Go Fly a Kite

If you’re ever told to “go fly a kite,” you might consider taking it as a compliment. That’s because, according to one authority, flying a kite can be one of life’s more relaxing forms of enjoyment.

Mel Hickman, executive director of the American Kitefliers Association in Walla Walla, Wash., says, “There’s something mystical about watching a kite fly and it can be very relaxing. It’s a simple activity that people can get into, and either compete with kites or just sit there and enjoy the breeze.”

Dave Shenkman, owner of the Kite Connection in Huntington Beach, Calif., agrees, pointing out that the appeal of a single line kite “is the relaxation in being outdoors and the tranquility of looking up into the sky and being a part of it.”

The first known use of kites isn’t documented, but the earliest written account occurred in 200 BC when a Chinese general flew a kite over a walled city to determine how far he would have to tunnel to breech the defenses. He successfully surprised his enemy. Other Chinese legends suggest kites were used to lift observers in battle.

Kites also were used at about the same time by fishermen in the Pacific Ocean areas of Polynesia and Micronesia to catch fish by flying a kite from a small boat. The kite would have a lure resembling a small fish dangling onto the surface of the water.

geisha QU 03-08.jpgKites made their way to Japan where the basic rectangle of the Chinese kite was changed into other shapes such as birds, fish, dragons and turtles. Such kites were flown as thanks for a good harvest, to congratulate new parents and as a charm against illness or bad luck.

Marco Polo has been credited by some sources as introducing the kite to Europe on his return from China in 1295 AD, but they initially had very little impact. It wasn’t until 1405 that a military text referenced flying a kite, and a 1430 text described how to make one and connect the flying line in order to control the kite.

The 15th century painter and inventor Leonardo da Vinci performed experiments with kites to study clouds and air currents, leading to his invention of the parachute and his drawings for a helicopter.

Certainly the most famous kite flier to Americans was Benjamin Franklin. In 1752, Franklin and his son flew a kite made of silk into a storm over Philadelphia. Franklin had attached a brass key on the end of the hemp line and a wire on top of the kite. When he touched the key after a lightning flash, Franklin felt a shock.

Other avid kite fliers included Alexander Graham Bell, who developed the tetrahedron kite, and Orville and Wilbur Wright, who took their love of kite flying and applied it to the world’s first successful airplane flight in 1903.

In 1972, Peter Powell developed a stunt kite that used dual lines to improve the kite’s balance. As a result of his work, kiting is now recognized as an art form and recreational sport, instead of simply a child’s toy.

Shenkman of the Kite Connection (www.kiteconnection.com) first got serious about flying kites as a sport in 1981 as a 15-year-old and has been at it for 26 years.

qangel QU 03-08.jpg“You can launch a single line kite by hand, get it to elevation, tie it off in the sand and then take a nap, but when you wake up it’ll still be flying,” he says. “With a sport kite that’s controlled with two or four lines, you have to actively fly it and can do a lot of tricks and stunts with it.”

A queen angel fish kite.

Shenkman notes that some sport kites can achieve speeds of 50 mph, and can do propeller spins, fly backwards and stop instantly. Such kites weigh about 6 ounces, have about a 7-foot wingspan and are made out of commercial grade fabrics like ripstop nylon, stretched over graphite frames.

Thousands of people converge on Huntington Beach the last weekend of each February for an annual Kite Party, Shenkman says.

“There’s no schedule because it’s just two days of some of the best kite fliers and manufacturers converging on the beach and flying kites,” he points out. “We have a least 100 fliers every year. It’s a spectator’s dream because it attracts some of the best fliers in the world who do routines to entertain the audience.”

Hickman of the American Kitefliers Association (www.aka.kite.org) says that kite flying “is an amazingly inexpensive activity, although it can become more pricey” depending on one’s choice of kites.

“You can spend hundreds of dollars for kites or do something simple like make them out of plastic garbage bags,” he notes. “There are few activities a family of four can take part in for a day and have an outlay of $100 or less, and once you have the kites, a second outing is there for the price of gas and munchies.”

The Association now has more than 4,000 members in 35 countries and is the largest association of kiters in the world. Hickman estimates that 75 percent of the membership is over age 21 and about a quarter of the members are retired.

“Flying a kite is an acceptable, politically correct way to have a second childhood,” he adds.

Feature photos courtesy of Sky Delight.

Kite Fast Facts:

• Extremely large kites lifted men into the air for military surveillance or materials up for the construction of tall towers.

• Fishermen in the Pacific Rim area have used kites to suspend lures for ocean fishing.

• Kites have been used to propel canoes and other vessels, even land coaches.

• In 1749, two Scottish scientists, Alexander Wilson and Thomas Melville, fastened thermometers to kites in order to record the temperature of the air at high altitudes. This was the first recorded attempt to obtain scientific data using kites.

• In 1847, a suspension bridge was built across the Niagara River with the aid of a kite. When Chief Engineer T.G. Hulett was unable to carry the first steel cables across the mighty Niagara Gorge, he decided that a kite might solve his problem. A kite-flying contest was held and Hulett offered $10 to anyone who could fly a kite line to the other side of the river. Only one flyer was successful — a determined young boy named Homan Walsh. When Walsh’s kite landed on the opposite shore, the flying line was then tied to stronger lines, which were used to pull the cables in place

• During the Civil War, the Union Army used kites to drop leaflets behind the front lines, urging the Confederate Army troops to surrender.

• In 1866 Mahlon Loomis sent the first telegraph message over radio waves between two mountains in West Virginia, using two aerials held in the air by kites.

• In 1887, E. D. Archibald, an English meteorologists, took the first aerial photograph by attaching a camera to his kite.

• In 1901, Gugliemo Marconi, inventor of the wireless telegraph, used a kite to loft an antenna four hundred feet in order to receive the first radio signal ever transmitted across the ocean

• In World War II, huge box kites were flown above American war ships to ward off attacking enemy aircraft. Suspended from each kite were long steel wires, which could severely damage an approaching plane and force it down.

• During World War II American Navy aircraft gunners used kites for target practice.