Paragliding Meteorology: A Beginner’s Guide

Weather conditions can make or break a paragliding day. Recognising how the wind moves, how thermals form, and what different clouds signify are what enable you to have outstanding flying days.

The Basics of Weather in Paragliding

As every pilot knows, paragliding is uniquely dependent on the weather. It relies on natural forces to take off, fly, and land. The weather affects paragliding in several key ways:

Wind

The wind is both a friend and foe to paragliders. The right wind conditions lift a pilot gracefully into the air and support long cross-country flights. However, strong or gusty wind can pose significant risks.

  • Wind Speed: The speed of the wind is perhaps the most critical factor to consider before a flight. Ideal wind speeds vary depending on the pilot’s skill level, equipment, and specific flying sites. In general, light to moderate winds (about 5 to 15 mph or 8 to 24 km/h) are preferred for safe paragliding.
  • Wind Direction: Wind direction affects takeoff and landings. Headwinds (wind blowing directly against the flight path) are ideal for takeoffs and landings, as they help to increase lift. Crosswinds (wind blowing across the flight path) and tailwinds (wind blowing in the same direction as the flight path) can complicate takeoffs and landings and are generally to be avoided.
  • Gusts and Variability: Steady, smooth winds are preferable to gusty conditions. Gusts lead to turbulence and sudden changes in wind speed, challenging the pilot’s ability to control the glider. Variability in wind speed and direction can also indicate unstable weather patterns.

Appropriate Conditions for Different Levels of Pilots

  • Beginner Pilots: Novice pilots should fly in light and stable wind conditions, ideally under 12 mph (19 km/h), with minimal gusts. Flying in these conditions helps beginners focus on fundamental skills such as launching, steering, and landing without the added challenge of managing complex wind dynamics. Beginners should avoid flying in gusty conditions.
  • Intermediate Pilots: Pilots with more experience can handle slightly stronger and more variable winds, up to 15 mph (24 km/h). Pilots begin to explore ridge soaring and other forms of dynamic lift that require more precise handling and understanding of wind concepts such as rotar and venturi effects. Intermediate pilots should still avoid flying in wind speeds that exceed their comfort and skill. Beginner and intermediate paraglider wings do not have the ‘penetration’ required to fly in higher wind speeds and would be at risk of having a negative ground speed and not being able to make it to a landing zone safely.
  • Advanced Pilots: Experienced pilots can take advantage of a wider range of wind conditions, including stronger winds for dynamic soaring and cross-country flights. However, even advanced pilots must respect the power of the wind and the potential for rapidly changing conditions, especially when flying in unfamiliar areas or in complex meteorological situations. Advanced pilots are also better equipped to handle gusty conditions and can make informed decisions about flying in winds exceeding 15 mph (24 km/h) based on their assessment of risk, equipment capabilities, and local terrain.

Wind Gradient

The wind gradient is a concept that refers to the change in wind speed with altitude above the ground. This phenomenon occurs because of the friction between the earth’s surface and the air moving over it. The surface of the Earth, with its varying terrain and obstacles like trees, buildings, and hills, slows down the flow of air closest to the ground. As you move higher above the surface, this frictional effect decreases, and the wind speed increases.

Inversion Layer

An inversion layer occurs in the atmosphere when the temperature increases with altitude, contrary to the normal decrease in temperature with height. This layer acts as a cap, preventing warm ground-level air from rising because the air above is warmer and, therefore, more stable. For paragliders, an inversion can limit thermal development, reducing the availability of lift needed for flight.

Cloud Formation

Clouds offer visual cues about the weather and atmospheric conditions. Certain cloud types can indicate the presence of thermals, the potential for turbulence, or the approach of changing weather fronts. Understanding what different clouds signify can help pilots anticipate changes in flying conditions.

