When you look at the Interlaken skies, full of paragliders comfortably soaring the soothing winds of the beautiful valley, you don’t realise that paragliding actually is quite a young sport and activity invented in the mid-20th century….
the history of paragliding, a new sport is born
Paragliding grew out of military parachuting. As a means to train future parachutists how to land safely the military was looking for effective training mechanisms. Repeatedly going up and down in an airplane to drop the parachutists was complicated and time-consuming so in order to fit more landing practice into a day, they would attach the parachutists to a truck with a tow rope and drag them up into the air. As the vehicle picked up speed, the parachutist would float higher and higher until the parachutist released the tow rope and descend back to ground level. Many parachutists soon became more interested in the floating part than the landing part and for fun, they would launch themselves off steep hills and parachute to the ground below, experimenting with how they could harness air currents to stay in the air longer.
development of better paragliders and longer flights
The new activity of paragliding, known as parasailing or parafoiling at the time, attracted a range of daredevils that started experimenting with the shape and design of the parachutes. They changed the shape, surface area and materials to see which ones would give them more stable and longer glides and airtime. In 1952 Canadian Domina Jalbert patented a governable gliding parachute with multi-cells and controls for lateral glide. It was a step forward but still nothing close to the gliding capabilities of the paragliders today….
In 1954, in an article in Flight magazine by Walter Neumark, it was predicted that in the near-future a glider pilot would be "able to launch himself by running over the edge of a cliff or down a slope ... whether on a rock-climbing holiday in Skye or ski-ing in the Alps.”
And indeed this future was around the corner.
Domina Jalbert invents the ram-air parachute
The solution came with the invention of the ram-air parachute. Also known as the parafoil, it changed everything. Developed by Domina Jalbert in 1963, the ram-air parachute altered the shape of the chute from round to rectangular. The parachute -- called a wing or sail -- was broken up into cells with an open leading edge and a closed trailing edge inflating the paraglider by the air flow. As the sail caught the wind, air would "ram" into these cells, filling up or inflating the sail. The shape allowed the wing to glide or float rather than immediately descend, as a traditional parachute would. The ram air paraglider was patented on the on January 10, 1963 under US Patent number 3131894. He improved further on his design and in 1964, he filed a patent titled "Multi-cell Wing Type Aerial Device" This would become key to paragliding, sky diving, powered paragliding, landboarding, kite surfing and cargo-ship kite tugging.
the word paragliding is coined in 1985
In the mid sixties David Barish was developing the "sail wing" (single-surface wing) for recovery of NASA space capsules and they used slope soaring as a way of testing out their Sail Wing.” After tests on Hunter Mountain, New York, in September 1965, he went on to promote slope soaring as a summer activity for ski resorts, which was a first try at commercialising the new sport of parasailing.
In the UK Walter Neumark wrote the book ‘Operating Procedures for Ascending Parachutes’, and in 1973 he and a group of enthusiasts with a passion for tow-launching PCs and ram-air parachutes broke away from the British Parachute Association to form the British Association of Parascending Clubs (which later became the British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association).
Patrick Gilligan (Canada) and Bertrand Dubuis (Switzerland) wrote the first flight manual, The Paragliding Manual in 1985, coining the word paragliding.
paragliding and parapente
All these developments from around the world were combined in June 1978 by three French friends, Jean-Claude Bétemps, André Bohn and Gérard Bosson. , from Mieussy, Haute-Savoie, France. After inspiration from an article on slope soaring in the Parachute Manual magazine by parachutist and publisher Dan Poynter, they calculated that on a suitable slope, a "square" ram-air parachute could be inflated by running down the slope. After being ‘sure’ their calculations were correct Bétemps launched himself from Pointe du Pertuiset, in Mieussy (France), and flew for over 100m. His friend Bohn followed him and glided down to the football pitch in the valley 1000 metres below. With these experimenting flights, gliding over a slope, the friends invented "Parapente" (pente being French for "slope"). A new sport was born.
the emergence of paragliding as a sport
These experimental flights in Mieussy, France are considered the beginning of modern paragliding as we know it. They are the starting point of paragliding as a sport and hobby activity.
Ever since then paragliding equipment has evolved a lot, with more complicated suspension and steering systems and ever lighter and more technical materials used. Nonetheless all contemporary paragliding wings are based on Jalbert's original design and can be traced back to three friends in France gliding over a slope!
It is thanks to them we can enjoy this amazing activity and fly through the stunning Interlaken skies like a boss!!