Version 3.10

Hang Gliding

1. Performance Questions:
A. How do you steer?  
B. How high/far can a hang glider go?
C. How long do flights last?  
D. Where can hang gliders launch and land?
E. How safe are hang gliders?

2. Flying Conditions:
A. Is lots of wind necessary to launch/fly/land?  
B. How do gliders gain altitude?  
C. What range of temperatures are encountered in flight?  

3. Pilot Requirements:
A. Is hang gliding physically demanding?  
B. Do pilots need to be of a certain age, gender, weight or size?  
C. Do pilots need to be licensed to fly hang gliders?  
D. How does a student go about learning to fly?
E. How much does all this cost?  
F. How to get more information.  


4. Paragliding:

A. What is a Paraglider?
B. What are the main component parts of a Paraglider?  
C. Is a Paraglider the same thing as a parachute?  
D. What is the difference between a Hang glider and a Paraglider?
E. Why would anyone want to fly a Paraglider when the could fly a Hang glider?
F. How much does a Paraglider cost and how long do they last?  
G. Is Paragliding safer than Hang Gliding?
H. What are Big-Ears (Rossette, A-Line Stall, Collapses)?  

Advanced Topics

5. Towing:
A. How do you tow a hang glider?  
B. What is a static line?  
C. What is a payout winch?
D. What is a stationary winch.  
E. What is aero tow?
F. How is the towline attached to the hang glider?  
G. How does a hang glider take off when it's being towed.  
H. What is Platform launch?
I. What is a dolly launch?  
J. How is a glider foot-launched for tow?  
K. How long are the towlines used for tow?
L. What material are the towlines made of?  
M. What is a weak link?  
N. What tension will cause a weak link to break?
O. What is scooter tow?  
P. Does it take any training to learn to fly a hang glider under tow?  
Q. How about flying a paraglider under tow?
R. What are the differences flying under tow?
S. So, what is a lockout?  
T. How does a pilot recover from a lockout?
U. What if the pilot is in a lockout or other trouble situation and the release fails?  
V. What is a hook knife?
W. What is an observer?  
X. Does everyone use a winch operator or observer?  
Y. When is an observer imperative?  
Z. Is towing hang gliders or paragliders more dangerous than foot launch?  

6. Aerotowing
A. Introduction  
B. Aerotowing  
C. The Equipment  
D. Extraordinary People  

Credits & Version information

Hang Gliding FAQ

1. Basic Performance Questions:

1.A. How do you steer?

Hang gliders are controlled by shifting the pilot's weight with respect to the glider. Pilots are suspended from a strap connected to the glider's frame (hence the name "hang" glider). By moving forward and backward and side to side at the end of this strap, the pilot alters the center of gravity of the glider. This then causes the glider to pitch or roll in the direction of the pilot's motion and thus allows both speed control and turning.

1.B. How high/far can a hang glider go?

This depends a lot on the conditions in which it is flown, but flights in excess of 300 miles in length and altitudes of well over 20,000 ft. MSL have been recorded. (These last have all been with FAA permission for the rules lawyers reading this). More typically, pilots in the summer in the U.S. will frequently achieve altitudes of 5,000 to 10,000 ft AGL and fly for over 50-100mi, sometimes returning to their starting point.

1.C. How long do flights last?

Again this depends on conditions, but a high altitude flight is frequently several hours in duration. On good days, pilots don't have to land until the sun goes down.

1.D. Where can hang gliders launch and land?

Pretty much any slope that is relatively free from obstructions, is steeper than about 6 to 1 and faces into the wind can be used to foot launch a hang glider. The pilot just runs down the slope and takes off when the air speed reaches 15 to 20 mph. Alternatively, when no hills are available, towing by cars, stationary winches and ultralight aircraft allows gliders to get into the air .

Where a hang glider can be landed depends somewhat on the skill of the pilot. An experienced pilot should be able to put a glider safely into any flat spot bigger than about 50 by 200 ft and clear of obstructions. This area requirement can vary somewhat, though, depending on wind conditions and the surrounding terrain.

