Skip to main content


Insider Info

A form of motorless flight, hang-gliding allows humans to soar, to control their own fabric wings and take an unobstructed look at the world from above. Avid hang-gliders say this sport is as close as you'll come to flying like a bird.

Hang-gliders use their feet to launch themselves into flight. Suspended by a harness attached to a set of framed wings, these pilots run toward a cliff or off the edge of a high hill and then, when they feel the air pushing them off the ground, they begin to float.

Thermal winds -- strong vertical winds, or updrafts -- can make a single flight last three hours or more. Ultimately, this is what most pilots are after.

When hang-glider Lynn McLaughlin started flying, she was told by a friend, "You will look at the world differently now than you ever have." And her friend was right -- McLaughlin's constantly looking at the sky.

"Part of the problem is that you may walk into trees because your face will be looking up!" she says.

Gliders have to be able to read clouds and winds in order to know when it's safe to fly. So, gazing at the sky becomes a necessary pastime. "You go through a lot of training to read the conditions and understand what's going on," says glider Kerry Grant.

"So if the conditions just aren't right, you don't fly....If you're flying under good conditions and you're following all of the different rules and protocols, you're not going to have a scratch on you."

Not a scratch? Twenty-five years ago, nobody would have believed it. During the '70s, hang-gliding gained popularity as a daredevil's sport, one reserved for adrenaline junkies.

Guys would order kits from magazine ads and put their gliders together at home. Some even crafted their own wings using the family sewing machine. The sport was unregulated and people were eager to figure it out on their own.

However, too little was known and too many fatal mistakes were made. There were practically no instructors around to teach people how to fly safely. So, most pilots were self-taught and they learned to glide through trial and serious error.

Hang-gliding has come a long way since then. Most importantly, it's much safer in the 21st century. Gliders are now made to strict standards and instruction has been standardized.

The United States Hang-Gliding Association (USHGA) has developed a pilot and site rating system. This means that gliding sites are assigned a skill level -- much like ski hills are rated with a green circle, a blue square or a black diamond.

On regulated sites, pilots aren't allowed to fly without showing their official rating. Hang-gliders may apply for pilot rating through the USHGA .

Kris Greblo has been hang gliding since 1986. "The knowledge has come such a long way that it's almost a changed sport than it was back then," she says.

Still, several fatal hang-gliding accidents have occurred in recent years. And injuries such as broken bones can happen when winds push a glider into an area not fit for landing. You must be extremely safety-conscious to succeed in this sport. "There is risk," says McLaughlin. "It's aviation."

Perhaps the most important thing that pilots are learning in 2000 is judgment. A good pilot has to be willing not to fly in conditions that aren't right.

A pilot, says McLaughlin, has "to be able to go up to launch, after driving two or three hours, wanting to fly more than anything in the world and then look at the conditions and say, 'It's not safe. Today, I don't fly.'"

Regulations and safety precautions haven't changed the beauty and excitement of the sport one single bit. "Flying is flying," says Greblo. "Flying through the air like Superman hasn't changed." Most hang-glider pilots are still in it for the rush and the feeling of accomplishment at the end.

Others go on to pursue careers as instructors or as designers and makers of hang-gliders and accessories.

There is definitely a competitive edge to the sport as well. For example, each year hang-glider and paraglider pilots from across Canada gather in Golden, British Columbia, for the Western Canadian Hang-Gliding Championship.

In 2000, Grant and his son, Allan, set a new Canadian record for tandem paragliding at the nationals in Golden. They were in the air for 4.5 hours and traveled a distance of 73 miles-- the longest flight of its kind ever in Canada.

Around 1986, there was a shift in soaring sports from hang-gliding to a relatively new sport called paragliding. The main difference between the two sports is in the design of the glider.

Hang-gliders are typically capable of much higher speeds and they require the pilot to lie prone (flat, with his face downwards). Paraglider pilots are suspended in a sitting position.

Many pilots do both sports, while others, like Grant, have switched over completely. The main reason for the switch, suggests Grant, is that paragliders are simply easier to transport. They fit into a backpack and typically weigh about 30 pounds.

Gliding sports don't demand a lot of physical strength. After running to launch, the pilot mainly uses their arms to pull on toggles, which manoeuvre the wings. After hours of flying, however, your arms will certainly be burning with exhaustion!

People in wheelchairs have flown with great success, though it's not common. The pilot needs an off-road wheelchair. As well, the pilot will need some assistance in stabilizing the chair and getting set up for launch

A paraplegic man in British Columbia, Canada, became a certified novice pilot in 1999. Grant explains briefly how it works.

"When the conditions are good, he starts rolling forward and gets the glider inflated. [He] just keeps rolling along down the hill and the glider picks him up and off he goes. Once he's airborne, he'd be every bit as good at controlling the glider as somebody who has use of their legs."

According to Grant, there aren't nearly as many female pilots as there are male pilots. He estimates that, for every woman in the sport, there are at least five guys.

Getting Started

What do you need to get started? Most importantly, you'll need lessons. "Without lessons, a person is really asking for trouble," warns Grant.

Learning to fly, say expert gliders, isn't all that difficult. According to FlyBC Airsports, a paragliding school, it takes about 30 supervised flights before a student is competent enough to fly without much guidance.

This sport isn't cheap. A full set of lessons generally runs around $1,000. However, this gets you to the point at which you're safely able to fly solo.

While in training, you'll use the school's gliders. But eventually, you'll need your own. Gliders can be rented for about $200 per day and can be purchased for between $2,500 and $6,000.

Keep your eyes open for used gliders as well. There are many second-hand beginners' gliders out there that have barely been used. "You can have it checked out by an instructor to make sure it's fine," says Grant.

Harnesses -- which must be custom-fit to each glider -- are sold separately for $200 to $750. Most gliders wear helmets ($100) and most choose to carry altimeters and wind meters while they're gliding.

Many gliders also wear backup parachutes and protective gear, such as helmets. These add to the cost, but their safety functions are priceless.

If you think this sport might be out of your budget for the time being, you're probably right. In fact, there aren't too many kids involved in this sport because of the costs involved, says Grant. "Most of the people in the sport are in their mid-20s to 40s," he says.

Greblo adds, "I think if I was going to college and tried to do it now, it would be out of my range."

In addition to some spending money and a sense of adventure, you'll need a grasp of hang-gliding terms to get started. The sport has developed a vocabulary all its own.


United States Hang-Gliding & Paragliding Association


Gliding FAQs
Everything you wanted to know and more about hang-gliding and paragliding

How Hang Gliding Works
Learn the science behind sailing across the skies

Back to Career Cluster


  • Email Support

  • 1-800-GO-TO-XAP (1-800-468-6927)
    From outside the U.S., please call +1 (424) 750-3900


Powered by XAP

OCAP believes that financial literacy and understanding the financial aid process are critical aspects of college planning and student success. OCAP staff who work with students, parents, educators and community partners in the areas of personal finance education, state and federal financial aid, and student loan management do not provide financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice. This website and all information provided is for general educational purposes only, and is not intended to be construed as financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice.