Free-flight encompasses the flying disciplines hang-gliding, paragliding, para-motoring and human-powered flight. Effectively, any flying machine that is solely human-powered or steered by shifting the weight of the pilot is part of the free-flight category. As the Free-flight category is so broad, this guidance will focus on hang gliding and paragliding.
Hang-gliders were among the first crewed flying machines to be invented, with early examples being flown in the mid-1800s. Made from wood and canvas, they didn’t fly far, but they arguably laid the groundwork for the Wright brothers and the rest of aviation history. Throughout the early 20th century, various technologies and concepts related to hang-gliding were developed, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that these disparate ideas were brought together with the invention of the modern hang-glider. Around the same time, various other pioneers were experimenting with the aim of increasing the glide performance of ram air parachutes to create a portable flying machine that became known as the paraglider. More recently, advanced materials have made human-powered flight possible, both conventional and vertical take-off, if only for short durations and under limited control.
Free-flight aircraft have a broad range of capabilities, from human-powered helicopters with no steering, to paramotors with better performance than some light aircraft. Almost all rely on the weight of the human pilot to steer, and most have collapsible or semi-rigid wings, for storage.
Free-flight is almost entirely sporting and recreational, and there are many local, regional and international competitions. These might involve declared routes or distance records for cross-country flying, to spot-landing competitions and even a kind of paraglider aerobatics known as ‘acro’.
The British Hang gliding and Paragliding Association (BHPA) oversees training standards for those two sports in the UK, as well as supporting the nationwide network of clubs and schools. Training begins with the Elementary Pilot (EP) course, learning simply to rig and de-rig equipment and handle it on the ground, where the fundamentals of control can be taught. Flying short hops down a hill or from a winch build on those basics during the Club Pilot (CP) course, until students can competently take off, soar and land unassisted. While tandem free-flight is possible, it is mostly reserved for informal pleasure flights rather than training, unlike many other forms of aviation.
The free-flight disciplines are unusual in aviation in that equipment hire is not typical, and therefore it is necessary to own your own wing, harness and other accessories. However, relatively inexpensive gear is available second-hand, and once equipped, new pilots can travel the length and breadth of the UK, and even abroad, to enjoy all the fantastic opportunities that the sport provides. Paraglider pilots, for example, could choose to travel to France for an SIV course. Roughly translated as ‘emergency flight procedures’ training, it is advanced training that will expand your personal envelope dramatically. Once qualified, it is down to individuals to assess conditions and locations and make their own judgement about the hazards of a particular flight, and the level of risk they are prepared to take. The club system will support new pilots in making these decisions, but it’s important not to just ‘follow the crowd’, whether they are all getting airborne or sitting on the hill! Perhaps more than any other flying discipline, developing as a new hang-glider or paraglider pilot demands a sense of adventure, a learning mindset and a level-headed assessment of your own ability.
Free-flight aviation is not typically associated with a career. These disciplines sit firmly in the hobby/sport category for all except those who are prepared to make their living importing equipment or training others. Even then, these enterprises often come second to a full-time job.
The total cost of the EP and CP courses to get you flying unaided, will likely be around £2000, plus kit hire if you don’t have your own. The equipment necessary for a beginner will set you back about another £1000 for good condition, second-hand beginner’s kit. After that the sky really is the limit, but you should also budget for robust outdoor wear, and once you’re hooked, plenty of travel!