Around the Mall & Beyond

Kites aren't just for kids. Ben Franklin knew it, as did the 20,000 kiters and kite fans at this year's 31st annual Smithsonian kite festival

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What a scene. I wish I'd gone into manufacturing jeans. Jeans and T-shirts and sneakers literally covered the ground around the Washington Monument for hundreds of yards. Picnic spreads, bicycles, Frisbees, backpacks, strollers, wagons full of baby gear, golden retrievers wearing neckerchiefs (the doggy equivalent of the backward baseball hat), children racing about like drops on a hot skillet, moms setting out the pickles and chips and giving instructions. You get the picture.

And all over the cloudy sky, on this blustery April day, kites of all sizes, colors and designs — from deltas to sharks, from boxes to cylinders, from birds to Buzz Lightyears — are swooping, diving, shivering, swooning, crashing, but mostly soaring, eerily floating at the ends of invisible strings. I could be underwater at some tropical sea garden.

A tiny kitemaster grabs the string and runs with it over the grass. "Wrong way! Wrong way!" shouts his father. "You don't run toward it!"

Ah, well. First thing I see is a wonderful arch of classic diamond-shaped kites, 150 of them, half with a yellow sunburst on a blue background, half vice versa. This "train" of kites commemorate's the Smithsonian's 150th anniversary. Margo Brown, a volunteer at the National Air and Space Museum, and her husband, Bevan, have been major forces at the festival since year one. She tells me that the kites in the train are each 18 inches high; they were sewn by members of the Maryland Kite Society, Wings Over Washington and other kite clubs on the Eastern Seaboard. "The arch is very easy to fly," she says. "When it comes down, it doesn't crash, it just floats to the ground."

Now the most spectacular kite of all is zooming into the air: a vast green octopus 100 feet long and 20 feet wide with tentacles that wiggle in the wind. The crowd goes "Ahhhh!"

"It was made by Peter Lynn of New Zealand, a famous kitemaker," reports the man holding the thick green rope, who turns out to be Bruce Flora, who has come up from Orlando, Florida. "It's got 45 pounds of ripstop nylon on a 7,000-pound test line. In a 20-mile-per-hour wind, this octopus only pulls at about 2,000 pounds, but I never take chances. Besides, the rope's five-eighths-inch thickness makes it a lot easier — and safer — to hold."

Oh no, he insists, it's not hard to get the thing up. Today, two colleagues move the kite up and down to force air into the wide hole at the octopus's forehead. When the head fills with air, it gets rigid and becomes an airfoil. "But on a windier day, I can launch it alone. I've had it 300 feet up but it looks smaller there, so I keep it at about 100 feet."

Running a monster kite is a special skill. Flora has worked with Lynn's largest kite, probably the world's biggest, a trilobite fossil design 164 feet long, 72 feet wide and 30 feet thick. In a 3-mph wind he can handle it himself. At 5 mph he calls for a heavy anchorage. "I've watched a kite lift the back of my VW van off the ground. So when I work with a huge kite like Lynn's trilobite, I find a seven-ton anchor, like a flatbed wrecker — with a pickup truck on the bed. The pull accelerates very rapidly," he says. "So I gather," I say.

Flora inaugurated the trilobite in 1995 at Epcot Center, where his company, Kiteman Productions, does kite extravaganzas, like kites with strobe lights and fireworks mounted on them. "I'm a lucky guy," says Flora. "I've made a living from kites for the past 15 years. My next big project is to design a kite show for a new extension of Tokyo Disneyland."

Down in the competition and demonstration areas, people are busy. Awards are given for various shapes (box, sled, train . . .), team efforts and the funniest kites. To compete, kites have to be hand-made by the entrant and should reach 100 feet or more for one minute.

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