Paraglider

British Hang Gliding & Paragliding Association

British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association

Speed Flying

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Welcome to the BHPA's speed flying information page!

Dan Sidoli

Speed flying is an air sport that has experienced an explosion in popularity in recent years, thanks to a great deal of interest and participation by skydivers, kite surfers, skiers, paragliders and other sports enthusiasts seeking the thrill of high speed mountain descents. Video sharing websites have fuelled the popularity of speed flying and there is a vast choice of speed flying wings, harnesses and other accessories specially designed for the particular needs of speed flying pilots.

What is speed flying?

Speed flying is a sport based on the principles of paragliding, but using a specially designed wing to fly fast hill descents. Paragliding is serene gliding and soaring, using thermic lift to make cross-country flights on wings that are typically over 20 square meters (sq.m) in wing surface area. Speed flying wings are significantly smaller than paragliders, with a higher wing loading that enables them to travel at high speed. Skilled pilots use speed wings to make rapid descents flying close to the terrain.

Speed flying wings are usually between 12 and 18 sq.m in area. Below about 12 sq.m, the wings are used predominantly for speed riding which is foot-launching on snow with skis. Bridging the gap between speed wings and full size paragliders are mini wings. These are essentially mini paragliders with wing areas between 16 and 20 sq.m and are often used for hike and fly.

As a general rule, the smaller the wing and the higher the wing loading, the faster and more dynamic the responses are to pilot input. A highly loaded speed wing is significantly faster than a full size paraglider. Speed flying in close proximity to the ground (as often seen in online movie clips) requires expert piloting skills, experience and training, and is not for the indecisive or heavy-handed pilot.

Speed flying and BHPA

The BHPA Flying Safety Committee (FSC) has developed a Club Pilot training syllabus specifically for people who want to learn to make hill descent flights on speed wings. Certain BHPA schools have been authorised to deliver the new speed flying syllabus as a trial course to ab-initio pilots and experienced flyers from other disciplines. The Speed Flying Club Pilot rating (non soaring: max wind speed 20mph) can be issued following successful completion of the Speed Flying Club Pilot course. This includes a written exam covering practical aspects of speed flying as well as air law, theory of flight and meteorology. The speed flying syllabus and its associated rating is for speed flying hill descents - it does not involve ridge soaring. The FSC deems it necessary to hold a Club Pilot (Hill) rating to undertake this activity, and the paragliding Club Pilot hill syllabus covers ridge soaring and the rules of the air associated with soaring and sustained flight.

A growing proportion of BHPA paraglider pilots own and regularly fly speed wings or mini wings. For pilots who already hold BHPA Club Pilot paraglider hill rating, guidance on flying speed wings and mini wings can be found in the Member Documents area of this website.

Speed flying and BHPA Clubs

A network of BHPA recreational flying clubs around the UK manage flying sites. Some of these clubs are already set up to welcome speed flying, and some members will of course be speed flyers themselves. For other clubs, speed flying is a fairly new activity and they will be looking to institute policies about site usage to avoid conflicts with other flyers and minimise the risk of aerial collision.

Speed flying, paragliding and hang gliding rely on maintaining good relationships with land owners, and some popular flying sites have been put in jeopardy by untrained pilots, unaware of the site rules or codes of conduct that have been set up. It is important to remember that every bit of land belongs to someone, so obtaining prior permission to fly is essential to maintain the freedoms that UK aviators currently enjoy.

Equipment

Full size paragliders undergo rigorous testing of their flight safety characteristics by an independent test house, and are given a rating to an EN Standard. There are very few speed flying wings that are tested to this standard and therefore very little independent data of speed wings' flight safety characteristics. A flight safety standard for speed wings may be developed in the future, but for the present most speed flying wings are classed as uncertified.

When pilots flying any wing that is uncertified join the BHPA or renew their BHPA membership, they have to declare that they understand and accept the additional risks of flying an uncertified wing with no acceptable independent verification of airworthiness. For further information about certification and flying an uncertified wing, please download a copy of the BHPA Certification Factsheet.

Learning to speed fly

Speed flying is an activity that involves strategic decision-making on many levels. A properly trained pilot will be able to make decisions informed by air law, meteorology, other aircraft and many other factors in order to carry out safe, enjoyable flying and get the most out of the conditions.

For people wanting to learn to fly speed gliders, whether existing paraglider pilots, those with previous experience of air sports or those with no previous flying experience at all, proper training at a BHPA school is essential to understand the particular risks in speed flying.

BHPA schools teach people to fly in a progressive way - before undertaking high flights, many short, low flights are made in gentle conditions. These training flights on gentle slopes allow student pilots to practise launches and landing approaches and the fundamental skill of wing control on the ground and in the air.

The BHPA has a network of schools that employ licensed instructors, some of whom specialise in speed flying and are taking part in a trial to deliver the BHPA's new speed flying Club Pilot syllabus. The following schools are currently taking part in that trial:

  • Air Ventures Paragliding School
  • Axis Paragliding and Paramotoring
  • Airworks Paragliding Centre
  • Flying Fever
  • Snowdon Gliders
  • Verbier Summits

A complete list of all BHPA schools and their specialisms can be found on the schools page on this website.

Speed flyers coming from other sports (e.g. skydiving, kite surfing).

With the popularity of online marketplace sites, it has never been easier to buy flying equipment without guidance. Video sharing websites contain an array of technique demonstrations that people have used in attempt to teach themselves, unaware that as soon as they take their feet off the ground they are becoming aviators, and therefore fall within legislation covering all flight activities.

Many skydivers and kite surfers often pick up wing control skills very quickly when under guidance by a qualified speed flying instructor. However, some have been caught out by incorrectly assuming that their skydiving technique is directly transferrable to speed flying. Inappropriately trained or untrained pilots have exposed themselves to risks leading to severe and sometimes fatal injury, so instruction from a licensed instructor is an essential step towards minimising risks.

The BHPA recommends that no matter what your experience in other sports, you get proper training with a BHPA school to benefit from all the features your membership brings with it, including the 3rd party liability insurance that most clubs and landowners require for the use of their sites.