Well, the history of paragliding does have a few interesting twists! When I originally researched this topic, it seemed like it all started in France sometime back in the 80s. You know, mountaineers descending off mountains in early model paragliders or modified sports parachutes.
By chance, someone who knows a great deal about this sport and the history of paragliding stumbled across my website one day.
This contact led me on to find some fascinating information! After browsing around and doing a few select searches, I discovered that he was right about the very earliest developments in paraglider-like flight.
The French connection is important. There is no doubt about that, since this is where the very first explosion of paragliding as a sport took place. It later spread to other European countries and finally to the rest of the world. But when it comes to who was the first to actually walk off a slope and into the air under a flexible, steerable, parachute-like wing... That honor, as far as anyone currently knows, goes to ... GASP ... an American!
Yes, an aeronautical engineer with connections to NASA, David Barish, developed a wing he called the Sailwing. This amazing contraption made many safe flights down grassy slopes. In particular, ski resorts were singled out as a possible breeding ground for a new sport which would be called 'slope soaring'. The Sailwing had 5 distinct lobes and a series of long thin keels attached to the rear lines. However, it still featured:
Just to name a few things in common with 21st Century paragliders! The first extended flight of the Sailwing was in September 1965 at Bel Air in the Cats Hills. This is a ski resort two hours from New York in the U.S. In fact, the following year, David and his son did a tour of other American ski resorts, from Vermont to California. The idea was to demonstrate and promote the sport of 'slope soaring'. However, it never really ... I feel a pun coming on ... took off. Sorry, old joke.
The next early paraglider pilot of note was Dieter Strasilla, a German living and first flying in the U.S. Dieter was also active in the 60s but continued on into the 70s. He started foot-launching in ram-air parachutes and then graduated to purpose-built paragliders to cruise down sand dunes in California. Eventually he teamed up with Andrea Kühn to fly in Swiss ski resorts. The history of paragliding doesn't contain much soaring during this era, due to the limited performance of the craft.
Concrete evidence for the practice of foot-launching ram-air parachutes was contained in a magazine series called the Parachute Manual. Apparently, this was an accepted practice to test parachutes after repair. Getting them flown to 4000 feet every time would get expensive ... This publication proved that parachutes were being foot-launched in 1970. The drogue chute was removed for this kind of flying, since it is only required to pull the chute from the pack during free-fall.
It seems the concept caught on, as a small but daring band of parachutists experimented with slope soaring for fun. It was all very seat-of-the-pants stuff. No manuals, no schools, no regulations. Just a dune, a stiff breeze and some Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines.
1978 finally saw the emergence of modern paragliding. André Bohn launched from Mieussy in the northern French Alps and glided all the way down to the football pitch in the valley 1000 meters below. Although the craft was a sport parachute, this was probably one of the very first foot-launched flights that went way beyond mere dune-hopping or slope-skimming at ski resorts. A very significant moment in the history of paragliding!
Oh, by the way, he got the idea from the Parachute Manual! Andre and 2 others, who were originally looking for a cheap way to train for spot landings, thus kicked off the modern sport of paragliding.
With the mountains of Europe being host to numerous extreme sports, it was inevitable that one day a mountaineer would spot a parachutist launching in the distance. 'Wouldn't that beat climbing down!' he might have thought. I'm sure that scenario, or something similar, led to the new trend of mountaineers experimenting with an exciting new way to get back to the base of the mountain.
To this day, a small number of wings are classified as 'mountain paragliders' since they are designed to be as light as possible, for this very purpose. Extremely lightweight harnesses are also available, which further decrease the total weight that needs to be carried on the mountaineer's back.
Somewhere around 1985, hang-glider pilots discovered paragliding. Many of them embraced paragliding as an even cheaper and more convenient means of getting their feet off the ground on weekends! By this time, almost nobody was flying sports 'chutes from a foot launch, as 'real' paragliders had emerged and the sport was blossoming in Europe. The history of paragliding sometimes features the terms para-gliders or parawings at this stage.
This page on the history of paragliding was first written in 2008, and there is no end in sight just yet for paraglider development! From all my research, it would appear that we are really in a Golden Age of technical paraglider development. Perhaps it really started to accelerate somewhere between the year 2000 and 2004, but significant changes have been happening since the 90s.
Many thanks to Xavier Murillo for contacting me and triggering a more well-directed search of the Web! Plus I incorporated a small amount of info directly from him.