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

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.

Here's a family hard at work. Kelly and Danny Burke of Great Falls, Virginia, are dressing their kites, built at a Smithsonian Associates' workshop held two weeks before the festival. Kelly's went right up, but Danny's slid off-balance and refused to rise the required 100 feet. Kelly is nearly 11, Danny is 9, and their parents, Tim and Meg Burke, are skillfully meting out congratulations and sympathy, respectively.

I overhear a festival volunteer offering an elderly participant some assistance in getting his kite into the air. He politely says, "No thanks." The man, Isaac Kearney, who lives here in Washington, explains that his red kite, made of wrapping paper and lightweight cypress wands, rarely needs any help. "It's a kite that just wants to fly." Kearney started making kites as a small boy growing up in New Orleans. "We were poor, and made all of our own toys. I've been to about 25 of these Smithsonian kite festivals." Today, he's here with his son Lawrence and his grandson Dominick.

I run into Margo Brown again and she tells me that this year's festival theme is "Evolutions in Flight." The winner of the theme award is Bob Price, a retired physicist-engineer from Burtonsville, Maryland. His "rotor" kite is a contraption made of ultralight fiberglass tubes and nylon panels. The lipped panels are mounted on a long axle rod so they all spin in the same direction, thereby taking advantage of lift provided by the Magnus effect, the aerodynamic property of spinning objects, such as tennis and golf balls and artillery shells, that affects their trajectory.

"Paul Garber would have loved it," Brown tells me. Garber worked at the Smithsonian for 70 years and was the patriarch of the National Air and Space Museum and the kite festival (SMITHSONIAN, July 1970, May 1997). "Like Franklin, Garber realized early on that kites aren't just toys, that they have practical and scientific uses. Franklin first became interested in kites as a youth when he used one to pull himself across a pond while floating on his back. The Kite Festival Committee is looking forward to 2002, when we'll celebrate the 250th anniversary of Franklin's famous lightning experiment."

Suddenly a beautiful rack of 12 varicolored kites swoops high into the air, then curvets, swirls, dives and planes, while its 12 long tails fingerpaint the sky. Chris Shultz of Premier Kites in Laurel, Maryland, is operating the kite stack with both hands, fighting the wind for all he's worth. The crowd goes "Ooooh!" "These 12 kites, each four feet tall, are just a section of my 52-kite train," says Shultz. "No one has ever flown a longer train made of this type of kite."

More demonstrations: traction kites pull men in buggies across the ground. The announcer swears that people have races like this on 50-mile courses, with speeds up to 50 mph. He also swears that one master he knows flies kites indoors. Am I going to believe that?

Brown later explains that you can fly a kite made of tissue-thin nylon fabric by just walking along with it. Hearing this reminds me that my favorite part of kite flying is when the wind at ground level is weak and puffy. You have to tease the kite high enough to catch the treetop breezes, and you play it like a trout, easing off, snubbing up, ducking a tall oak branch, until the kite finally soars in triumph above everything. That's when you can dream of being up there yourself. Indeed, Bruce Flora tells me about people harnessed to paragliders who launch themselves into flight from level ground with a cable attached to a motorized winch. "If they catch thermals in the right way, they can stay up for hours," he says.

I look up and see that someone has his kites dancing a ballet to music high over our heads. But now it's time for the rokkaku kite battle. Rokkaku are six-sided kites, and they battle by chafing and tangling one another's lines. Pretty soon the air is full of these kites, including a Smithsonian entry that gets sawed down rather quickly. The announcer is giving us the play-by-play.

"You can make 'em sweep side to side, or you can drop 'em down fast, or pull in and make 'em zoom up. There's a lot of jockeying. Uh-oh, that one's gone, heading for 17th Street. Hey, the Smithsonian and the Keystone [an entry from the Keystone Kiters, a Pennsylvania-based group] are stuck together. Uh-oh, there they go down . . ."

