The EN-B paraglider certification class is broad and can be confusing. Bastienne Wentzel guides us through the maze.
According to a survey we carried out last year around 60% of paraglider pilots fly an EN-B, or intermediate, paraglider. But the EN-B category is a broad one, ranging from wings that are suitable for just-qualified pilots to gliders that can be demanding to fly and require a high level of skill.
EN-B gliders are arguably the best-selling paragliders and certainly the most popular class. To cater for that, many manufacturers have a range of intermediate gliders, from two models up to four – or more if you count specialist wings. Navigating your way through this maze of different options and opportunities can be difficult, but let’s take a look.
What is an intermediate glider?
The name ‘intermediate’ conveys the sense of broadness of this class very well. On the other hand, it can be a somewhat misleading term; as if an intermediate glider is just a stepping-stone from school to the real world of paragliding. The latter is by no means true, but it does shine a light on why the class is so wide.
A low-end intermediate paraglider is easy to launch, comfortable, forgiving of pilot errors, has a longer brake range, and is relaxing to fly.
A high-end intermediate is more direct, a bit faster and has better performance, at a cost in forgiveness. A high EN B has a greater potential to end up in a less than ideal situation. It sits closer to the edge of the possibilities in the B-class. The usually higher aspect-ratio demands more from the pilot in glider management.
“A low EN-B glider is easy and usable after a good teaching process,” explained Petr Reček, designer and founder of the Czech manufacturer Mac Para. “For a skilled student who has received good instruction it is no problem to fly a low EN-B as a first wing.”
“The distinction between high and low B is that a high B wing is no longer suitable for teaching,” agreed Russell Ogden, developer and test pilot at Ozone. “It will give more feedback and may be less comfortable to fly.”
The difference between a “high EN-A” (manufacturers have also recently started to subdivide the A-class into forgiving school gliders and high-end or EN A+ gliders) and a low-B can be very small. In fact, Mac Para are considering replacing two gliders with just one in the future, said Petr. “The new Muse 5 (EN A+) may have such a good performance and handling that it may replace the Illusion (low EN-B).”
Exposing the disguise
The intermediate class being so wide is a challenge for pilots. They could easily end up choosing the wrong wing. The wings are all disguised by the letter B. So how do you recognise a low or high intermediate?
First of all, manufacturers have to indicate whether their wing is suitable for training. If it is, you know it must be an easy, forgiving glider. Most low-B wings have this indication but no high EN B wings do.
The aspect ratio and number of cells can help reveal if you are dealing with a low or a high B. These are big indicators of performance and handling, even though many other factors like the aerofoil (shape) play a role. The exact numbers are not all decisive, but the relative numbers are.
Aspect ratio has an effect on brake range, all other things being the same. For two similar wings of the same brand, the one with the lower aspect ratio and lower cell count is the lower EN B (exceptions could be specialist wings like ultra-lightweight, mini wings, single-skins or freestyle gliders). An overlap occurs at an AR of around 5.4. Lower is mostly low EN B, higher is almost always high EN B.
Perhaps surprisingly, having a lower number of cells for a lower-rated wing does not only affect the glider’s performance or handling. Fewer cells also mean a lighter glider because less material is needed and the glider is less complicated to make. Therefore it’s cheaper. That’s important for most new pilots buying a first glider.
Are all B’s created equal?
Largely, the more B’s on the test report of a wing, the higher-end EN B it is. This means it is more demanding to fly. But be careful about paying too much attention to the test report only.
“Pilots may think that one glider is as safe as another because it is in the same class. But class is so much more than just the EN test,” explained Torsten Siegel, designer at Gin Gliders. Gin released the Carrera back in 2014, and recently the Explorer. Both are high EN B, dedicated XC wings, not suitable as a first glider out of school. In fact, the Carrera was designed for the C class, but when it went for certification it scored all Bs.
“It seemed a shame to go back and redesign it only for the purpose of writing ‘EN C’ on the label,” explained designer Gin Seok Song at the time, “We also felt that it was time that more pilots recognise that the EN category is only a very general guideline.” The wing therefore had the same certification as Gin’s low B, the Atlas, but was literally for a different class of pilot.
Torsten recalled: “All went well with the Carrera until Atlas pilots started to fly it because they thought it was the same class.” The resulting furore made the Carrera a hot topic on the forums that season for all the wrong reasons.
“Our current glider, the Explorer, is also a special in the B class,” added Torsten. “We as manufacturers have to describe that properly and make pilots aware of the difference between a sports-class XC wing and a low-B like the Atlas.”
Russell from Ozone agreed: “The results of the EN test are only valid for pilot-induced behaviour in calm air. In real life every collapse is different. All things being the same, the low B is just as safe as the high B. But as soon as you put a pilot in the mix, this changes.”
Illustrative of the gap between a low- and a high-B, is the fact that high-end B’s are sometimes very similar to an easy EN C. “The difference between B and C is tiny. Some Cs are easier to fly than an EN B,” said Petr from Mac Para.
