Story: Aerial recreation

Page 5. Hang gliding and paragliding

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Hang gliding and paragliding provide the simplest introduction to non-powered flying. Attached to a wing by a harness, the pilot uses air currents to stay aloft, and body weight or manual controls to change direction. The ability to achieve and sustain flight through your own efforts is one of the greatest rewards of these two sports.

The development of hang gliding

Although stories of flights in kite-like contraptions date back many centuries, the modern hang glider was invented in 1947 by aeronautical engineer Francis Rogallo, who experimented with flexible wings that would respond to the wind. Hang gliding began in New Zealand in 1968, when Australian Bill Moyes, attached to a speedboat via a cable, set an altitude record (2,900 feet) on Lake Ellesmere. It quickly became popular, but there was a spate of fatal accidents. With the establishment of the New Zealand Hang Gliding Association in 1974, safety regulations for the sport were formulated, and a pilot rating system was introduced in 1976. The 1977 Oscar-nominated documentary Off the edge, set in the Southern Alps, encouraged more people to try the sport.

A bridge too far

Early hang glider pilots attempted some risky but spectacular stunts. In September 1973 Gerald Nairn, from Wairoa, flew both over and under the Auckland Harbour Bridge, to the consternation of civil aviation authorities.

Flying a hang glider

The modern hang glider frame is constructed from aluminium with wings of synthetic fabric, has a wing span of about 9.7 metres and weighs between 22 and 32 kilograms. The pilot is suspended from the glider in a harness at its centre of gravity. By shifting weight from side to side he or she can bank and turn the craft; leaning forwards makes it descend; leaning backwards makes it climb. Hang gliders are usually launched from hills or cliffs. Most flying sites are managed by local hang-gliding clubs.


Paragliders, also known as parapentes, differ from hang gliders in that they consist of a simple wing inflated by the air that enters its gills during the launch. Paragliders do not have a rigid frame; the pilot sits in a harness with a back protector. This is suspended from the wing by four or five sets of lines, the last of which, the brake lines, are attached to handles. The direction of the glider is controlled by pulling on the brake handles.

Pilots usually launch the paraglider by running down a gentle slope, which inflates the wing. Weighing only 13 to 14 kilograms, paragliders are more portable than hang gliders, and can be carried up and flown from high mountains. Paragliders travel more slowly than hang gliders and are easier to fly.

Paragliding in New Zealand

Paragliders became popular in Europe in the mid-1980s. A New Zealand paragliding pioneer was the mountaineer Rob Hall, who made experimental flights from the Port Hills near Christchurch, and then from Mt Hutt and peaks near the Hermitage Hotel. In December 1986 he became the first person to fly a paraglider from the summit of Aoraki/Mt Cook.

The New Zealand Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association is now the national regulatory body for both sports, co-ordinating the activities of affiliated clubs, and organising competitions and festivals. Hang glider and paraglider pilots do not require a licence but must be members of the association, which gives pilots ratings from beginner through to instructor and tandem.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Aerial recreation - Hang gliding and paragliding', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 4 March 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 12 Jun 2006