Issue 7: Tangents and Trivia

Fish or Fowl? Tangent or Trivia?


How many kites are there?

In the 1800’s William Eddy designed a kite that became the most commonly recognized kite in the World. Mr. Eddy constructed a diamond shaped kite which was named after him. William Eddy was also the first kiteflier to attach several of his kites to the same main flying line. He used these “trains” of kites to loft weather recording instruments into the upper atmosphere. These kite trains were able to reach much higher altitudes than single kites.

In 1982 I was introduced to kite trains in a very exciting and scary way. I attended the Detroit, Michigan AKA convention in the company of Charlie Sotich from Chicago. Charlie was a pretty well known kiteflier and I was happy to carry Charlie’s gear at my first National convention.

When Charlie and I arrived, he set up next to the main stage, right in the center of the flying field. I had only about three kites in my bag. I decided to fly the best kite I had. I was on center stage! The kite I chose was a commercially made delta and it really wasn’t very stable. I was flying for about fifteen minutes when this guy comes up next to us carrying a big box. Charlie introduces me to Jack Van Gilder from Seattle, Washington. WOW! This is the president of the AKA! Jack opens the big box and begins to launch a string of plastic delta kites. They are beautiful, and they are flying perfectly, right next to my erratic delta!!! OK! OK! I’ll just move over a little.

About ten minutes after that, a little Japanese fellow walks out to the field and says “Good Morning Sotich-san!” Charlie introduces me to Masaaki Modegi, the president of the Japan Kite Association. HE BEGINS TO LAUNCH ANOTHER KITE TRAIN ON THE OTHER SIDE OF ME!

I am now trapped between two, not one, but TWO kite association presidents flying 100 kite trains only feet away from Al Hargus, who is holding onto a single line delta that is flying like a dual line stunter doing figure eights. This couldn’t get worse!

OH YEAH! Now a TV crew arrives on the field to film and interview Jack and Modegi-san. OH GREAT! I’m going to be on National TV tangling in and crashing the two most beautiful kite trains I have ever seen.

You wouldn’t believe how fast I got that kite down. I was really embarrassed and I have never flown that delta since then. BUT I did get my first introduction to what is now a sixteen year love affair with kite trains.

Did you build all those kites?

My first kite train was commercially produced. It was called “Train O Kites” and you could buy them in packages of ten each. They were 12 inches high and had plastic tubing for spars. The directions told you to tie the supplied little pieces of line to each kite and “. . . have fun!”

I needed the same size train as Jack and Masaaki flew in Detroit. I ordered ten packages of “Train O Kites” Each package had an assortment of colors. I wanted my train to have ten of each color, so I ended up buying 15 or 20 packages just to get the right colors I wanted.

I learned a lot about building and flying kite trains with that first “Train O Kites”. First thing I noticed right off was that I kept losing kites. In any kind of a breeze the line would break and I’d be chasing parts of the train across the field. These “Train O Kites” were really not designed to fly with more than 20 kites. I had over 100!

I entered the “Train O Kites” in the AKA comprehensive competition in Columbus, Ohio in 1983. No one told me that I had to actually make the kite train I entered. I guess that they felt sorry for the new kid because I was still allowed to compete. The category of Trains and Centipedes was won by Kin Kan Hsieh from Taiwan, second place was taken by Elmer Wharton of Chicago, both flying beautiful centipedes. Third place went to a train of real handmade kites made and flown by Olan and Bernice Turner. That was the last time I ever flew that “Train O Kites”.

How do you get all those kites in the air?

After seeing Olan’s train I decided that I really knew enough about trains to build my own. My first attempt was a 12 inch by 12 inch train of eddy kites. I copied the dimensions of the infamous “Train O Kites” and made 100 kites. I worked for weeks on that train. I learned about sail materials, spars, tape and lots of things that I thought would make a good train.

I finished the train and took it out to test. It flew OK, but never did fly at very good angle. It always seemed to be coming down no matter what the winds. What was wrong? I found out in July of 1984 when I saw Dave and Lois DeBolt. I had met Dave two years before at the Detroit convention, but he was flying a kite covered with postage stamps. This time he was flying the most spectacular kite train I had ever seen. He called his creation “The Stairway to Heaven” The train was made of plastic and had five colored panels in each kite. The effect in the air was amazing. Dave had his kites much closer together than my train. Dave’s train also flew at a much better, higher angle.

Now Dave DeBolt was a guy that always seemed like he was sort of kidding you. So when I asked him questions about his train I expected him to kid around, as usual. When Dave talked to me about his train he was serious. He said “Al, it’s important that you get it right, you’re a train engineer now.” Dave gave me many tips on kite train construction. He explained that the angle of attack on my kites is determined by where the spars crossed and that in turn made the shape of the diamond I would fly. Dave said that the height and width have to be the same. I have followed Dave’s advice ever since.

Dave was a really fun guy. He showed up at Chicago’s Sky Circus once dressed in a clown suit. He was always talking to people about kite flying. He and Lois became two of my very best kite flying friends. Dave passed away a few years ago. I know that he had no trouble finding his way to Heaven, because his “Stairway to Heaven” kite train was always pointing the way.

How much pull do those kites have?

By far my best kite train stories involve the tremendous pull all those little kites can generate when they all get together. Big trains of kites DEMAND and GET my respect. I have had more harrowing experiences than I need.

I was flying a train of about 200 – 18 inch eddies in a lakefront park in downtown Chicago one afternoon. The winds began to build and I should have brought the train down. But I just decided to make sure that the anchor would hold. I WAS TIED OFF TO A FIRE HYDRANT! No problem, it will hold. I went on talking to the rest of the kitefliers at the field. After a while someone walked up to me and said, “Al, I think you better come over here and take a look at this.” We walked to the anchor point of the train and I saw that the train was rocking the hydrant back and forth. Oh, my God! This train is going to pull over the fire plug. I quickly got a bunch of my friends to help. We brought down the train. The fire plug was anchored in the park grass and had moved sideways about two inches.

