Parachute: A lightweight fabric canopy intended to slow the descent of a falling human enough for safe(ish) landing. Originally intended to offer only drag, not thrust or lift, the parachute soon evolved. The addition of slits or vents to a simple dome allowed for steering and some forward speed. A revolution in design in the seventies saw the round parachute replaced by the square: this was a true airfoil–with a wing shape inflated by airflow– that offered much better control of the descent and landing.
Tech Level: Ludicrously low. You need silk. Parachutes could have been sewn in the old Chinese dynasties. Then again, you need something to jump from. Balloons or kites would be the best technological match. Fits easily into anything from Stonepunk to Military SF.
Appeared In: The Perilous Descent by Bruce Carter. This was an adventure story about an airman who parachutes onto a deserted island and finds a passage to an underground civilization. [I read it as a child. I remember learning the word fortress. What is that, a girl fort? …good times.] Amazon lists used copies of the Puffin paperback starting at a penny, and look: there’s a parachute right on the cover!
For Your Plot: Not underground adventures, it’s been done. How about Sky Ninjas, or Mulan as a paratrooper? Lovely potential for having your main character drift off course, crash land or both.
Powered Paraglider: The paraglider was an evolution of the square parachute, with a higher aspect ratio (longer wing) to improve performance. It wasn’t long before some backyard inventor attached a lawn-mower engine and a small propeller to make it ground-launchable, and the powered paraglider, umm, took off. Probably the most portable flying machine ever.
Tech Level: Although this is a recent invention, and draws on fairly sophisticated aerodynamics, the construction of a paraglider could have been done during the Chinese dynasties. They didn’t have Rotax engines or propellers, but they did have rockets. Whee! File it under Time Travel, or use a modern version in your Post-Apocalyptic zombie vampire thing.
Appeared In: Sounds like Clive Cussler’s cup of tea. Anybody know of anything more definitively Spec Fic?
For Your Plot: Somewhat radar-stealthy, (“you can ignore that target, lieutenant, it’s just a 250 pound pelican”) but not quiet. On second thoughts, maybe don’t do the Post-Apocalyptic zombie vampire thing- Julie Kagawa got there first with her Blood of Eden series. She missed out on paragliders, but she got everything else!