1.E. How safe are hang gliders?

Like any form of sport aviation, hang gliding can be dangerous if pursued carelessly. That said, however, hang gliding can be a very safe sport. In short it is as dangerous as you care to make it.

Gliders are certified for airworthiness by the Hang Glider Manufacturers Association (HGMA) so structural failures on recent equipment flown within its placarded limits are a thing of the past. In addition, reserve parachutes are used on all high altitude hang glider flights now and provide a measure of safety in the rare instances of severe glider damage or complete loss of control.

Also, hang gliding instruction has been standardized and most students learn from certified instructors using a thorough, gradual training program. So the days of untrained pilots trying unsafe maneuvers at dangerous sites are also largely gone.

Despite these advances, people still make judgment errors and aviation is not very forgiving of such. The bottom line is that out of about 200,000 active pilots worldwide, ~100 will have a fatal hang gliding accident in a given year and perhaps 10 times that many will have an injury requiring treatment. These rates are about twice the rate experienced by drivers and 1/5 that of motorcyclists. The vast majority of pilots fly their entire careers without sustaining any serious injury.

2. Flying Conditions:

2.A. Is lots of wind necessary to launch/fly/land?

Hang gliders can be launched, flown and landed in winds from zero to about 30 mph safely. When winds get above about 40 mph, the associated turbulence makes all aspects of flight substantially less comfortable. Generally, ideal winds for launching and landing are from 5 to 20 mph depending on the flying site. Wind speed is less important in flight since the pilot controls the air speed of the glider whatever the wind speed may be.

2.B. How do gliders gain altitude?

In addition to the horizontal wind we're accustomed to on the ground, air moves vertically as well. If a glider encounters a rising chunk of air, it will go up along with it. The whole trick of soaring a hang glider (or any other glider for that matter) is to figure out where the air is going up and then to get there. While there are many sources of rising air or "lift", the most commonly used by hang gliders are ridge lift and thermal lift. Ridge lift occurs when horizontal wind hits an obstruction (like a ridge, for instance) and is deflected upward. Thermal lift occurs when terrain is heated by the sun and transfers this heat to the surrounding air - which then rises.

Typically ridge lift exists in a "lift band" on the windward side of a ridge and pilots get up by flying back and forth through this band. Thermal lift on the other hand usually starts at some local "trigger point" on the ground and then rises as a column or bubble of air. To get up in a thermal, pilots typically circle in this region of rising air.

2.C. What range of temperatures are encountered in flight?

Hang gliders are flown in subzero conditions in the winter and in the hottest deserts in the summer. Since the air temperature typically falls by about 5.5° (F) for every 1000 ft gain in elevation, however, high altitude hang glider flights are frequently cold. Pilots expecting to fly up to 10,000 ft in the summer will generally wear warm clothing to protect against exposure.

3. Pilot Requirements:

3.A. Is hang gliding physically demanding?

Almost anyone can fly a hang glider. If someone can jog while balancing a 45 - 90 lb weight on their shoulders they can learn to fly. While flying does not require great strength (since the straps not the pilot's arms - hold the pilot up) long duration flights in turbulent conditions require a moderate degree of upper body endurance. This typically develops as the pilot progresses through training to these longer flights.

3.B. Do pilots need to be of a certain age, gender, weight or size range?

Hang glider pilots range in age from teens to octogenarians. The limits are more mental than physical. If someone is sufficiently mature to make decisions significantly affecting their safety and has sufficiently good reflexes to make such decisions promptly, then they probably are of a reasonable age for flying.

Since flying depends more on balance and endurance than on brute strength, women and men make equally good pilots. While the fraction varies regionally, about 10 - 15 % of the hang glider pilots are women.