  • Cumulus Clouds: Often indicate thermal activity, as they form at the top of thermal columns. Ideal for identifying potential lift areas, but beware of overdevelopment leading to thunderstorms.
  • Stratus Clouds: Signify stable, calm weather but little to no thermal activity. While safe, they often mean less dynamic flying conditions.
  • Cirrus Clouds: High-altitude, wispy clouds that can indicate approaching frontal systems. Their presence suggests changes in weather may be on the horizon.

Dynamic Lift

Dynamic lift occurs when wind encounters an obstacle like a ridge or cliff, forcing it upwards. This type of lift can support flight along the face of the obstacle, allowing pilots to soar without relying on thermals. Understanding how to harness dynamic lift can open up new flying opportunities, especially in coastal areas or along mountain ridges.

Thermal Lift

Thermal lift occurs when the sun heats the Earth’s surface unevenly, causing patches of air to warm up more than the surrounding air. This warmer air is less dense, and as a result, it rises, creating a column of rising air known as a thermal. Paragliders enter these thermals and circle within them, gaining altitude in the process. Thermal lift is fundamental for cross-country flying, allowing pilots to cover long distances by hopping from one thermal to the next.

Venturi Effect

The Venturi effect describes how wind speeds up as it flows through narrow passages or over obstacles. This phenomenon can significantly impact flying conditions, creating stronger lift in narrow areas but also potentially dangerous situations if the wind becomes too strong or turbulent. Recognizing areas where the Venturi effect might occur helps pilots anticipate changes in wind speed and direction.

Rotor

Rotor is turbulent air on the leeward side of an obstacle, caused by the wind’s disruption as it flows over the top. Rotors can be hazardous to paragliders due to their unpredictable nature and potential to cause collapses or loss of control. Avoiding the downwind side of hills, mountains, or other barriers is crucial for safety.

Thermals

Thermals are the columns or bubbles of rising warm air generated by the uneven heating of the Earth’s surface. They can originate from different types of terrain, such as open fields, rocky areas, or urban environments. Identifying thermals and understanding how to efficiently core a thermal (stay in its strongest part) are crucial skills for maximizing lift and extending flight durations. Thermals are often indicated by certain cloud formations, such as cumulus clouds, or by observing the flight patterns of birds like hawks and vultures, which also use thermals to gain altitude.

Airspace

Airspace refers to the portion of the atmosphere controlled by a country for aviation activities, including paragliding. It’s categorised into different classes (A, B, C, D, E, G, etc.), each with its own rules and requirements for entry and operation. Paragliders must be aware of the airspace classifications in their flying areas to ensure they comply with regulations and avoid restricted zones, such as those around airports, military bases, or designated no-fly zones.

Turbulence

Turbulence in paragliding refers to irregular or chaotic air movements that can disrupt the smooth flow of air around a wing, affecting the stability and control of the glider. It can be caused by various factors, including thermal activity, wind gradients, obstacles disrupting wind flow (such as trees or buildings), and weather fronts. Turbulence ranges from mild, barely noticeable bumps, to severe, which can cause significant altitude loss or even collapse the wing if not managed correctly. Pilots must learn to recognize the signs of turbulence and develop the skills to navigate through it safely, using techniques like active flying to maintain control of the glider.

Ground Speed

Ground speed refers to the speed at which a paraglider is moving over the ground. It’s the actual speed that would be measured by someone observing from a fixed point on the Earth’s surface. Ground speed is influenced by the airspeed of the glider and the wind speed and direction. For example, a paraglider flying downwind will have a higher ground speed due to the wind’s push, while flying upwind results in a lower ground speed due to the wind’s resistance.

Airspeed

Airspeed is the speed of the paraglider relative to the surrounding air. It is a critical parameter for maintaining lift and control. Unlike ground speed, airspeed determines how fast the air flows over the glider’s wing, which affects its lift, drag, and overall aerodynamic performance. Maintaining a sufficient airspeed is crucial for avoiding a stall, too much brake, and you can risk reducing the airspeed sufficiently when the wing collapses. Importantly, airspeed remains the same whether heading into wind or down wind, it is the ground speed that would change.

