paragliding training center
Southwest Airsports is an accredited training facility.
Paragliding -- Professional Air Sports Association (PASA) certified school #0023; U.S. Hang Gliding & Paragliding Association (USHPA) instructor certification.
Powered paragliding -- U.S. Powered Paragliding Association (USPPA) member and school #1672.
For questions concerning our accreditation, you may contact USHPA 800-616-6888, USPPA 866-378-7772, or PASA. Southwest Airsports, LLC operates in accordance with all PASA Safety Guidelines and all PASA School Standards.
What makes Southwest Airsports the best type of school for training in paragliding? Cross Country Magazine recommends that if pilots want to be successful flying any course, they should become competent in mountain flying. We are experts in training pilots to fly in the mountains – it is our home turf. If you can safely fly in high altitude desert mountains, you can fly anywhere. Mike Robinson of Blackhawk Paramotors notes that teaching students on the coasts is "...like teaching someone to swim with a life jacket on the entire time." Our training is difficult and takes time – but it will help you become a safe and competent pilot.
Safety is the #1 concern at Southwest Airsports. This sport is relatively young and we are constantly seeking ways to lessen the risk of paragliding.
We do our best to have a first class operation. Please refrain from the use of crude jokes and foul language while training and flying with us. It is both unnecessary and offensive.
Why do we fly? Paragliding permits a human being to become like a soaring bird. Through adequate training and long term practice, a pilot will become one with his glider. There is no other experience in the world like this. We and the birds are the only creatures on earth who "see" the air and what it is doing on a micro-level. Imagine being able to fly through the air similar to hiking a trail in a beautiful forest. The glider becomes an extension of your arms – you become like a hawk, an eagle, or, better, like the Turkey Vulture, one of the greatest of soaring birds. We can teach you how. Here is a fine video production by Buzz Nelson showing the elements of why we love to fly.
Paragliding, however, can be one of the most dangerous things anyone can do. If you think it is like golf or racket ball, please read this essay by Will Gadd on dangerous sports. Careful and extensive training is necessary to ensure that you enjoy it safely.
All basic training is done at the Evergreen Turf sod farms in Santa Teresa, NM. We are visitors to the farms and we greatly appreciate the owners permitting us to trespass. Unless otherwise noted, we usually train at sod farm #4, the most westerly of the farms.
A paraglider or hang glider is like an ordinary kite that a youngster would fly in a breeze. It is not some sort of parachute, even though it has somewhat the appearance as one. It is a true airfoil like the wing on an ordinary aircraft and moves through the air at about 21 mph. It has a glide ratio (distance traveled vs. rate of sink) of about 10:1. This means it can go 1,000' through the air and sink just 100'. The main difference between an ordinary wing on an aircraft and a paraglider is that the paraglider is flexible, being made of special fabric.
The wing fabric is very strong and non-porous. Because it is made of fabric, the wing must maintain its proper shape. This is done by a greater air pressure inside the wing than the (ambient) pressure on the outside. In this way it is like a hot-air balloon. This greater pressure is created by openings (ram air scoops) in the leading edge of the wing. When the glider is flying along, these ram air scoops insure that the interior parts of the wing will be pressurized enough to assume the shape of an airfoil. Because the wing is made of fabric, it can collapse under certain conditions. It is usually a benign event. However, collapses near the terrain can be very dangerous -- and why pilots must be very careful flying at low altitudes.
Dozens of lines connect the glider to the pilot's harness which hangs about 25' below. This distance is kept to a minimum in order to keep drag to a minimum. Some of these lines are used to control the glider's movement through the air. Briefly, these lines allow control of the wing in essentially every way that is done on an fixed wing aircraft. A paraglider changes direction by inducing drag on one side of the wing or the other.
For a paraglider to stay in the air for long periods, pilots must find air that is moving up -- often a great challenge. Air moving up can be thermals created by the sun's heating of the ground and the air near it or air moving up at ridges. The air comes in horizontally, hits the ridge, and then moves up. We fly in that air because if we are not in air that is moving up, we will descend towards the terrain. The air must be moving up at about 200'/min for us to stay up.
