Marie Lecocq - 2012-08-07
First attempted in the Haute-Savoie département in the late 1970s, paragliding now counts some 35,000 enthusiasts in France alone. Paragliders are passionate about this pursuit which allows them to discover some of the country’s most beautiful natural sites.
Everyone knows parachuting, or skydiving. Nowadays, you could practically say the same about paragliding, an offshoot of skydiving, but there’s a major difference. With a parachute, you jump; with a paraglider, you fly. The first trial flights using a new type of sail in the late 1970s convinced pioneers that they needed to go it on their own. And so, in 1979, the world’s first paragliding club came together in the French Alps town of Mieussy. Les Choucas - the Jackdaws - were hatched.
Since then, many clubs modelled on Les Choucas have been created in the four corners of the planet. But with the FFVL (Fédération française de vol libre: French Free Flying Federation), France is still this new global community’s favoured destination. Why the success? First of all, in FFVL there’s the word Free. Freedom is part of every paraglider’s leitmotiv. And as far as freedom goes (in this area, at least) France has kept its promises. It is far less complicated to soar here than in other countries, such as Germany or Australia, where more stringent regulations are the rule. Here, the only requirement is civil aviation liability insurance. And then there’s the environment: from mountains to sea, France boasts a wide variety of excellent spots for flying.
Paragliding: sports or leisure?
‘Once you’ve reached the point of departure, paragliding is a sport for the lazy,’ jokes Yan, an amateur paraglider since 2007. ‘You let yourself be lifted up and, comfortably strapped in, handle the controls while enjoying the scenery.’ Yes, but let’s not forget that the takeoff point may not be reachable by car. And the path that leads there may be anywhere from a few hundred metres to several kilometres long, covered by foot with a twenty-kilo backpack. Aficionados are keen to head off on spot-hunting excursions that can last several hours.
And the adventure doesn’t always lead to success. Paragliders, ever dependent on the whims of the weather, must patiently await the favourable gust of wind that will launch them into the sky. Over the years, paragliding has branched out and given rise to several sister disciplines. There are alpine paragliding, preceded by long rambles (with an ultra-light canopy that only weighs 3 or 4 kilos), and acrobatic paragliding. The size of the wing has been reduced for speed riding and speed flying, where swiftness is of the essence.
Paragliding has become a way of life for certain enthusiasts, some of whom have given everything else up in order to devote all of their energy to this highly addictive discipline. It’s still something of a man’s sport (approximately 75%), but the women who participate show the same zeal. Christine Métais, France’s Female Champion in 2010 and runner-up in the World Cup held in China the same year, left everything behind in 2005 in order to pursue her passion. With a French instructor’s certificate in hand, allowing her to teach and accompany students in the air, she decided to make flying her profession. ‘Nevertheless,’ she admits, ‘it’s very difficult to make a living as a paragliding monitor. The equipment is expensive and we’re at the mercy of the weather.’
Paragliders belong to a veritable world community whose members get together during competitions, while travelling and via internet forums. Travel and exchanges are essential elements in the life of the paraglider, who is always dreaming of elsewhere and searching for optimum weather conditions. With paragliding, a new breed of globe-trotters has been born.
Learning paragliding in France
While there are many paragliding clubs scattered throughout France, the Alps, especially around the city of Annecy, are especially attractive given their favourable meteorological conditions and breath-taking panoramic views. Another hot spot is the Great Dune of Pyla on the Atlantic near Bordeaux, as it provides a security mattress lest your flying acrobatics lead to a tumble. A dangerous sport? In France there are, on average, ten fatal accidents per year, or 0.03% of participants. ‘The level of security is much improved. The 1980s, when drama was a common occurrence, are far behind us,’ explains Pierre Bouilloux, a paragliding pioneer and founder of Sup’Air where he designs harnesses and other flight accessories.
How old must you be to begin paragliding? Any age is fine, but it’s better if you top 40 kilos (88 lbs). Those who live far from mountains and sea can also practise the sport, as some clubs use tow-lines to launch flyers. Between training slopes and theory lessons, beginners learn how to handle a sail and study some essentials of meteorology and geography. Not to worry: the first adventure rarely takes place solo, as an instructor pilot will usually accompany beginners on a tandem launch in a double harness. All you’ll need to do is enjoy the sensations and the scenery below. Have a wonderful flight!