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Ta-ko Ki-chi

This Japanese term means "kite crazy." A kite crazy person is one who wakes up in the morning and thinks about nothing else but kites, and so on throughout the day.


Kites are somewhat undervalued in our western culture, in my opinion. We tend to take for granted that it's easy to fly a kite, even though whenever adults actually try it, the experience is often quite the opposite.
14ft 4in 345 launch

Kites are relegated to the bottom rung of the ladder in the field of aerodynamics. Yet, back in the late 1930s when the mathematical analysis was finally done, kites were found to be two orders of magnitude more complex, mathematically, than subsonic aircraft. We're into 6th order differential equations here. After completing their analysis, scientists at the Aerodynamics Division of Britain's National Physical Laboratory put their researches to use, and built a superior "high efficiency" kite. It needed, unfortunately, a wind of "at least 35 m.p.h. before the kite could be safely airborne." This kite flew for less than 5 minutes outside a wind tunnel in real air before crashing, and because of both its complexity and its rigidity, it was a total loss, too costly to replace even for the government.

Although aeronautical science has produced a complete mathematical description of the dynamics of kites, there is a gulf (often huge) between the purely mathematical representation and the physical reality achievable in the real world. The maths may be pure, but achieving a corresponding level of perfection in nuts-and-bolts reality is almost physically impossible, and bridging that gulf is attainable only through the utmost care and precision.

Before the computer!

In other words, you can have the perfect kite on paper, but if when you hang a spreaderless delta by its fin and find the wing tips out by as much as a couple of inches, then all the math in the world won't help it one bit; it all flies out the window. It takes no more than an unevenness in the weave of the fabric to throw a delta kite off. And if one wing spar flexes differently from the other, forget it; there's no way the kite can fly straight. There will always be more force on one wing and less on the other, tending to tip the kite over.

"Chance favors the prepared mind." - Louis Pasteur

Apply minimalist thinking to the field of aerodynamics and you come close to what kites are. Strip everything away from any conventional aerodynamic concept, reduce it as far as possible to bare skin and bones, to single two dimensional planes, and you are in kite territory, where every extra strut merely adds weight - which leads to an increased tendency to spin, just from the extra momentum. Forget the incremental extra lift you might have got from a fraction more surface area. The best kites are extremely simple. You can't remove anything more. This means that it's virtually impossible to tell a good kite from a bad one. A kite can be beautifully made yet not fly, while shoddy looking ones can fly perfectly well. While I use mathematics for fin design and a few proportions, kites still remain pretty mysterious to me, and serendipity often accounts for as much as the maths. My Wildcard, it has to be admitted, came about as the result of a small mathematical mistake (ahem).

After a successful test flight in wintry winds, I noticed the error and rebuilt the kite "right," using all the knowledge and experience accumulated in almost 20 years. Needless to say, that small "correction" didn't work; I had to rebuild the prototype the way it had been originally. It's one of my best flyers.

Some other countries have a keen kite awareness after centuries of living with them in their cultures, and appreciate kites for what they are. They are not necessarily mere toys; I contend a toy kite doesn't have to fly. There was a period in our culture when kites were thought of as a stepping stone to manned flight, and for many years atmospheric researchers used structurally sophisticated high performance kites, and kites and kite flying was for a time a serious hobby and popular pastime for adults and children alike. But even though many adults today feel they could take some newspaper and sticks and produce a kite, they would find it a little trickier than they think. What's apparently simple ain't necessarily easy.

Detail of painted Japanese kiteHideo Matsutami
While respecting the traditional kites of the Orient - they do fly well tailless - I personally have no inclination whatsoever to imitate them
Hideo Matsutami (right) can make 30 of these kites a day. About 20 kite makers in Japan have been officially declared "Living National Treasures."