While pilots of virtually any size can fly, the limits here are mostly dictated by available equipment. Heavier and lighter pilots require commensurately bigger and smaller gliders. Since most hang glider pilots weigh between 100 and 240 lbs, however, it may be difficult to find equipment appropriate for pilots beyond this range. Specially designed tandem gliders are available, however, and may be used for extra heavy pilots. While height per se does not determine who can fly, again, equipment tends to be most available for those between about 5 and 6.5 feet tall. Harness and glider modifications may be necessary for individuals outside this range.

3.C. Do pilots need to be licensed to fly hang gliders?

No. The Federal Aviation Authority has delegated responsibility for administering the sports of hang gliding and paragliding to the USHGA (United States Hang Gliding Association). The USHGA program consists of an approved instruction method and standards required for issue of a series of pilot ratings (Beginner through to Advanced). Each rating gives the holder certain recommended operating limitations, and is standardized so that the same known skills apply to all sites rated for those skills.

It is not technically illegal for anyone to fly a hang glider/paraglider without an appropriate rating issued by the USHGA, but hang gliders (and paragliders) are classified as Ultralights under the FAA regulations FAR part 103, and are subject to all regulations for ultralights concerning restrictions for controlled airspace, operating only in daylight, etc. The experience and knowledge accumulated through the standardized instruction program administered by USHGA includes all relevant FAA regulations. USHGA provides other services for pilot members, including liability insurance. As most sites regulated by local clubs use USHGA site insurance (which requires USHGA membership), more sites are accessible to members.

Ultralights have a similar instruction and rating system, but it is maintained by the United States Ultralight Association, and is not related to the USHGA. (Except indirectly when a tow rated ultralight pilot tows a hang glider - See Aerotowing.)

3.D. How does a student go about learning to fly?

In the US the USHGA certifies hang gliding instructors and schools. One of the major reasons hang gliding is safer now than 20 years is this certification program and thus all students should learn from a certified instructor. Lists of certified schools can be obtained from the USHGA website or at 719-632-8300. The time required for training varies with the student's innate skills and with the type of training conditions. Typically, though, a student will spend 6-10 full days to obtain their Novice Rating. At the end of this primary training process, the student is usually flying from moderate altitudes in relatively mild conditions. Progression to more difficult flying conditions continues from then on under the supervision of more experienced pilots or Observers/ Instructors.

3.E. How much does all this cost?

If a student goes to a certified school  and buys all new equipment at retail prices, learning to fly can cost $5000. If one purchases used equipment, however, this price can drop to around $2500. Whenever used equipment is purchased, however, it is IMPERATIVE that an experienced pilot familiar with the equipment inspect it thoroughly. Most of what is advertised in general purpose publications or websites such as eBay is outdated and very dangerous gear.

Costs vary a lot, but as of 2001 figure on:

Training through the Novice level: $1200 - $1500

Used New
Training Glider $800 - $2500 $3500 - $4500
Harness $250 - $600 $800 - $1450
Parachute $200 - $400 $550 - $800
Helmet $20 - $150 $50 - $300

Fortunately, this can be purchased in stages. Usually instructors will provide training equipment as part of their package through the Novice rating, but will expect students to obtain their own equipment beyond this point. Some schools offer gliders for rent to the newly qualified students. Rental gliders are generally only available away from your local instructor once you have reached the Intermediate rating.

3.F. How to get more information:

Check out our Links Page or Contact Us.

Paragliding FAQ

4.A. What is a "Paraglider"?

A paraglider is a foot-launched, ram-air, aerosol canopy, designed to be flown and landed with no other energy requirements than the wind, gravity and the pilot's muscle power. Unlike a hang glider it has no rigid metal frame. This has both advantages and disadvantages.

4.B. What are the main component parts of a Paraglider?

A canopy (the actual "wing"), risers (the cords by which the pilot is suspended below the canopy) and a harness. In addition, the brake cords provide speed and directional control and carabiners are used to connect the risers and the harness together.

4.C. Is a Paraglider the same thing as a parachute?

