Hannes Papesh has been in the paragliding industry since the day-glo 1980s. Newly established with his own company, Phi, we caught up with him at the Stubai Cup in Austria in March to talk all things paragliding.
Hannes, you’re quite local to this area aren’t you? Yes I am. I did my first high flight here, in November 1986. The glider had a glide ratio of 3:1. The challenge was to take off at the top of the ski piste (pictured right) and get high enough to clear the trees. As I came up in the cablecar they were picking one pilot out of the trees because he didn’t make it. You flew down and landed in the valley with one turn.
You must have seen a lot of changes? It was an absolutely different sport back then. Performance was so bad that flights were just a few minutes. The gliders were so safe you could give almost anyone a wing and they could fly. It was not a technical or demanding sport, like it is now. It was just simple flying for normal people.
You were right there at the start of the boom… We thought paragliding could boom like snowboarding, so we had a lot of attention from the press. But we didn’t manage, as professionals, to keep the sport so wide. It got narrower and narrower. Now, from your skills and your mind, you need to be a special person to manage the demands of the sport.
How does that long perspective influence what you are doing now? I have seen the sport getting narrower, because we wanted more performance. But by raising the performance we have raised the demands needed to fly. And so the target group has got smaller. My basic philosophy now is to make it simpler again. To build simpler wings, safer wings, to enable a wider group of pilots to have nice flying.
How did you come to be a paragliding designer? I was a student, I had no money, but I wanted to fly. So I went my own way. I designed my own computer program, got material and webbing, and I made my first wing. By luck, and because I had so much time, it was a big success. It was the Comet CX and it became one of the biggest sellers and most copied wings of the time. That was 1988 and it was my first design. After that lots of people wanted to work with me. With some friends we founded Nova in 1989. Finally I quit Nova in 2013. I never thought I would have to, but I did. After that I had three years of nice cooperation with Advance.
Is Phi a new start then? I have the chance to begin again, yes. I want to try to stay small, efficient and flexible. Of course it is a big challenge to establish a whole glider range, but we are all professionals. We have many years’ experience and we know what we are doing. We are not new. We are old hands. I am working with Mike Küng, a legend in our scene, and Benni. It’s a new logo but the people behind it are very experienced.
Everyone is interested in your concept of the high performing EN A… When you start you have to present something attractive, you have to build something special. We had a mid-B concept but it was in Austria in July that we thought, “Ah… we could get EN A with this wing”. And then you have to think very clearly about every step you do because we had a tight time frame.
And now you are in full production? Full throttle, all five sizes, even up to 160kg! This is the basic philosophy – flying for everyone. The Symphonia is a new class, 50 cells, lots of technical effort that can compete with the B class.
Are you still motivated after 30 years? The funny thing is you have to re-think everything. Every detail has to be re-thought. It’s like 30 years ago. I have a lot of work. But I have fun, yes.
What’s the biggest challenge in paragliding right now? We have too many people leaving the sport. We need a strategy for the future to keep them in the sport, to enable them to continue to progress after earning their first licence. I think the Japanese do it better. There, new pilots are more integrated into the schools, and their continued learning is better.
Schools, manufacturers and associations – we are all sitting in the same boat. So we have to work together to make the best for the sport.
You’ve got two A gliders out now. I hear you are aiming to get a high-B out later this year? Yes, the goal is to produce a high-B for the Coupe Icare in September. This is my specialism. The last high-B I designed was the Mentor 3 at Nova. I think that was a success story and I want to continue it. Everyone is asking me about it. Expectations are high!