However, if we have a motor (paramotor), we do not have to launch from a hill or cliff and can stay up as long as we have fuel to run the engine. Launching with an engine running full speed while on foot can be complicated and requires additional training to do it safely.
A paraglider, unlike all other aircraft, is inherently stable. With absolutely no input it will fly straight and level. The benefit of this is that it makes it very easy to fly. If a pilot is doing something incorrectly, all the instructor on the ground has to do is say, "Hands up!" -- and all will be well. The downside of the paraglider is that is very sensitive to negative G's. That is, air which is descending faster than the glider is sinking through the air will cause the glider to collapse. This is why good pilots are always very cautious about the air they fly in. It is impossible to safely fly a paraglider unless that pilot becomes knowledgeable about the air we fly in.
Launching a paraglider is fairly easy and is done exactly the same way you would launch a kite except you are directly attached to the kite and you have to run fast or slow, depending on the ambient conditions. Landing is similar. The pilot comes in and flares the wing by pulling deeply on the brake toggles (handles) at just the right moment to both make the landing gentle and to slow the glider down. The trouble with us humans is that we are mono-planar, unlike the fish or birds so when we come in for landing, we think we are falling and tend to mishandle the glider. Our natural fear of heights must be overcome but never completely. Flying an aircraft is a perishable skill and why constant and thorough training is essential to having a safe and enjoyable flying career.
Here is a more technical guide from TowMeUp.com on how our aircraft works.
You must meet the mental and physical requirements for paragliding. These requirements are also required for doing a Discovery Flight or for a tandem flight.
For paragliding and for powered paragliding. Students purchasing their flying equipment from us help offset the real cost of training. We appreciate it. If you want to severely irritate the team here, purchase your equipment from another school (most won't do it, anyway) or off the Internet (a foolish thing for newbies to do who don't know anything). In any case, at least 50% of those who buy their equipment before training eventually sell it for various reasons, usually at a loss.
What should I bring to my training lessons?
How we prepare for training and what to expect when you begin training, fly a tandem, or take a discovery flight.
If something goes wrong, what happens?
How do we manage risk at our flying and training sites?
All basic training is done via towing at the sod farms in Santa Teresa. Follow the link above to read how and why we do it this way.
What if I am afraid of heights? It depends on how serious your anxiety is. Most people (including this writer) are naturally afraid of heights but can overcome it with time and practice. It is common with human beings to become more fearful as they get further from the surface of the earth, as if they are leaving their home. Actually, all pilots should feel just the opposite from a safety standpoint. Being close to the earth but not on it is where we always experience the greatest risk. Being 40' off the ground is much more dangerous than being 4,000' off the ground because at the higher altitude we have far more time to fix problems. Mental stability and control under pressure are important qualities to have if you wish to successfully pursue training in this sport. If you easily panic, sport aviation is not for you.
It is mandatory to have the appropriate textbook to study while training and to use as a reference. They can be purchased on Amazon.
A student pilot coming in for a landing. She is gliding along at about 18 mph and will gently touch down on the ground in about 10 seconds.
PG or PPG? If after reading the material below you have no idea of what to do, we suggest that you try one of the following: 1.) Visit a public rock climbing wall and try some rappelling (use Google to find one nearby). 2.) Take a tandem skydive flight with Sky Dive El Paso or a tandem flight with us. Activities like these will give prospective pilots some idea what it is like to be suspended off the ground, especially doing a skydive.
A student pilot comes in for a safe landing at the sod farm after her training flight. Women make good pilots as they often understand finesse better than men. Paragliding requires gentle and measured inputs to the wing – anything else can be dangerous.
PG is the more difficult to learn for the long term as a pilot must know how to launch from a hill/mountain or be towed up and know how to thermal. Knowing how to fly for hours without external power for long distances is a rewarding experience. Thorough knowledge of the atmosphere is critical for not only safety but success. Air is something we cannot see and when we successfully understand how it may work that day, its golden treasures are handily and generously given to us soaring pilots. Once in the air, you must find air that is going up and stay in it. You cannot choose as easily where you want to go nor where you may land. Thankfully, paragliders can land just about anywhere safely but it can be inconvenient.
