Life on a string

Kids young and old get kicks by flying kites

Kids young and old get kicks by flying kites

April 18, 2005|by CHRIS COPLEY

Kites can take a grownup back to the days of childhood.

Especially if that person is a middle-aged man.

Ed Hazlett hosts the annual kite festival at Fairview Outdoor Education Center near Clear Spring. At this year's kite festival in March, Hazlett and the Washington County Public Schools facility offered kite kits and a field to anyone who wanted air time.

"It gets a little bit bigger each year," he said. "About 50 people came. It's not just kids. At our kite festival, we had as many adults as kids - actually more (adults)."

That's the news from the kite-flying industry. Once seen as a casual pastime associated with children, kite-flying is now very adult-oriented.

A grown-up business

The key to kites is wind, and kite-flying is most popular where wind is common, such as on coastlines. So - no surprise here - kite shops cluster in beach towns.

"There is some tremendous kite-flying inland, but inland kite shops don't do very well," said Chuck Simmons, proprietor of Carpe Ventus Kites of Mount Joy, Pa. Simmons recently closed his "storefront" - a stand called Carpe Ventus Kites ("seize the wind" in Latin) in Saturday's Market in Middletown, Pa. - and now sells kites solely through his Web site,

While his stand was open, Simmons saw first-hand the change in the kite-flying market.

"It's not so much the kids anymore, but the people in their 40s, 50s. It's the adult males," Simmons said with a laugh. "Across from my market, there was a stand that sold music CDs and computer games. I thought that would be good for business. But the youth stayed at that stand and their fathers came to my stand."

Simmons said that at his stand, he sold plenty of child- and family-oriented kites - the classic diamond kite and more modern delta kite - but his hot sellers were dual-line sports kites.

These short, wide, triangle-shaped kites with two control lines are the sports cars of the kite industry. Fast and steerable, a sports kite can be made to turn right and left, dive, roll, land on a wingtip and do other tricks.

A brief history of (kite) flight

Nowadays, kites are primarily just for fun, but historically, kites have been used as fighting machines, workhorses, experimental flying machines - so much more than just toys.

Originating in India or China about a thousand years ago, kites remain part of the cultural fabric of many Asian nations. Kite-fighting remains popular in India, Pakistan, Korea, Afghanistan and Japan and is the national sport of Thailand.

Kites also have been used to push the envelope of science. Early American inventor Benjamin Franklin famously flew a kite during a thunderstorm to prove that lightning was electrical in nature. Radio pioneer Gugliemo Marconi used a kite to lift an aerial in Newfoundland in order to transmit a radio signal across the Atlantic Ocean. And early flight pioneers such as Englishman George Cayley and Americans Alexander Bell and Wilbur and Orville Wright designed kites large enough to lift a human (kids, don't try this at home!).

Kites were used in preindustrial warfare to lift spies into the air and to communicate signals from one part of a large army to another. In 20th-century wars, kites were used to deter airplane attack and to train antiaircraft gunners.

A kite even played a pivotal role in building the first bridge linking Niagara Falls, Canada, and Niagara Falls, N.Y. In 1847, 10-year-old Homan Walsh flew a kite across an 800-foot gorge to provide the first physical link between the two riverbanks. Homan's string pulled across a thicker line, then rope and eventually a wire cable was strung across the gorge.

Tomorrow's kites today

The world of recreational kites is morphing quickly. Valentine "Val" B. Deale, general manager of Premier Kites in Baltimore, said his company is keeping up with product development.

"Premier is a full-range kite company," he said. "We sell beginner kites, but we also sell sophisticated kites that are very large - 21 or 30 feet - that only experts would fly."

Premier, which sells only to retail shops, contracts with Chinese kitemakers to produce its designs, Deale said. His designers keep up with developments in kite-flying and extreme sports.

One area of growth is actually a throwback to an early use of kites: using kites to pull people on vehicles.

"Power kiting or 'traction' kiting refers to any time you're being pulled by kites - on land on water or on snow," Deale said. "Kite surfing is exploding. It's akin to windsurfing, but interesting because you're being pulled across the water and also being pulled upward, so you can do really high jumps."

Back to basics

But one of the most cutting-edge things to do, according to Chuck Simmons, is also one of the most old-fashioned.

His advice: Go fly a kite with the kids.

"I have a daughter, Charly, who's 12," he said. "I learn more about her week flying kites for two hours than I learn all week at the dinner table."

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