Note: The BHPA pilot handbook is essential reading on this subject, as it is on most aspects of hang gliding. See the BHPA web site. The USHGA also provides pilot reference materials. See the USHPA web site.
First, you need modern equipment. By that I mean no more than a few years old and in good condition. Really, you should buy new gear.
If you are new to hang gliding, take your instructor’s advice on equipment to buy. He or she might be an importer or agent for a manufacturer and might also have used gliders for sale. Do not fear that those facts limit your choice. Your instructor wants to maintain his or her good reputation and will give you the best advice. Rest assured, he (or she) is not in hang gliding to make a fast buck.
As a hang glider pilot, you are one of aviation’s elite. (I have not counted them, but there might even be more astronauts than hang glider pilots nowadays.) Do not waste mental effort in worrying about whether you are getting the absolute best value for money. You are automatically getting more value for money than nearly the entire human race can ever aspire to.
Hang glider (the wing)
High-performance hang gliders just a few years old tend to be in good condition and are very inexpensive. However, they are totally unsuitable for a beginner or intermediate pilot.
The beginner or intermediate pilot needs a modern beginner or intermediate wing. They are more expensive than used comp wings, but they are lighter, quicker to rig, safer, and more pleasant to fly than competition wings — especially out-dated competition wings. Flying a scary glider will reduce your performance vastly more than the reduced glide at speed provided by an intermediate compared to an ‘advanced’ rated wing.
Harnesses nowadays tend to be made to fit the individual pilot. (The order form includes instructions for providing a bunch of measurements the manufacturer needs.) Modern harnesses are more streamlined and more comfortable than older harnesses. They are also more expensive, but a good harness is at least as important as the right wing.Ultralight Flying! magazine.
The parachute is stored in a container either on the chest of the harness or, more commonly nowadays, on one side. When you deploy it (should you suffer a misfortune dire enough to need to) the whole rig including the hang glider descends under parachute. You do not ‘jump out’.
A looked-after pre-owned emergency parachute of the right size can be a bargain. I put ‘of the right size‘ in italics because, when the first emergency parachutes were developed, they tended to be too small and the pilot’s safety on impact relied on the airframe of the hang glider (or wreckage thereof) absorbing some of the impact before the pilot. Otherwise, you could hope to land on a slope, in trees, or in deep snow, all of which happened, but you cannot guarantee such eventualities. However, modern parachutes are made the correct size to provide you with a better last chance if all else fails. (Such failure in hang gliding is likely to result from mid-air collision.) They are also lighter and they pack smaller than older parachutes. They have a peculiar ‘inside-out’ middle, known as a pulled-down apex, so a given size of canopy is more efficient at letting you down to earth slowly.
For a 2015 update on my parachute, see Stateside view in Hang gliding 2006 to 2009. (There is a logic to those apparently conflicting dates.)
It is hard to part with money on an expensive item that you hope you will never use, but overcoming such psychological challenges is part of becoming a hang glider or paraglider pilot. (It is no different for other branches of aviation and–before flying was invented–sea-faring.)
One perceived danger of an emergency parachute descent is that of landing prone, zipped up in your harness. As far as I know, it has never happened. All you need do is unzip and slide back (and down) in the harness, so your weight is in the leg straps — exactly as you would for a normal landing. Your legs then take the landing shock.
Do not modify an emergency parachute by connecting the bridle direct to the harness shoulder straps. The idea behind that is to ensure a more upright and therefore safer body position when you hit the ground. However, it also guarantees a potentially fatal hazard when the parachute opens. (Refer to Accident Reports in Hang Gliding, September 1998, and to my letter in Skywings, August 1997.)
What to wear
A jacket or flight suit with a sleeve pocket is essential. The sleeve pocket contains a signal mirror and mobile phone in case you land away from the hill (or tow field) in circumstances that prevent you from either getting out of your harness or reaching the harness pockets. An emergency whistle is a good idea too. The sleeve pocket also contains a handkerchief, which you need just before you take off from a cold and windy hillside.
I wear either an Ozee suit or an MA-1 flying jacket and jeans. (An Ma-2 gets you a fur collar for paying double the amount for an MA-1.) MA-1s are available in black, dark blue-grey, olive green, and burgundy. Unlike the MA-2, most MA-1s I have seen have a bright orange lining. The idea is that, if you need rescuing, you wear it inside-out to make yourself more visible.
A purpose-made airsports helmet, an eye shield that protects your eyes against ultra-violet, and ski gloves are a good idea too.
In the hot summer of 2014 I had the problem of sweat trickling down my eyeshield as soon as I put it on. It is an amber ‘Eagle Eyes’ type that shields against extraneous light from above, sides, and below. However, to reduce the hot weather sweat problem, I obtained a more lightweight amber cycling eyeshield. While it lets light in through the gap at the top, it allows more air to circulate and I can position it a bit farther out from my face. (I added an adjustable string so it it secures round my head.)
Statistics showed that WWII pilots with 20/15 vision lived longer than those with 20/20… A good pair of glasses can do a lot more than keep the bugs out of your eyes. It may help keep a Cessna out of your face as well.
— From See and Avoid by Joe Gregor in Hang Gliding, December 2001. (Gregor is a hang glider pilot, air transport pilot, and ex US Air Force pilot.)
I always have a spare pair of gloves in my bag. I do not often lose a glove, but gloves are cheap (via Ebay) and they wear out eventually, so a spare pair is good insurance against another interruption of your flying day.
Thick trousers afford some leg protection if you land in bushes. Additionally, if you should happen to land too fast and come in on the wheels, long trousers prevent or reduce grazing of your knees. (Guess what happened when I flew with short trousers one day in the heat of August, 2013… It put me out of action for the rest of my summer holiday, leaving me plenty of time to fill out an online incident report form on the BHPA web site!)
If you fly in shorts, or what Americans call cut-offs (shorts being what they call underpants, I think…) wear mountain biking knee pads.
Not many people use a helmet bungee, but I have used one since about 1997. I discovered that it confers a greater improvement in my flying than a new wing and harness! It takes the weight of your head and reduces the strain on your arms and upper body. It is fairly easy to construct.
The pulley allows you to turn your head easily. (Essential!) The chord is knotted inside the perforated ear parts of the helmet.
An old duffel bag clip attaches the bungee to a steel ring on the karabiner. (When I changed harnesses, I found it easier to add the chord to lengthen the reach of the bungee rather than fiddle about lengthening the bungee itself.)
Unlike some home-made gadgets — normally to be avoided in hang gliding — I have never experienced a problem with this. It adds about five seconds to rigging time (clipping the bungee to a ring at the top of the harness riser or karabiner). In fact, the only problem I had was, one day shortly after I installed it, I forgot to connect it before I took off. I was back to the old way of flying and I could not stand it, so I landed after ten minutes.
Incidentally, the thicker piece of metal to which the extra chord is attached, itself attached to the carabiner, is an oval steel ‘quick link’, although its shape is not apparent from this angle. It connects the parachute riser (yellow) to the harness riser, as does the carabiner. Carabiners are reliable, but they have moving parts (the twist-lock or screw gate) so the quick link is there in case of karabiner failure.
Related (internal links)
There is a bit about emergency parachute manuals in Technical writing and programming