Then there are times when your friends are nowhere to be found when you get ready to bring down your train. I was again in the park in Chicago. My train flew steadily for about 6 hours. We picnicked , flew and partied, had a great time, eventually everyone left. I went to bring down my train and I couldn’t pull it down by myself. What could I do? I waited for a while, hoping for the wind to die. No such luck. I eventually had to yell for help to this stranger. I got the darned thing down and vowed never to let my pals leave me stranded out on the field when I had a big train in the air.

I have learned to use only the best and the strongest line for my trains. I dreaded train breakaways. Imagine that I am flying 200 kites. The top 100 breakaway and begin to drift down wind. Some of the kites eventually begin to drag on the ground. This resistance is enough to keep the rest of the kites in the air and drifting down field. Now imagine a crowd of kids playing down wind. “Oh look at the pretty kites coming at us.” My train has 200 # Kevlar line. If a kid gets tangled they ARE going down wind with the train. This has never happened to me, thank goodness. I have nightmares about that scenario. I make sure that it never happens. Sometime I might tell you the story about how I caught this big TV antenna and dragged it for three blocks.

Then there was the time I took one of my kite trains to Lee Sedgwick’s Valentines Day Ice Fly in Erie, PA. I got out into the middle of the bay, which is frozen very solid and is several miles across. I launched my train and realized after I had gotten about 50 kites up that the pull was going to haul me across the ice and I really had no way to stop it on the ice. Several of my friends came to my aid and I anchored the train to the shoreline. Eventually the winds died down and I was able to move back out onto the ice with my train. Always prepare an anchor for your kite train BEFORE you launch it!

How long did it take you to make that train?

I have made quite a few kite trains over the years. I have experimented with different materials and shapes. One of the big problems with trains is that you cannot make just one kite and know that it will work fine, both aerodynamically and artistically. You end up making at least ten or twenty kites just to see how they all will look and fly, together. This means that I have more than a few kite trains that DO NOT fly. They become wonderful decorations and kite display pieces. I have decorated many halls and libraries with my trains.

I have made kite trains as gifts. I made a train of twenty for Eric and Dorothy Wolff a few years back out of Anniversary table cloths to commemorate their wedding anniversary. I have made several dozen hand painted Rose kite trains. You would be amazed at the reaction a lady has when she gets that kind of bouquet of flowers.

Once I made a train of one hundred twelve inch diamonds out of Red, White and Blue plastic. I entered them in a contest for the most patriotic kite at the USAF Museum kite Festival in Dayton. After the judging I announced over the P.A. system that I would give away the train, one at a time to any kids that wanted them. I had the train flying when I made the announcement, so the kids had no problem finding me. As each kid arrived I’d pull in the train one by one. I cut each off and gave to the kids, one hundred kids and one hundred kites. I had a great time, so did the kids and I didn’t have to pack that train away.

I think the best and most memorable train I have ever made was a train I called “The Silver Thread” We have a night fly at the North Coast Stunt Kite Games in Toledo, Ohio every July. This is a campout event so a night fly takes place right from your camp site. In 1993 I made a train of ten clear plastic kites. On that train I made silver letters that spelled out “Side Show”, my dual line pairs team name. I had visions of seeing these letters floating and glittering as I lit them in the sky with a flood light. Turns out that the clear plastic reflected the light as well as the letters and you saw only the kites and silver tails glittering in the sky.

I decided to build a one hundred kite train out of silver mylar. I called it the “Silver Thread” and flew it in a lot of Midwest events. It looked pretty good in the sunlight, but at night it was spectacular. I used to call it “Slow Fireworks”. After that first season I retired the train because of the wear and tear on the silver mylar sails. Lee Sedgwick made one that next season and his really flies better than mine did. I still got credit for the train that Lee flew for about a year. Everyone would see Lee’s silver train and say, “That is Al Hargus’ train!”. No one remembers my “Silver Thread” anymore, but those “Slow Fireworks” late at night started in my “trained” mind in 1994.

How much does that train cost?

I have made hundreds of kite trains over the years. I have used many materials. With most of them I have used the Charlie Sotich “Found” principle. That is to say that most kite materials can be found instead of purchased. I have to usually purchase spars, but frequently I will reuse spars from a previous train that has worn or torn sails or damaged line. (I have one train that uses spars that are ten years old) I also purchase tape and flying line, but as to sail material and tails, “some people’s garbage is a kiteflier’s gold!”

Making a kite train isn’t really difficult, but there are tricks and “secrets” that are helpful. It’s a learning process, one that has evolved over the last ten years, by trial and error.

Most of you that are regular readers of this column realize at this point that I try to share what I have learned over the years as well as my trivia. This article about kite trains will be no different. I have included my “No Secrets” handbook of single line kite trains for your use and enjoyment. It includes many of the “rules” that come from the trivia and stories I have told you about in this article. There are also several kite plans for some of my favorite trains included.

I like to do a lot of things on the kiteflying field, dual line flying, quad line flying, just socializing! But if you really want to attract attention. If you really want to be outstanding in your field, build a kite train. It definitely can become an obsession!

Hey mister! Can I make one of those?

In the next chapter of Tangents and Trivia I am going to write about making LOTS of kites. I don’t mean two or three hundred kites. I’m talking thousands and thousands here! We are going to dive into the tangents called “kite making workshops” and along the way I’ll tell you a little trivia about how to convince thousands of ten year old kids to do what you tell them.

Till next time, good winds.