It seems that powered paragliding wings are getting smaller so I thought it might time to explore their behaviors, risks and benefits. I, too, have come to love flying smaller sizes but there are, as always, tradeoffs.
What we’re really talking about is flying heavily loaded. After all, what’s small to a 250 pounder is huge for a 140 pounder. Most pilots fly at wing loadings (pounds / projected area) below about 12 pounds per m². I consider a wing small at loadings around 14 per m², extremely small over about 17 lbs/m² and crazy small over about 20 lbs/m² . I’ve done that once and will never do it again.
Heavily loaded generally means more resistance to collapse but a more spirited response. It clearly means faster takeoff and landing speeds, and much more dynamic handling.
So far, our limited accident data doesn’t suggest that small wings increase fatal accident risk. It appears that most risk comes from falling due to the higher takeoff and landing speeds and to mishandling on launch. I’ve seen examples of this.
High loadings increase risk after engine failures on takeoff or at low altitude cruise, between about 5 and 20 feet. It takes a lot power to keep small wings happily aloft and when that power dies, they dive. Not handling it right could be quite thwackful. At heavier loadings you need enough height so that, if the motor quits, you can establish a glide and regain enough speed for a full flare. 10 feet might not be enough. On really small wings, 30 feet might not be enough. There are ways to best handle this, of course, but they require practiced reaction to engine failure and still won’t necessarily leave you standing.
Inflight left/right oscillation is another minor problem. Many wing/motor combinations will oscillate left/right even without any brake input. The slightest bump gets them started and, in a few cases, without any pilot input, they can get progressively worse until becoming big wingovers. Of course YOU won’t ever let that happen.