing and programming, which contains a bit about emergency parachute manuals
Hang Gliding & Paragliding Vol39/Iss11 Nov 2009 including the article by Mark Stucky that contains the quoted text about the importance of check lists
SkyWings, BHPA magazine
The flight that almost killed me, a video on YouTube of a serious accident in 2019, which the pilot survived