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Hang Gliders And Paragliders Celebrate 50 Years Of Free Flying In Aotearoa New Zealand

Hang gliders and paragliders across the country are celebrating half a century of free flight in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Jakob Krauz, photographed by James Gibson

The New Zealand Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association (NZHGPA) turned 50 on October 26. The Association is launching a series of events to celebrate, including a free public exhibition at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts on the Wellington waterfront from 5 to 12 November, to showcase free flying through the years.

Free flying is human-powered flying; flying like a bird with no noise or environmental impact, just using the power of the sun and wind to soar through the sky.

Hang gliding, the original form of free flight, started in New Zealand in the late 1960s, with paragliding arriving in the mid-1980s.

Hang gliding caught the public eye in 1977 with the Oscar-nominated documentary, Off the Edge. This classic documentary followed two outdoors enthusiasts as they pioneered hang gliding around the mountains and glaciers of Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, on a climbing, skiing and flying adventure.

Well known mountaineer Rob Hall was an early paragliding pioneer, becoming the first person to paraglide from the summit of Aoraki/Mount Cook in 1988.

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The Association was established on 26 October 1973 with a core focus on safety that has expanded over the years.

“We manage training, licensing and equipment for around 1,800 pilots, including hang gliders, paragliders, paramotoring pilots and speedwing pilots,” Nick Taber, Chief Executive of the NZHGPA said.

“We are absolutely passionate about developing, protecting and promoting free flying and this year received a prestigious award from the World Air Sports Federation (FAI) for 50 years of outstanding service.

“There are around 90 incredible people volunteering across the country, including some who have devoted decades of their time to looking after and advocating for our growing community.”

Over the years, the Association has trained around 17,000 people and hosted over 10,000 visitors from around the world, while hundreds of thousands of tourists have experienced the magic of free flight through tandem hang gliding and paragliding experiences.

“Hang gliding and paragliding in Wanaka, Queenstown, and other places around New Zealand, have proved a vibrant addition to our adventure tourism industry and boost to our economy, while leaving no environmental footprint,” said Taber.

“They have also provided New Zealanders across the country with the experience of their lives.

“Many locals and overseas visitors travel around New Zealand to experience our great outdoors and free flying provides them with the ultimate outdoors adventure.”

The way that New Zealanders are embracing flying is continually evolving.

“Many of our members are deeply passionate about the outdoors and combine their love of flying with their love of hiking or even climbing,” said Taber.

“Others also enjoy acrobatics, speed flying is becoming increasingly popular, and we now have skiers combining their enjoyment of snow and paragliding through the sport of speed riding.”

However, the ability to stay in the air and fly long distances through a person’s own efforts is still one of the greatest and most elusive rewards for a hang glider or a paraglider.

“The longest recorded free flight in New Zealand is 235.8km set by paraglider Nick Neynens in 2016,” said Taber.

“It takes a very special skill set to be able to fly big distances through incredibly remote areas of the Southern Alps and our national parks.

“Nonetheless, the simple fact of being able to hike up a hill, take your wing out of your pack, and a few steps later be soaring over mountains and valleys, is extraordinary.

“It’s something that we will continue to celebrate, protect and preserve for the next 50 years and beyond.”

The Association’s contribution to free flight and tourism in New Zealand is significant, and the Association will continue to serve as an essential organisation for those who are passionate about free flight.

A celebratory lunch will be held on 11 November 2023 in Wellington.

More information

The Fly50 exhibition will be held at New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts at Queens Wharf in Wellington over 8 days from 5 to 12 November (normal business hours 10am-5pm). Admission is free.

On display will be historical photos, early magazines, information about the evolution of hang gliding and paragliding as well as competitions, and other memorabilia.

A celebratory lunch will also be held in Wellington at 11am-2pm on 11 November 2023 – tickets and location details available on the NZHGPA website.

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