This is the very first paraglider...

Pilot Francis Heilmann describes flying the first ever paraglider, 50 years after the first flight.
By Alison Mann

It has been 50 years since the first ever paragliding flight with a rudimentary Sailwing. Technology has come on leaps and bounds since and has allowed pilots to undertake the most difficult of manoeuvres, such as the famous infinity tumble.

Such manoeuvres wouldn’t have been possible, and completing a tough hike and fly event like Red Bull X-Alps (which is currently underway and can be tracked live!) would have been near impossible.

A replica was made of the first paraglider in 2005

The replica Sailwing made by Francis Heilmann
The replica Sailwing made by Francis Heilmann © Françoise HURLIN

The Sailwing was developed by American NASA engineer David Barish while he was working to improve parachutes that would bring space shuttles down to earth. His invention was first flown in September 1965 by Lee Guilfoyle. The feat was celebrated in 2005 at the Coupe Icare festival in France during which a replica of the Sailwing was flown.

This replica was created over five years by Frenchman Francis Heilmann, who flew the paraglider himself. He says of the effort to build the replica: “It took me several years to build, actually five, from 2000 to 2005. I only had two images to work from. There was no pattern and David Barish, who created the Sailwing, didn’t want to help at all.
“He didn’t give me any information. He said that if I had lived in the US, I would never have been allowed to reproduce the glider. He thought it was too dangerous to re-make it and if there was to be an accident, the responsibility would have lain with him.”

It took several years to build the replica

David Barish and his wife, Johanna, with Francis Heilmann, Porcher Sport plant, September 2005
David Barish and Francis Heilmann © Francis Heilmann

The original paraglider had to be light because the goal was to go to space with it! The wing works just like a sailwing, it’s a simple surface and there is no air chamber

But Francis continued with his mission and flew the replica himself, he adds: “The original paraglider had to be light because the goal was to go to space with it! The wing works just like a sailwing, it’s a simple surface and there is no air chamber.”

Flying the replica was not an easy feat at all. “I thought Barish performed a long flight from a cliff with the wind,” says Francis. “In fact, he only used to fly 10-30m above ground. I didn’t know that when I took off for the first time. So I’m basically the only guy who has flown really high and took thermal with such a wing,” he adds.

The replica was flown in 2005

The replica Sailwing made by Francis Heilmann
The replica Sailwing made by Francis Heilmann © Michel Ferrer

Can you do a hike and fly with a Sailwing? Well, you might need to walk a lot!

Although he managed to fly the Sailwing, it’s not something that could be used for modern-day paragliding.

Francis explains: “It’s the Jurrassic Park of paragliding, there’s a good reason why it disappeared.

“The wing is slow and not handy at all. It’s really hard to turn with it. It doesn’t support turbulence and you can’t take off with tail wind. Thermals are hard to take. It’s only good for straight flights with good conditions and landing can be brutal. There is no hypertension so you basically land at the vertical.”

So this year’s X-Alps athletes should be glad they have their modern-day gliders to take them across the course as Francis believes it would be very difficult to complete the route with a Sailwing.

He says: “Can you do a hike and fly with a Sailwing? Well you might need to walk a lot! Take off would only work with a big slope and head wind. Conditions need to be perfect so you can fly so you’re not as flexible as with a modern-day paraglider.

“But I still use the wing sometimes, I live in Aix-en-Provence and the idea of flying with the very first paraglider is really exciting!”

Francis will be flying the Sailwing again at the Coupe Icare festival in September.

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