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Out of Sight

The Art and Science of Flying Kites (and Other Objects)  | John Train

Kites are highly satisfactory; nature does the work. Years ago, I commuted on weekends out to the Hamptons, on the south coast of Long Island, where I had taken a house with my wonderful friend Ed Tuck. I would take kites out to the endless beaches there for test flights. In late summer there arises a perpetual breeze; very convenient. I decided that a good self-imposed mission would be to fly a kite way, way up, right out of sight.


I found that of the geometrics and materials available (box, triangle, or whatever) by far the most efficient was a fairly large plastic (e.g., Kevlar) delta wing with a keel on the bottom where the line is attached. I eventually found a company in Texas that made such kites of a suitable size—four or five feet high—and another in Montreal. (Box kites are good for very high and heavy purposes, such as weather measurement.)


Quite a central problem is the line itself. What limits the height you can fly a kite is mainly the wind drag on the line. If it’s ordinary heavy string the kite won’t rise very far—too fuzzy. It should be monofilament or braided nylon, which offers little wind resistance, or for very large kites, piano wire.


And how do you let it out and haul it back? You’d go crazy with a standard square wooden construction made out of four pegs. For me, the best solution is a big deep-sea fishing reel, which can take a mile or so of line. (You can fly a kite out a couple of miles.) In a still wind your kite will soar almost straight up from the starting point, with a furious buzz or whir as it peels the line from the reel. Then in due course it starts to sag downward. Eventually it gets smaller and smaller and smaller until it can’t be seen unless it’s pointed out.


Retrieving the kite from its spot in the sky is no simple matter. You have to pull hard for a long time, as though you were hauling up a bucket of water from a well many blocks deep. I tried to locate an electric motor to do the job that would clamp on to the bumper of my car and run off the battery, but could never find a good one.


In the end I would anchor the line somewhere, and then run it through a small pulley (for sailors, a snatch block) that in turn was fastened to the back of my belt. As I then just walked along toward the kite, the line would be hauled down and then extend out backward to the anchor point. When I reached the kite and grounded it I’d reel the line in without tension while walking back.


Another solution, if the layout is favorable, is to suddenly cast off a lot of slack on the line, so that the kite loses its grip on the wind and falls out of the sky to somewhere you can collect it from. (This can involve you in peculiar walks through other people’s property, though.)


Anyway, having got the kite up there, the next step is to make something exciting out of the achievement. Of course, passers-by on the beach would stop and puzzle over the scene, but a much more satisfactory elaboration, when the kite has flown as far out as you want it, is to wrap an eight- or ten-inch collar of Reynolds aluminum wrap around the line, like the ruff in old Dutch portraits. In lieu of buttons, to close the collar you can use Scotch Tape. If there’s a brisk breeze, the collar will start chattering and vibrating in its intense yearning to fly up the line, which by now is no longer straight up and down but sagging downwind initially and only later heading up. You let go, and swoosh! The collar zooms up and off and off. Sometimes this whole operation would take place on the beach in front of the Southampton Bath and Tennis Club, as I think it was then called. Mystified members would sally forth from their rocking chairs to see what was afoot. Excellent! One could, of course, send up a sequence of objects before pulling the kite down. A member’s straw hat would have done brilliantly.


As the line gets longer and longer and starts to sag, you can tie on subsidiary kites at long intervals to add lift. I could never decide whether the augmentation was really worthwhile. Probably not. Things get complicated. Perhaps it’s enough just to fly the main kite up to the point of invisibility.


As a curiosity, it should be mentioned that the article on flying kites in the great eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica is prepared by none other than Baden-Powell, soldier, spy and founder of the Boy Scouts. His article discusses flying a huge box kite to lift up an observer to spot the fall of artillery fire. You can bombard a distant target all day but if you can’t see where the shells are falling, you waste a lot of ammo. By the same token, the folks on the ground that were being looked down on had almost no chance of hitting the observer in the air. Nevertheless, I would not at all like to be the poor fish observing up there, and I find no indication that the eminent Baden-Powell saw fit to go aloft himself.


In time I dreamed up another mission: to fly an umbrella overhead in a strong wind controlled by strings attached at various points. Here I pretty much struck out. The first thing you learn is that there’s no hope of lying it right side up, like a parachute, with the handle down. However the strings are rigged, it saws wildly back and forth and crashes in no time. If you start with the open part of the umbrella facing up like a cup, you begin to sense a possibility. And two umbrellas with the handles fastened together, and strings to many places, begins to resemble a box kite and offer some hope.


Then I realized the matter could be improved, as with a parachute, by removing selected panels. The obvious trouble with that important conception is that each time you excise a panel you irretrievably ruin the umbrella, so their supply suddenly becomes an expensive proposition.


A logical next step: much cheaper umbrellas. I set forth to Chinatown, acquired a flock of cheap, flimsy toy parasols with very light handles, and resumed my efforts. Alas, the cheap and flimsy parasols proved to be crazily unstable, however you connected them and sliced out panels. That approach could have worked with a huge tail, or there might have been a business peddling them to the members of the Southampton Bath and Tennis Club, but about that time I renounced the Hamptons and married into Dark Harbor, Maine.

A co-founder and first managing editor of The Paris Review, John Train is the author of more than two dozen books and some 400 short pieces that appeared in Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and other publications. 

John and Frances Cheston Train
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