No. A Paraglider is similar to a modern, steerable skydiving canopy, but different in several important ways. The Paraglider is a foot-launched device, so there is no "drogue" 'chute or "slider", and the construction is generally much lighter, as it doesn't have to withstand the sudden shock of opening at high velocities. The Paraglider usually has more cells and thinner risers than a parachute. The net result is a flying machine not a parachute. Auxiliary parachutes are available and recommended in the event that the paraglider ceases to function as intended.

4.D. What is the difference between a Hang glider and a Paraglider?

A hang glider has a rigid frame maintaining the shape of the wing, with the pilot usually flying in a prone position. The Paraglider canopy shape is maintained only by air pressure and the pilot is suspended in a sitting or supine position. The Hang glider has a "cleaner" aerodynamic profile and generally is capable of flying at much higher speeds than a Paraglider. Like the early hang gliders which had a minimal rigid framework paragliding canopies can collapse in certain circumstances.

4.E. Why would anyone want to fly a Paraglider when they could fly a Hang glider?

 Paragliders fold down into a package the size of a largish knapsack and can be transported relatively easily. A hang glider needs a vehicle with a roof-rack for transportation to and from the flying site. It's also somewhat easier to learn to fly a Paraglider in the initial stages.

Depending upon who you ask you will get a range of different answers to this question. Both paraglider and hang glider pilots tend to believe that their chosen aircraft represents the only true way, but their are advantages and disadvantages to both. The following comparison is based on beginner type wings of both types.


Hang Glider


Cost of new wing $3000 - $4000 $3000 - $4000
Expected lifespan 4 - 8 years + 2 - 4 years
Availability of quality 2nd hand wings Good Fair (older wings often outdated)
Cost of new harness $800 - $1450 $800 - $1200
Cost of new parachute $600 - $800 $600 - $800
Set up time 15 - 30 minutes 5 - 10 minutes
Pack up time 15 - 30 minutes 5 - 10 minutes
Transport Requires car with roof racks Any thing that will take a back pack will work
Stability Excellent Good
Ease of learning Good Excellent
Speed range 12 - 70 mph 8 - 35 mph
Range of suitable wind speeds 0 - 30 mph 0 - 20 mph
Safety record Good Slightly less than HG but improving
Common injuries Broken arm, clavicle, dislocated shoulder, sprained ankles Broken leg, ankle, pelvis,  crush fractures lumbar spine, sprained ankles

4.F. How much does a Paraglider cost and how long do they last?

This varies between makers, models, countries and phases of the moon, but a new middle of the range canopy and harness will normally cost somewhere in the region of $3000 to $4000. As with hang gliding second hand equipment is available at lower prices, however it is strongly recommended that this equipment is carefully inspected as paragliders age and wear much faster than hang gliders. Also the rapid pace of development in this sport has rendered many relatively new canopies obsolescent, so although you may be able to get a beginner rated canopy, with low hours and in good condition, cheap it may not measure up well to current benchmark safety and stability standards.

General wear and tear and deterioration from exposure to ultraviolet usually limit the useful lifetime of a canopy to somewhere in the region of two to four years. This obviously depends strongly on use.

4.G. Is Paragliding safer than Hang gliding?

Many people are under the misapprehension that because paragliders are parachutes (they are not as explained above) they must be safer than hang gliders. As noted above for hang gliders like any form of sport aviation, paragliding can be dangerous if pursued carelessly. That said, however, paragliding can be a very safe sport. In short it is as dangerous as you care to make it.

The canopies are now certified and rated by organizations such as ACPUL and the DHV for structural integrity, safety and handling characteristics. Canopies which pass the testing are assigned a rating. Just as not all hang gliders are suited to the novice so to with paragliders.

Safety is a very broad concept. Because paragliding is a relative newcomer on the sport aviation scene there have been dramatic improvements in canopy performance, safety and handling in recent years. This has rendered many older beginner gliders obsolescent. So to training systems have also developed. The current situation is that for beginner wings there is little to ultimately separate hang gliders and paragliders. Each has safety advantages over the other in different areas. The ultimate arbiter is the safety record which shows that the accident rates for beginners are similar on either hang gliders or paragliders.