Speed Bar

The speed bar is a control mechanism used by paragliders to adjust their airspeed. It is a foot-operated bar connected to the glider’s lines, allowing the pilot to change the wing’s angle of attack and, consequently, its speed. By pushing the speed bar, the pilot increases the glider’s airspeed, improving penetration in headwinds and enabling faster cross-country flights. However, using the speed bar also increases the wing’s sink rate and can reduce its stability, so it must be used judiciously.

Penetration

Penetration refers to a paraglider’s ability to move forward against the wind. High penetration means the glider can make headway into the wind effectively, which is particularly important in strong wind conditions. Penetration depends on the glider’s airspeed, its aerodynamic efficiency, and the wind’s strength. Paragliders with better penetration can maintain their course and speed in face of headwinds, whereas poor penetration can result in being blown backward or struggling to progress.

The typical penetration or airspeed of a paraglider varies across different EN (European Norm) wing ratings. Specific speeds can vary based on the design of each model and manufacturer, as well as pilot weight and flying conditions; here’s a general overview of airspeeds associated with each category:

EN A Wings (Beginner)

  • Trim Speed: Approximately 36-39 km/h (22-24 mph). This is the wing’s speed when flying straight without any speed system engagement.
  • Top Speed: Around 45-48 km/h (28-30 mph) when using the speed bar. EN A wings prioritize stability and safety over speed, making them more forgiving for beginners.

EN B Wings (Intermediate)

  • Trim Speed: Slightly higher than EN A, typically around 38-42 km/h (24-26 mph). These wings offer a good balance between performance and passive safety.
  • Top Speed: Can reach up to 50-55 km/h (31-34 mph) with the speed bar. EN B wings allow for more speed while maintaining a level of safety suitable for pilots with some experience.

EN C Wings (Advanced)

  • Trim Speed: Ranges from 40-45 km/h (25-28 mph), reflecting their advanced design for experienced pilots seeking more performance.
  • Top Speed: Often exceeds 55-60 km/h (34-37 mph) with the speed bar. EN C wings are designed for significant cross-country performance, offering higher speeds and more dynamic handling.

EN D Wings (Competition/Expert)

  • Trim Speed: Generally starts from around 45 km/h (28 mph) and can be higher, tailored for expert pilots and competition flying.
  • Top Speed: Can surpass 60-65 km/h (37-40 mph) with the speed bar, making them the fastest category under the EN system. EN D wings are optimized for maximum performance, speed, and agility, but with a narrower margin for passive safety.

Additional Terms and Concepts

  • Anabatic Winds: Warm air that rises up a slope during the day, created by the sun heating the ground. These can provide good lift conditions for hillside launches.
  • Katabatic Winds: Cooler, denser air moving downhill, often occurring at night or early morning. While generally not useful for lift, understanding these winds is important for assessing morning flight conditions.
  • Lee Side: The side of a hill or obstacle sheltered from the wind. Flying on the lee side can be dangerous due to the risk of rotor and turbulent air.
  • Shear Layer: An area where two layers of air with different speeds or directions meet. This can create turbulence and challenging flying conditions.

Parawaiting

Parawaiting is a term you get to will know, love and hate. Remembering to enjoy sitting around on the hill chatting with other pilots while you wait for the hill to start ‘working’ will make your day so much more fun. Parawaiting is a reminder that successful paragliding is as much about making wise decisions on the ground as it is about skilful flying in the air.

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Max
Co-founder and Chief Adventurer

I am Max, the co-founder and CEO of adventuro. We are on a mission to help you get into the sports you have always wanted to try, or develop in the sports you love, exploring new skills and locations. We do this by partnering with the best instructors, guides, and activity centres to get a great spread from beginner all the way to instructor training.

For too long, it has been way to confusing to find your next steps, or even to know where to start when getting into adventure sports. I am an experienced and/or qualified paraglider, skydiver, scuba diver, freediver, power boat driver, snowboarder, kitesurfer, kayaker, mountain biker, surfer, dirt biker, wakeboarder, and sailor.

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