How to Choose the Right Paraglider (Part Three: Weight Ranges)

Your flying equipment and all the extras usually
adds 20kg to your naked weight. What does it matter? Well they say that by
loading a given wing with more weight you will increase all flying speeds, increase
stability and get more responsive handling. But is it really true? I tested the effect of adding 20kg to my flying
weight on my Icepeak 6 Speeds vary greatly depending on temperature,
pressure, and altitude but these two speeds were tested in the same conditions. Adding
20kg increased trim speed by 3km/h and top speed by 5.6km/h, or +10% speed for +20% weight. Adding 4kg would increase trim speed by no
more than 0.8km/h and top speed by 1.3km/h or 3%. Ballast is cumbersome and upsets your
balance. For most pilots it is a waste of energy: it will not make a strong-wind day
flyable and it makes your carry-up a nightmare. What about moving down a size onto a smaller
wing? This might increase your speed slightly more than 4 kg of ballast. Theoretically,
+1.5km/h trim speed, +2.5km/h top speed. But small wings are often less efficient than
larger ones, so the speed change is likely to be lower than expected, and the glide performance
might be degraded. They are sometimes trimmed slower to remove unwanted aggressive reactions.
I don’t recommend chasing top speed by downsizing. There are more important factors to consider. I’d recommend being well-loaded on your wing
to reduce the frequency of collapses and increase control authority. But the safety of the wing
is determined primarily by the wing design. What you can influence by changing the wing
loading (within the certified weight range) will have little effect by comparison to the
passive safety of the wing you choose.  
There is a broad sweet spot for all wings, which is usually somewhere around 50-75% of
the quoted weight range. This varies depending on the manufacturer, so it’s good to work
out your wing loading when comparing. If you fly in strong conditions (wind, thermals,
tricky launches) you’ll get a slight advantage by choosing a wing where you’ll be heavily
loaded. If you fly in light conditions (soaring the coast, floating downwind in flatland xc,
easy launches) you’ll get a slight advantage by choosing a wing where you’re lightly loaded. An overloaded wing feels ‘hard’ and doesn’t
turn well (hard pressure, banks too much, loses height, feels like it is ‘grinding around
the turn’). An underloaded wing feels wobbly, collapses more often in a soft, floppy kind
of way and doesn’t turn that well either (sluggish handling, difficult to turn when thermals
push you out). There is an optimum range for best handling,
often at 50-75% of the weight range. If you’re outside of it, the amount of ballast you’d
need to carry before your wing handling changes is impractical. What you mostly feel is the
counterbalancing effect of a weight below your body, which stabilises the harness and
makes turning less agile. So you must make an effort to choose a wing where you are well-placed
in the weight range in the first place. Every wing designer has their own idea of
the perfect wing loading, which changes depending on their objective for the wing. This makes
it hard to know what your ideal wing loading should be.
In many cases you might like a wing design, but be in an uncomfortable place in the overlap
between sizes. I don’t recommend ballast. I recommend getting the right wing. It might
mean looking at another brand. When choosing your next paraglider, narrow
it down to those that put you in the right place in the weight range to start with and
identify the ones that give you a wing loading to suit your flying environment. If you’re
lucky you can arrange a trial flight on wings in your size so you can feel the handling
at its best. For access to a comprehensive demo fleet,
contact Flybubble.

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