4.H. What are Big-Ears (Rossette, A-Line Stall, Collapses)?

You don't Anna' know... yet!

Advanced Topics FAQ

5. Towing

5.A. How do you tow a hang glider?

There are a number of ways, but they include using a static line, a payout winch, a stationary winch or aerotow.

5.B. What is a static line?

A static line is a fixed length of rope usually with some sort of quick-release on each end which is attached to a moving vehicle at one end and the hang glider at the other. A tension gauge is inserted in the towline to control the towline tension.

5.C. What is a payout winch?

Have you ever flown a kite where you run along paying out string from a ball as you ran while the kite climbs? Similarly, a payout winch is a winch which is mounted in the back of a truck or on a trailer, and pays out line as the hang glider gets higher. The line tension is maintained by the use of a disk brake from a motorcycle or car which is mounted on the side of the winch drum. The amount of drag the disk brake exerts is controlled by the winch operator but if set generally remains constant for all payout speeds.

5.D. What is a stationary winch?.

It is a powered winch that stays in one spot and which pulls line in under tension. All of the line on the winch is pulled out, then the far end of the rope is attached to the glider. On a signal, the winch pulls the line back in to make the glider climb. When the glider arrives over the winch, the pilot releases the towline. The tow tension is a function of the throttle setting of the engine powering it.

5.E. What is aero tow?

The tow vehicle is an ultralight aircraft designed to fly at the very slow speeds needed to safely tow a hang glider. The towline is attached at one end to a release on the ultralight and on the other end to the hang glider. The ultralight flies up to altitude with the hang glider flying under tow behind, then the hang glider releases.

5.F. How is the towline attached to the hang glider?

It's attached to a release at the apex of a specialized tow bridle. The tow bridle attaches to the pilot, the glider, or both. The release is positioned in front of the pilot so he can easily operate it. There is a weak link between the release and towline to protect the glider from overloads.

5.G. How does a hang glider take off when it's being towed.

The pilot may foot launch, platform launch or dolly launch the glider, or even launch the glider from floats on the water.

5.H. What is Platform launch?

The glider and pilot are mounted on a moveable platform such as the bed of a pickup or of a trailer in flying position. A payout winch is also on the platform, and the line from it is attached to the glider. The platform is driven or towed into the wind, and when the glider is at flying speed it is released from the platform already flying. The launch is very much like an assisted windy cliff launch.

5.I. What is a dolly launch?

The glider and pilot are mounted on a 3 wheel dolly in flying position and the glider is towed to flying speed and flown from the dolly. This allows pilots to avoid running. Even paraplegics can fly using this launch method and landing wheels.

5.J. How is a glider foot-launched for tow?

The tow rope is attached to the glider via a ground tow bridle that allows the pilot to keep the nose of the glider low on launch. The tow starts and the pilot runs the glider off of the ground very much like a foot launch from a slope.

5.K. How long are the towlines used for tow?

A static line tow generally uses a line from 1000 to 3000 feet long. A payout winch may have up to 6000 feet of rope on it. A stationary winch will have anywhere from 6000 feet or more of cable or rope on it.

5.L. What material are the towlines made of?

Popular materials have been dacron, spectra, kevlar and polypropylene. Towlines generally have an ultimate tensile strength of 700+ lb.

5.M. What is a weak link?

A weak link is a slender piece of line or rarely a mechanical device which will break or release the towline if excessive towline tension is generated to prevent the glider being structurally overloaded.

5.N. What tension will cause a weak link to break?

Weak links come in different sizes but generally are selected to fail at about 1 G or at a force equivalent to the gross load of the glider.

5.O. What is scooter tow?

A small motor scooter or vehicle with a centrifugal clutch and variable speed belt drive is used as a stationary winch usually with the rear wheel replaced by a small winch drum.

5.P. Does it take any training to learn to fly a hang glider under tow?

A hang glider is somewhat different to fly under tow, and the pilot must also be aware of the various things that can go wrong in order to react appropriately. The USHGA has tow instructors who can endorse pilots for towing.

