There are few sports as liberating as hang gliding. What other outdoor activity allows you to soar through the air like a bird, taking in the splendorous views and enjoying the giddy sensation of flight? When we think of hang gliders, however, an image of those clunky contraptions that became popular in the 1970s is usually what comes to mind. The sport of hang gliding has evolved past those models and, now, enthusiasts have a variety of hang gliders from which to choose, depending on the desired effect and their skill level. Though there are many different types of hang gliders, there are three broad classes.
These hang gliders look the most like the traditional gliders most people are familiar with, though they now are produced in many shapes and sizes. First designed by French engineer Francis Rogallo in the 1940s, hang gliding enthusiasts sometimes honor its inventor by referring to them as Rogallo Gliders. As the name of this class suggests, the wings are flexible. They are made of sailcloth and are stiffened into place through wire tubing. The pilot takes off and lands on his feet and steers the glider simply by shifting his weight. These gliders are popular for a variety of reasons. Their light weight make them easy to transport on the ground and maneuver in the air. They are also easy to take off and land. And, perhaps most important, their light weight allows for slow, leisurely gliding in the air.
This class of gliders looks more like airplanes without the tails than traditional hang gliders. These hang gliders were rare in the sport until they exploded in popularity over the past several years. Now they are commonly seen at hang gliding locations around the world. Rigid gliders are popular because they allow for more precise control than the flex gliders. This means pilots have better control over their speed and altitude, and fly greater distances. The wing controls are also more responsive, making it easier to correct mistakes. Though they are increasing in popularity, they are significantly more expensive than their flex wing cousins.
Most people would not think of sailplanes as hang gliders, but many areas classify any aircraft under a certain weight as a hang glider. Sailplanes are sturdy vehicles that can travel greater distances without losing much altitude, meaning longer and more satisfying flights. They look like small planes complete with a cockpit, wheels, and tail. For this reason, unlike flex and rigid wing gliders, these crafts cannot be launched or landed on foot. They need an assisted takeoff, usually being towed by a powered aircraft. This can make for more expensive outings, but if you have the money it is worth it.
These are only the major classes of hang gliders. Each has many models, each tailored for the specific demands of hang gliders. To find the best craft for you, talk to a local hang glider expert. He or she can balance your skill level and desires with your budget.