Free flying is the most rewarding because it requires significant skill to stay up for hours in the air. Free flyers ordinarily get as high as possible so that they can glide long distances in order to find other air which is going up. Flights are always full of adventure as we almost always learn something new about the amazing atmosphere we fly in. It is quiet and peaceful. The pilot carries the least amount of weight and wears a simple harness. This makes PG a far more agile type of flight and is, therefore, much closer to flying like a bird. Free flying consumes no fossil fuels. It does not annoy people on the ground because there is no sound of a motor running. PG pilots are almost invisible a thousand feet up. We go silently and gracefully through a great ocean, often alone....
PG pilots must find a suitable mountain launch site and, if the air is calm or there is no air going up anywhere, he has to stay on the ground (unless he can be towed up). This means that the PG pilot must launch when the atmosphere is active (some hours after sunrise and before sunset). He often flies in thermals – and can get tossed around by them. PG pilots develop a tolerance for this "bumpy" air through practice. By thoroughly understanding the air we fly in, a pilot can reasonably predict how active the air is and choose to fly in appropriate conditions and not exceed his skill, equipment, or comfort level. We are an ultra light aircraft. "Ultra light" means what is says. We are like leaves in the air. The air is king and we respect it highly in order to fly safely. This is why thorough training and discipline are essential for a safe and fun flying career. We thoroughly train our student pilots.
Below a student pilot begins a flight via tow. The orange drogue and tow line are just visible in front of the pilot. The turn around pulley through which the tow line runs is mounted on a truck over 1/4 mile away. What a place to train – it is safe and easy to land anywhere. Photo by Daniel Dominguez.
The course fees include instruction on how to be towed safely. Pilots will receive the "surface tow" special skills certification by USHPA upon completion of their respective course.
Can you imagine cruising along (10) feet off the ground mile after mile? You are free of roads, trails, obstacles, and anything else on the ground. You can change direction any time and everything in the world is yours to see and enjoy. You can land and take off virtually anywhere. Only powered paragliding (PPG) offers such unlimited freedom.
While it takes longer to initially learn than free flying, it has special rewards unique to flying the world's smallest powered aircraft. PPG can be done when the atmosphere is completely calm (early morning or late in the day) so a pilot can easily avoid the risks inherent with flying in turbulent air, the single factor which makes paragliding hazardous.
PPG has the advantage, on the other hand, of allowing the pilot to launch, for example, from a field in still air. He can fly for many miles just ten feet "off the deck" – something a PG pilot cannot do. PPG pilots do not have to become experts in meteorological conditions in order to fly safely – they can stay out of active air completely. Some prefer not to hike to a launch site. Some do not like being more than 500' off the ground. (For a discussion of why this gives a false sense of security, read about flying low.) Others just like powered flight and want the convenience of launching, flying, and landing when and where they desire. Pilots endure the fuel expense, routine maintenance, the noise, and the extra weight and encumbrance for these advantages.
Nonetheless, there are a few pilots (like the author of this article) who happily do both. It is possible to thermal with a PPG setup though it is not as easy. When PG is not possible because of the wind conditions (too strong, wrong direction, or not enough wind), or towing is not available, it is still better doing PPG rather than not to fly at all. PPG is generally done early in the morning or late in the day outside the time when thermals can be strong and when the possibility of turbulence exists.
The main difference between foot launched PPG and PPG in a trike is that the trike does not require running nor does the pilot have to carry the equipment on his back. For those who have some impairment of the back, legs, or ankles, this is an important advantage. The benefits of foot launched PPG are:
Lee Baker being towed up to 9,000' MSL on Hwy 9. The white dot near the tow line is the moon. The vehicle behind us is our "chase" vehicle.
Hooking up to the tow line. The orange drogue parachute is connected to the tow line. It helps us find the end of the tow line after the pilot disconnects in flight. Pilot safety is our primary concern and everything is done with that in mind.