5.Q. How about flying a paraglider under tow?

A paraglider is also somewhat different to fly under tow, and the pilot must also be aware of the various things that can go wrong in order to react appropriately. The USHGA has tow instructors who can endorse pilots for towing.

5.R. What are the differences flying under tow?

The towline applies forces to the glider which are not present in free flight. As a result the control responses of the glider are somewhat different under tow than in free flight. It is also possible for the glider to enter an emergency situation known as a lock out.

5.S. So, what is a lockout?

For a hang glider or a paraglider, a lockout is a situation where the glider is turned away from the direction of the towline and the pilot can't turn the glider back.

5.T. How does a pilot recover from a lockout?

The best way is to avoid entering one, but secondarily, the pilot may release from tow, or the tow operator may reduce tension to allow the pilot to take corrective action. A glider is only truly 'locked out' when it is banked away relative to the altered gravity vector of the towline. A glider can be banked away relative to the ground, but still be banked 'in' relative to the rope. So, sometimes it is actually better to stay on the rope. Only good instruction can help you know which situation you are in.

5.U. What if the pilot is in a lockout or other trouble situation and the release fails?

A pilot should fly with a hook knife. The winch operator or observer, if there is one, should also have a hook knife to cut the towline in an emergency.

5.V. What is a hook knife?

A hook knife is a specialized knife designed to cut line and straps but nothing thicker.

5.W. What is an observer?

It is a person who faces the pilot under tow and who's sole responsibility during the tow is to facilitate the tow and deal with emergencies usually by reducing tow tension or cutting the towline.

5.X. Does everyone use a winch operator or observer?

Many tow operations dispense with an observer preferring to let the driver perform some of the observer functions. In some cases such as aero tow, there is no possible way to have a separate observer. In platform launch, a second person may ride on the platform to try to deal with emergencies by slacking pressure on the winch or cutting the rope. In static line tow, the observer may face rearward to operate the release at the vehicle end of the towline in an emergency. In a stationary winch tow, the operator faces the pilot and operates the winch and there is no driver needed.

5.Y. When is an observer imperative?

In training situations or very demanding conditions or whenever the pilot requests one, a separate observer should be provided.

5.Z. Is towing hang gliders or paragliders more dangerous than foot launch?

Probably not, but it's hard to say as we don't actually know the proportion of towing activity to foot launch. On the minus side is because towing is more complicated than foot launch and more equipment intensive, there is more room for error and equipment failure. On the plus side the air in the average tow paddock is usually much more laminar than on the average hill. Most methods of towing also minimize the portion of launch that is low and slow - the part where a mistake can lead to impact.

6. Aerotowing

6.A. Introduction

There are quite a few ways to fly a hang glider. One of them is aerotowing, and it offers a unique, fun and rewarding way to begin a flight.

A foot-launch free flyer is as free as a bird from the moment he clears launch. That's why most of us pursue hang gliding - the swooping, the soaring, the controlled carving of turns through unseen powder-snow air molecules that give us the same giddy euphoria as our childhood dreams of flight did.

Aerotowing, on the other hand, starts out a lot more like taking a dog for a walk on a leash - wandering in different directions, the master and obedient pooch who learns, sooner or later, that to "heel" or "follow" is in Rover's best interest after all. But, that leash thing! It's definitely something that takes getting used to. Fortunately, it's well worth it. The leash is a small price to pay for a trip to the park, especially since we know we can slip off the leash once we get there.

Aerotowing has opened up new hang gliding opportunities that never existed before, in parts of the country and in weather conditions that are now much more rewarding to sport fliers than they ever were. Experienced hang glider pilots get familiar with aerotowing after brief training and earn an "AT" special skill sign off on their rating cards. Many get spoiled by the convenience of the launch and landing zones being one and the same.

