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Volunteering at Scouts is changing to help us reach more young people

Volunteering is changing to help us reach more young people

Volunteering is changing at Scouts. Read more

Discover what this means



(Published January 2023, replacing January 2018)

What is Parascending?

Parascending is the activity of being towed or winched up into the air whilst attached to a parachute. The tow is normally conducted by a vehicle on the ground or a boat. As the vehicle moves forward the canopy rises into the air. Depending on the skill level of the pilot, they will either be brought slowly to the ground or released from the tow line to conduct an independent landing.

Paragliding is a modern version of the sport where launching usually takes place off of hillsides and includes flying over greater distances.

There is also a form of the activity which takes place over water, this is normally outside the UK and is not governed by the British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association (BHPA).

Most Scout parascending takes place using large opens fields, which are free from obstructions. The pilot (person going up) must wear suitable clothing and footwear, once on site and briefed they will be fitted with a safety helmet and a harness. The pilot is then attached to the parachute (canopy) via their harness. The canopy is held up to catch the wind, the towline tightens as the tow vehicle moves slowly forward, and the canopy lifts gently into the air (up to 150 feet). Early flights end with a gentle landing and after some experience pilots may be expected to complete a landing roll.

What are the attractions?

Parascending is a fun and adventurous sport, allowing young people the opportunity to develop both teamwork and independence, leading to an acceptance of responsibility and improved decision-making. This is a relatively cheap way of providing an air activity to Scouts and is fairly accessible as no special skills are needed for a beginner to get a taste of this adventure.

The people

All Scout parascending must be undertaken at a BHPA registered school, which is overseen by a Chief Flying Instructor (CFI). The CFI will work with a team of trained instructors, coaches and helpers. A qualified BHPA Senior Instructor is responsible for ensuring that the crew are properly trained. The crew consists of both a launch team and a tow crew.

  • Launch Team - A Launch Marshal who checks that the pilot is in the harness correctly, briefing and controlling the launch process by signalling to the driver that the pilot is ready to launch. Wingtip Holders who check and help to inflate the canopy prior to launch.
  • Tow Team - The tow vehicle team consists of a driver who is qualified to tow canopies and is responsible for the flight and events in the tow vehicle. A driver who may be accompanied by an observer to relay launch signals to the driver and check that all is clear during the tow; and a tensiometer reader, who calls out the readings from a meter which measures the tow line tension. Scouts may act as observers, tensiometer readers and wing tip holders, but the driver must be a qualified Tow Operator and the Launch Marshal must have previous experience of parascending operations.

The equipment

All equipment must be properly stored, maintained and used to ensure this activity remains safe. It is checked daily prior to flying. The equipment used will include a suitable canopy, harness and helmet. The harness is usually adjustable and should be fitted correctly prior to flight. Those flying require strong boots (which support the ankle) and sensible clothing (covering arms and legs) for the weather conditions on the day.

Training and flying

Whether a round type canopy or a ram-air wing is used the basic technique is the same. After the relevant ground training and equipment familiarisation is completed the canopy is laid out facing into the wind, checked and prepared.

The Scout is fitted into the harness. The harness is attached to the tow line using a simple quick release mechanism on a yoke; the Instructor briefs the pilot, explaining what is going to happen and what the Scout is to do.  

The canopy is then made ready and, when the Launch Marshal is satisfied that all is well, he will signal the tow vehicle to 'take up the slack in the tow line'; as the line tightens he will order the wingtip holders to 'Stand up, then 'Let go’ when the canopy is filled with air.  As the canopy starts to lift he will check that all the lines are clear and, if this is a good launch, will signal 'Launch Now'. The driver moves forward slowly to lift the student off the ground.  Usually the Scout will take 2 or 3 paces forward resisting the pull of the towline, before they take off and climbs gently into the sky following the brief.

The driver maintains a steady tow tension for a while then eases the speed to lower the Scout to the ground for a controlled landing.

Alternatively, the more experienced pilot may indicate to the driver, by opening his legs wide apart, that he wishes to release himself from the tow line.  The driver will then relax all the tow line tension and the pilot pulls the quick release cord; the tow line falls away and the pilot descends, carrying out whatever manoeuvres have been agreed beforehand.  In this case he will normally carry out a 'parachute landing fall (PLF)' to reduce the landing impact.

If they are flying a ram-air wing they will not be given a controlled descent but will release the tow line and on final approach 'flare' or stall the canopy which reduces his ground speed and descent rate to allow a stand-up landing.

There is a parallel programme for training paraglider pilots who may either hill-launch or tow-launch. The training and preparation is almost identical to that described above, except that there is no support crew for hill launching, although a similar team will operate for tow-launch.

Within a school environment the student is taught and practices inflating and launching the paraglider for himself, and once this is mastered he carries out several 'bunny hops’ on a nursery slope.  The BHPA have a staged programme which is signed off at key points by the training school and the student. A pilot may not fly without supervision until reaching Club Pilot level.

Instructor training

This is a sport which is slowly shrinking in size and is one which is valued within Scouting. To maintain the accessibility to the sport it is important that more adults gain experience, training and qualifications to allow the sport to continue. This experience can be gained through either a Scout parascending team or a non-scouting club.

It's possible to train leaders to be ‘air experience’ instructors (AEI’s) providing controlled flights only. AEI’s must have some experience of flying the type of canopy and hold a BHPA rating of at least Club Pilot (CP). The AEI is trained and qualified to operate the tow vehicle and prepare and manage the launch site. This can take around 2 years.

History and background

The use of a parachute type canopy to lift a person is first recorded during the First World War, when German U-boats used the technique to lift observers in order to see further than was possible from sea level.  Many inventors subsequently tried cutting holes in the sides and back to direct the air caught inside the parachute out through the sides and back to impart a forward speed.  An American parachutist, Lemoigne, succeeded in carefully placing and shaping the holes such that lift was created, drag was much reduced and stalling of the airflow was prevented.  This improved lift-to-drag (L/D) ratio gave a better glide angle, reduced the rate of descent, and allowed a high degree of manoeuvrability.

In the early 1960s it was Walter Newmark who quickly realised the potential of this design and adapted it to create, under tow, an ascending parachute.  After this there were many copies, but the original Pioneer Paracommander remains the main-stay of the Scout parascending clubs.

Parachuting saw the development of 'ram-air wings' which were quickly adopted by parascenders.  They work by allowing air to pressurise a double skinned fabric aerofoil as it moves through the air; this maintains the wing shape and gives a L/D ratio of about 2 or 3:1.  Control lines connect to the trailing edges and work as drag ailerons to give a steering and braking effect.

In mid 1980s another development of the ram air wing produced sleeker canopies with greater aspect ratios and resultant L/D ratios of 7 or 8:1 which make greater use of hill lift and rising thermals.  The improved characteristics of these high performance paragliders require a much more sensitive touch and need careful handling in turbulent conditions.

From its very earliest days The Scout Association recognised the attraction of the sport and provided equipment and encouraged potential instructors to attend the necessary courses through what was to become the national governing body of the sport.

Rules relating to parascending

Rule 9.10 Air Activities

Rule 9.10.1 Access to Airfields

Rule 9.10.2 Public Liability Insurance and Pilot and Aircraft Requirements

Rule 9.10.3 Flight Briefings

Rule 9.10.5 Hang Gliding, Paragliding and Parascending

General activity rules

Rule 9.1 All Activities

Rule 9.6 Use of External Centres and Instructors

Additional information

Activities A-Z

Access to airfields

Air notification form - Please provide details of the air activities being undertaken by your Group, Unit or Network. This can be done prior to or shortly following an activity.

British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association