If it is to fly, and indeed to fly well, even the simplest kite has to first be designed right and then made with care and precision. Indeed, the simpler the kite, the more perfect it has to be made in order to fly true. I met a Japanese kite maker who spent 13 years making a single small kite the size of a large postage stamp. When I'm working, I am conscious from the layout stage onwards of symmetry, and the design is such that symmetry falls out at the end of a step-by-step process. You sweat blood from start to finish, when you make single line kites. Multi-line stunt kites don't have to be perfectly symmetrical, and in contrast are a relief to sew up; the intensity of concentration is entirely absent - of course, with several control lines construction asymmetries don't matter, and stunt kites can therefore be mass-produced like T-shirts. They are actually closer to parachutes aerodynamically and really do not interest me.

6 x 10ft kite commissioned by the British Standards Institute

My aim is to bring to kite making some of our better western cultural values (at least, as I was brought up: careful craftsmanship, durability, stability, and high flying angle) and design truly western, modern, high flying kites - something both new and better than anything gone before - not copies of ancient oriental designs made in modern materials. Rather than being made from paper, they are made from light yet durable ripstop fabrics. They roll up for transport and storage. They are easier to fly than, say, Indian fighter kites which few of us westerners have the patience for. Anybody can fly a basic delta; indeed a farmer's fence post flew one non-stop for a whole month, I'm told. Yet I aim for a level of performance - flying angle in light wind - that surprises and amazes.

"The Africans around want to know what magic the boys use to keep the kites up!"
...extract from a letter from Harare, Zimbabwe, 25 January, 1987

This is how I, and my gurus before me (Harold Alexander and John Loy), judge kites. Not by superficial flashy graphics, which don't help visibility above a couple hundred feet anyway, but by performance. Arguably, kite graphics are most often there to sell the kites in shops. Commercial kites often have completely artless and otherwise pointless cacophonies of colors - they're made to sell, and not necessarily to fly (with thanks to The Popular Recreator, 1872-3). Someone once called it "eye candy," and I think this is a good term for it.

An early customer requestA batch of special order kites

A word about graphics

It can take many times as long to make a kite with fancy graphics than a plain one. The R8 below (it's got invisible reinforcing) took eight days, not counting the time to do the drawing. In other words, even kites that are poor artistically can be very expensive to make.

My first kite with a graphic
This is the first delta I made from a client's own drawing. It's pretty much exactly as he drew it. (I never met him and can't explain it.)

The old boys at the Round Pond in London's Kensington Gardens, a short walk from my flat, used to regard graphics as looking impressive on the ground, but in the far distance, a solid color always shows up best, and we flew kites there regularly at the fringes of visibility. It didn't matter how nice the fancy graphics might have been; if the kite didn't fly well it wasn't worth a plug nickel.

There are a lot of "art" kites around these days, some of which are so bad at flying that they have to be held on all corners by assistants handling extra guy lines. This hardly advances western kite making; indeed, it sets the art of kite making back at least a thousand years. Frankly I find this deeply embarrassing. There are kite artists like George Peters whose kites actually do fly well and are well constructed to boot.

A few Japanese kite designs are very popular in the west. Traditional they may be, in that they aren't new, but such simple objects transcend time. You can't always alter kite designs like you can fashions, making them longer, shorter, slimmer, etc. at a whim, just for the sake of it - their proportions are often fixed and come down through the centuries as immutable as holy writ. These Japanese designs are simple, elegant constructions, and can be made using either traditional materials or the most up-to-date carbon and dacron. Their shapes, often rectangular, lend themselves to artistic expression - they are perfect flying canvases. Artists have painted or appliquéd both traditional and modern motifs on them.

The delta kite's triangular geometry doesn't have quite the same appeal to the artist in people. The closest I ever got to being referred to as an artist (by someone who knows) was with reference to sculpture - my kites were seen by this person as sculptures! I'm fairly sure the designer of the beautifully sculpted SR71 wouldn't consider himself a sculptor.

This goes back to our culture's condescending attitude toward kite makers. People feel somehow more comfortable with the idea that if there's an artistic justification here then it's alright to be interested in kites - as long as there's this highbrow association with them as objects of art. Of course, this misses the point entirely. Some kite designs have evolved, and been perfected, over the course of many centuries, with or without an artistic component. It's equally incredible that some of our ingenious kite designs of the past 100 or so years weren't thought of centuries before. I like to distinguish between the very skin and bones of what makes the kite itself and the decorations on its surface. The artwork on a kite could be a great masterpiece or just kitsch, while the kite might fly well, or may not fly at all. Which is better? Which is the more expensive? Distinguishing between kites and their artistic merits has a huge bearing on what sort of prices they change hands at, the world being what it is. Fortunately for you, I am happy being just a designer of plain kites that can be still seen at great heights.