Most hang glider pilots view aerotowing as just an alternative way to get "up there" and, once up, use the same strategies they have always used for soaring in available lifting air. Thermaling and ridge soaring are easily accomplished if the tow aloft brings the pilot to a thermal source or a soarable ridge. Aerotowing has an advantage over automotive towing in that the hang glider can be taken to expected sources of lift that are away from the launch area or runway. Part of the fun of aerotowing is planning the tow portion of the flight: going upwind or across the wind to known thermal sources and staying on tow until a thermal is encountered. Releasing in a thermal is a wonderful feeling!

Novice pilots who are learning to aerotow benefit greatly from tandem instruction. During a lesson plan of three to five hours of dual airtime, a newcomer can learn how to be a good Rover on the way up and how to pilot a free-flying hang glider on the way down. During 10 or more half-hour flights with an instructor, the student learns to coordinate with the aero tug through the launch sequence, then follows on course behind the tug through air currents which inevitably have their ups and downs. The student learns quickly about proper control input and corrections in both speed and direction while on tow. After the tow up and release, typical lesson plans include coordinated turns, stalls and recovery, and landing approaches, all of which are just like any other free-flight hang gliding curriculum. Usually the landing is at the same spot as the launch, and repeat lessons and flights on the same day are very convenient and productive. First solo flights are usually performed in near calm conditions, with the additional support of the instructor's reassuring voice on a two-way radio.

6.B. Aerotowing

To set up for a typical aerotow hang gliding flight, the tow rope is stretched out on the ground between the aero tug and the hang glider, and all are lined up into the wind. Any available headwind will make the takeoff roll very short. The tug accelerates up the runway and the hang glider follows. Most aerotow launches are made from a dolly or launch cart, which makes for easy, no-running launches either for solo or tandem lessons. The tug and the hang glider achieve takeoff speed at roughly the same time. Once they leave the ground and throughout the rest of the tow, the pilots must cooperate and coordinate their altitude and airspeed. Rover has to stay just behind his Master and try to keep a light but steady tension on the leash if this is going to be a fun outing.

Usually the tug is the faster of the two, and the hang glider has to speed up a bit to match speed. If he doesn't, he'll likely fly too slowly and loft above the aero tug. A well-coordinate aerotow flight usually involves the hang glider pilot pulling in and diving a bit at various times during the flight in order to keep a horizontal relationship with the tug. The tug pilot adjusts airspeed and altitude too, while watching the rearview mirror to keep the hang glider on the horizon (see photo). If it's done right, the hang glider pilot will see the aero tug right on the horizon in front of him, plus or minus 30 feet of altitude (see photos).

The glider pilot also has to keep his glider aligned with the tow. If Rover makes a spontaneous turn right or left, within moments the two aircraft will want to pull apart and break free. That isn't as hazardous as it might sound, but near the ground it can be cause for alarm. A hang glider pilot should have confident control of speed and direction in order to aerotow. Typically, we stay on tow about five minutes to 2,000 to 3,000 feet above the ground. The hang glider pilot then triggers a release and flies free, and the tug brings the rope home.

6.C. The Equipment

The Moyes-Bailey Dragonfly is the most popular of the aero tugs. It was designed for the sole purpose of safe aerotowing, and has a tow mast and release mechanism built into the airframe. The horizontal stabilizer is built low so the tug pilot has a good view in the rearview mirror. The special wings and ailerons afford very low speed capabilities, even though the frame is sturdy and the engine is powerful. Several other types of tow planes are also in use today. The trike wing type of motorized hang glider is well suited to aerotow, and motorized paragliders, or paramotors, have been used experimentally to tow paragliders air-to-air at extra low airspeeds, which the other aero tugs cannot do. All aerotowing in the US is performed under the USHGA aerotowing exemption granted by the FAA.

The launch dolly permits the hang glider pilot to take off from level ground without any running, allowing him to concentrate on flight control while the tug does all the work getting both up to airspeed. During the rolling launch, the glider is cradled and supported both by the base tube and the tail. The pilot is suspended about a foot off the ground, prone in his harness. A signal is given to the tug that the hang glider is ready, and the tug accelerates down the runway. Castering wheels on the dolly allow it to track smoothly in the direction of the tow. The dolly is left on the ground when the hang glider lifts off, and usually rolls only 50 yards or so before takeoff. Since most traditional hang glider launches are accomplished while running upright, the prone launch off of the dolly is noticeably different for an experienced pilot. New pilots training on aerotow will wish to supplement their learning with bunny hill lessons for running takeoffs.