Across the Monument grounds, far from this furious action, people are just playing their kites, watching them ride niftily on nothing. Jane Becker, a Park Service employee at Manassas Battlefield, bought three miniature ones for her granddaughter, who is off in the distance now, running a ten-inch job into the air.

I find a couple of Martin Lester-designed kites, made in England and man-shaped. "They're tricky to keep up," comments Rich Miller of Crofton, Maryland. "Anything with a real wide wing-span and narrow body- — the aspect ratio makes them tricky. They're all woodened out, so you have to replace a lot of wing struts. The package comes with a full set of extra struts."

"Woodened out," eh? I know some people like that.

Miller has been coming here for ten years. The wind is great on this famous open hillside, he says, though a bit swirly today. A good kite wind should be steady as the trades; actually, autumn is the best season for kite flying.

But then, a lot of people here are repeaters. In one nest of fluttering banners, bikes, coolers, folding chairs and piles of equipment, I discover the American Kitefliers Association. Kiting is a booming sport (SMITHSONIAN, May 1989), and there are various practical uses (SMITHSONIAN, June 1982). Of course, in our American way we have been organizing kiting as fast as people join up. Everywhere I see the badges, shirts and hats of different clubs and the signature kites of the mushrooming kite shops and factories. The Smithsonian event has helped make the Washington area a mecca for kite lovers.

The announcer sounds excited about Jeff Levine's long-tailed delta kite. "It's purple, pink, green and black with two tails off the wingtips," he shouts. "With that 17 1/2-foot wingspan this can be really spectacular, but you want to stay away from it, too; it has quite a bit of force to it when it gets up."

Sure enough, the thing abruptly does one of those suicide loops so familiar to us amateur kiters, darting straight up and then straight down. Levine, who came here from Boothwin, Pennsylvania, for the event, pulls it out of its dive before it brains anyone.

Now and then, indeed, a rokkaku killed in battle falls on a spectator, but I don't think anybody gets hurt. (From the festival brochure: "Do Not Walk Under Stunt Kites! These kites regularly move at speeds in excess of 60 miles per hour, and stunt kites can cut and burn you!") On the other hand, the kite hospital — run by John Strong, with Iris Reynolds as head nurse — had more than 50 paper and plastic patients before noon. "This crowd is bigger than I can remember for a long time," says Strong, who has been the festival kite doctor for more than 20 years.

I once made a kite eight feet high, tied it to some wrapping twine and launched it from a windy California hilltop. It never occurred to me to wear gloves. If I had been able to hold on without shredding my hands, I probably would have taken off.

One thing I did learn at this 31st annual kite festival, to think about when my grandchildren are old enough: a kite's proportions are extremely variable, but there are some conventions. The crosspiece of a traditional diamond-shaped kite should be about 20 percent of the way down from the top. Often, kites don't really need tails to fly, notes Brown. "They're just vain. They like to be pretty."

Not everyone here is flying a kite. I come across a man named Felix Cartagena who has a bubble machine. A fan blows through an arc of those plastic bubblemakers that come in little jars, and billows of bubbles trail through the air for yards and yards, causing small children to shriek with delight. A sign announces: "Not for sale, not for rent, just for fun!!"

"Been making these machines since '83," says Cartagena. "I only do it part-time, but I always make room for the Smithsonian festival. Last weekend I used up 18 gallons. Today" — he squints into the wind — "this is a 15-gallon day."

He buys the standard commercial mix, but in 100-ounce containers, not little jars. "When I come around to the shop they say, 'Uh-oh, he's here again.'"

Now the skein of bubbles wafts to heights that some kites, even, haven't reached. "I get paid in smiles and giggles," Cartagena says. "A few minutes ago a man came up to me and said, 'I'm 88 years old. I think this is wonderful. I want to shake your hand.'" Wait a minute, here comes the giant octopus again, rearing into the sky with certain authority. Little kites skitter out of the way. The crowd goes "'Rayyyy!"

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