It can be argued that any time an identical design and pattern is made over and over again it isn't art but artisan. Somewhere I read that if something has a useful function it cannot by definition be a work of art. Does that mean if a kite flies, it cannot be a work of art? Where this line of thinking leaves today's piles of bricks, manure, carcasses and so forth I'll leave the reader to decide.

"One can explain everything about art, except the bit that really matters" -Georges Braque

Laurens van der Post writes that the hallmark of a work of art is that there should be evidence of a feeling of discovery communicated by the painter or sculptor that something has significantly stirred his emotions, or passed through his individual imagination or personal awareness.

8 day R10

I'm not an artist. My way of making a kite with fancy graphics involves scaling up and drafting for each individual piece of fabric. My background has included various engineering situations where drawings of buildings, roads, and aircraft have been transformed into physical reality. In the case of aircraft, these drawings were full size. Each kite I make is a full-size drawing, only they're drawn right on to the material without intervening steps. To my eye, the sails on Americas Cup racing yachts are beautiful - without any graphics. They're engineered to perfection, and you never see a wrinkle on one. The same goal applies to my kite making. Depending on the design, I try to eliminate unsightly wrinkling; not an easy task when some parts of the wing flex while others don't. this leads to a lot of extra small detail work which easily doubles the time involved in the construction, but that's the way I was brought up.

Prototype Clipper

My engineering instincts always led me to think of structural integrity of the wing fabric first. I never spliced panels together, until, reluctantly, I had a couple of kites to do with stripes. I limited the splices by sticking to a single, wide stripe, so I could be fairly certain the fabric maintained some integrity. But I definitely feel better about one piece wings. Splices add weight and risk introducing the nerve wracking possibility of an uneven surface, by introducing a flaw. This is still true to this day; I hate doing splices. But it's a dilemma - I came to like the look of a single stripe, and of course, beyond a certain size splices are necessary anyway. Very occasionally I have the urge to do something expressive, but my draftsman-like graphic technique is very time consuming. I am not an artist and I can't paint. I have to make each individual part, and the resulting kites are relatively heavy. In spite of that, I must admit I like the way they look in the sky. Graphics aren't incompatible with modest performance, but my way adds weight. I use a base panel, a solid colored kite, in fact, providing the structural integrity, with smaller bits of graphic appliquéd on top. Kitemakers like Reza Ragheb and George Peters are much better at this than I.

Solid color 14ft 4in delta

When I look at a kite, any kite, I look beyond the graphics. I don't see a kite as a canvas upon which to paint an image. What I do see is a shape. In this I suppose I am closer to sculptors. Several of my designs originated as pure shapes; they weren't just the result of purely practical considerations. My 345 series, for example, is a group of kites sharing a quasi-mystical Pythagorean 3-4-5 geometry. The shape of the scallops on Little Bears, Clippers, and the Cirrus could have been simpler, but I ended up using two tangential radii because I preferred the looks of them over the simpler single-radius scallop. I don't profess to be a sculptor; I just made some kites as shapes I saw as pleasing. There are purists who prefer the shape of the standard delta, a single perfect triangle - no scallops, no extended keels or clipped wing tips. The shapes of all these kites predominate when they're not broken up by stripes or graphics.

Custom Thermal Clipper

For me, light wind performance is easier to achieve by design than fresh to strong wind capabilities. Also, I much prefer flying in light winds. Therefore the bulk of my designs are light wind kites; the few others for fresh to strong breezes exist only because it was necessary to design them. But for me there's neither enjoyment nor challenge in flying kites in windy weather. I prefer fair weather, where the flying is challenging and the outdoor experience is wonderfully pleasant, rather than a mere chore.

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