What is Free Flight?

Free Flight Collage

In the animal kingdom, free flight is used by birds, bats and insects to travel between food, shelter and breeding areas. Some of the most spectacular animal migrations are those made by birds, for example high altitude flights by bar-headed geese over the Himalayas, extreme endurance migrations over 10,000 km by godwits and terns and sustained air speed records of 80 kph for days on end by great snipe.

Flight is also used by animals over smaller distances, for example raptors soaring on thermals to gain altitude and the aerobatics of flying swifts. Birds are widely considered the consummate champions of the skies, and the technology with which to study their aerobatic performances are now revealing incredible insights into their physiology.

The Arctic Tern migrates the furthest, with average annual roundtrip lengths of up to 70,900 km. Ruppell’s Griffon Vultures have been spotted flying at 11,300 m.

For humans, free flight includes harnessing dynamic and thermal lift in sailplanes, paragliders and hang gliders; falling with forward motion in sky diving, BASE jumping and wing suit flying and being buoyed up by gases lighter than air in balloons.

What is paragliding?

Paragliding is an air sport that has developed over the last 40 years into one of the most widely practiced forms of free flight. There are an estimated 127,000 active paraglider pilots worldwide.

Flights of over 100 km across country are regularly made, using dynamic (soaring) lift and thermal updrafts, with the current open distance record standing at 568km. Paraglider pilots have flown from the summit of Everest, ascended via thermal and soaring lift to over 8000 m without oxygen, and gained as much as 4,526m of altitude in a single flight. Beyond recreational flying, paragliding has active and closely-contested cross-country and acrobatic competition scenes where increased safety and performance advantages are constantly sought.

Steve Fossett set the altitude record in a sailplane in 2006, flying to 15,460 m. He was also the first person to circumnavigate the earth in a balloon. The furthest distances flown are 3,009 km by sailplane, 764 km by hang glider, 568 km by paraglider and 27 km by wingsuit. The highest speed reached by a skydiver is 557 km/h and in 2014, Alan Eustace jumped from the edge of space at 41,425 meters to set a new skydiving altitude record.

Photos: Wikimedia Commons, Coke Smith, SEARCH Projects, Bertrand Piccard. Records: FAI, 2017.