The leash or tow rope used in aerotowing is 200 to 300 feet of brightly colored lightweight rope. Polypropylene is what most aero towers use. We've found a neat little manual reeler at the hardware shop. It's meant for extension cords and stores our 300 feet just right. We keep two tow ropes available at all times, for those occasions when one is accidentally dropped in a hard to find place like Wisconsin. We also discovered (the hard way) that bright yellow polypro becomes invisible in corn or hay fields, so we found some neon-orange rope and hardly ever lose one anymore. It takes only minutes to unspool a tow rope and attach it to the plane and glider.

The tow rope is symmetrical, that is, it is finished with a metal ring at each end so that there's no front or back. The bridle (or V-line, for its shape in flight) on the Dragonfly tow plane's tail functions exactly like the bridle or V-line on the hang glider pilot's harness front. They both have a release mechanism and a safety weak link, and any way you detach, the result is a trailing orange rope and ring. We plan on keeping the rope attached to the Dragonfly but it doesn't always work out that way. So Rover has to be prepared to be unexpectedly turned loose, maybe even with the leash trailing from his collar. A hang glider pilot can wrap that rope around some anchor down there, with hazardous results. We've lassoed cornstalks and dragged them down the runway with the aero tug. A hang glider probably wouldn't win that tug o' war. One should be prepared to get custody of the rope unexpectedly, and if low, release it before it catches on something. (If high, of course, one should bring it back and drop it where it can be found.)

The safety weak link is a very important part of the system. Its purpose is to disconnect the hang glider from the tug at any time the tow forces rise above a certain level. There's one at the hang glider end of the rope, and another slightly stronger one at the other end, on the tug. A pilot experiencing a challenging flight, as a result of inexperience or turbulence, will likely break a weak link before the tow is complete. This "accidental" release often prevents a rough ride from developing into a dangerous one, and the glider returns to the launch area and lands.

6.D. Extraordinary People

Physically challenged student pilots, some in wheelchairs, are also discovering the joys of aerotow hang gliding. The rolling dolly launch method is ideal for the hang gliding enthusiast who cannot alternatively do running launches off a hill. Regular safety training wheels are sufficient for most intentional roll-in landings, and larger custom wheels are used for both launch and landing by some mobility impaired hang glider pilots at a variety of US flying sites.

Heavyweight pilot trainees are finding that their weight isn't as much of a concern when rolling launches are made off the dolly. Even in no wind, the large pilot can achieve takeoff speed effortlessly, even with a tandem instructor aboard! Students weighing more than 250 pounds have flown tandem on aerotow and gone on to solo flights. Since hang gliders come in many different sizes, small people and large people can use the best available equipment to meet their needs.

A call or letter to the friendly office staff at the USHGA can get you a current list of aerotow operators around the country. See you at cloudbase! 

Hang/Para-Gliding FAQ Version and Credits

Version 3.10, Last modified:  March 12, 2001


Hang Gliding FAQ: Fred Vachss skypig@vachss.risc.rockwell.co 

Para Gliding FAQ: John Little gaijin@Japan.sbi.COM

Towing FAQ: Dave Broyles broydg@home.com

Aerotowing FAQ: Brad Kushner


Collected by  Bob Mackey bob@azazel.sdsc.edu

Conversion to HTML by Jean Orloff j.orloff@thphys.uni-heidelberg.de

Minor editing João Geada joao@cadence.com

Further editing Dr James Freeman <jfrreman@tassie.nt.au

Further content Warren Puckett <warrenpuckett@earthlink.net

Even further editing Pete Hammer <hangdog@earthlink.net

Last Updated:
Thu, Oct 10, 2002

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