Russell agreed: “The Delta 4, Ozone’s EN-C, is exceptionally well behaved. We could have got an EN-B for it. But we want to sell a wing to the pilot we designed it for, not on a rating. The Delta 4 is a powerful high-energy wing that behaves well in tests but in real life it has more dynamic potential.”
The typical intermediate pilot doesn’t exist
It is close to impossible to define a typical low B or high B pilot. Some people fly for two years, do some SIV training and jump on a comp wing.
Others fly for 20 years and never move beyond a low B.
Hours is a factor: pilots who fly less than 50 hours a year are not always fully up to speed and should consider staying in the B class. If you’re nervous, unsure or not proficient in the manoeuvres after several SIV courses, consider a low B.
The main advice is to talk to manufacturers, distributors, schools, instructors and experienced pilots. No manufacturer wants to make or sell an unsafe, unsuitable, unpredictable glider. They all have descriptions of the target group including required skills in their glider manuals. Be honest about whether you fit their description. Then ask instructors and pilots who know the wing. Don’t simply make a decision based on the EN category.
Russell is adamant: “I think it’s a waste of time to look at EN test reports. The best information comes from manufacturers. It’s not always black and white and it is very difficult for a regular pilot to feel the difference in flight.”
Torsten from Gin even advises buying a glider that has proven itself over one or two years. “The wings are so good, you don’t need the newest wing all the time.”
Ask questions and be honest
Stepping up too early from low to high B or to EN C can be detrimental to your progress and performance. A relaxed pilot flies better. “It is more about asking yourself questions, not about us giving advice,” said Mac Para’s Petr Reček. “Each pilot must answer their own questions, such as: what am I looking for? How many hours a year do I fly? How often will I fly? What do I want, relaxed flying in the morning or evening? And be honest with yourself! SIV and groundhandling skills are more important than total number of hours.”
Cross country flying nowadays is much more about flying accelerated than it was. If you are intimidated by your glider, you will be afraid to fully step on the bar in all conditions. Eventually you will fly less far or fast than you would have on that easy low B that has a tad less top speed but that you can use in all conditions. “If you are not using the speed bar on your present glider it makes no sense to step up,” said Petr.
Torsten agreed: “If you start to feel afraid and skip a flight because it is a little bit too windy, but on an EN A you would have taken off, that’s an indicator that you’re under the wrong wing. You should be honest with yourself and only move up when you are 110% confident, also at full speed. Never forget we do this for joy.”
Technologies are developing so fast that the performance of a high-end B a couple of years ago is easily surpassed by that of an easier to fly and safer lower-end EN B today. Sharknoses, rods, 3D-shaping and an overall better tensioning of the canopy are among the developments that have contributed to that. The manufacturers we asked all said aspect ratio and top speed are not expected to increase a lot in the near future.
A new development trickling down from the higher classes is dedicated B/C-steering on the back risers. With this system, pulling a loop or handle on the C-riser for rear riser control on speed will also pull down the B-riser a bit. This gives better control and less deformation of the canopy while it is lighter for the pilot. Firmly established in the C-class, this system is increasingly seen on high-B gliders, but not on low-B’s yet. This is not because the technology wouldn’t work, instead it’s about demands on the pilot. “We wouldn’t put risers like that on a low B,” said Russell Ogden, “The risers need to be simple and uncluttered for that class.”
How far can you go on an EN B?
Berni Pessl is a Nova team pilot and loves to fly his low-B very, very far. In July 2020 he flew a 246km FAI triangle from Schöckl in eastern Austria on a Nova Ion 6 (low B). He took off before 9am and flew for nearly 11 hours. Berni is famous for flying big distance in the Alps on intermediate gliders – in 2014 he was the first pilot to fly a 300km alpine triangle on a high-B.
Lukasz Prokop flew a Polish free distance XC record in 2018 for the third time, on an Advance Iota 2 (high B). He was winched into the air at Borowa near Wrocław and landed 343km and nine hours later close to the eastern border, straight across southern Poland. Łukasz said: “The plan was just to stay in the air as long as possible.”
Serena Ronchi (CH) flew 310km on her AirDesign Soar (lightweight high-B) on 13 November 2020, which put her at the top of the XContest women’s, standard and sports class league at the start of the season. “Flying all day until sunset is a magical feeling,” she said. “An incredibly beautiful flight, powerful thermals, +6m/s, small cumulus that grew large later in the day.” She clocked up more than 1,500km in a month in Brazil.
Konrad Goerg (DE) flew his Aircross U Cruise (high B) 446km in Brazil on 1 November 2016. Konrad, owner of Aircross, helped design the glider himself. The flight set a new paragliding world record for distance-to-declared-goal at 425km. The same day Josef Edlinger (AT) flew 435km on his Nova Phantom (EN B). Other pilots flew further on EN D gliders but not by a huge amount – max distance was 463km that day flown on a competition wing.