Jon Trennepohl has been around sport kiting for a while… And if you’ve not had or made the chance to shake his hand and say “Thanks,” you really should do it. We can’t think of any portion of the sport of kiting where Jon hasn’t somehow been involved, or in several cases, led the way… in the development of the sport.
To start with, Jon is a more than competent pilot who’s been flying since before some of us were born. Then add in “kite retailer” and you’re still only brushing the surface. And there’s Jon’s Skyburner line of kites that has been flown and enjoyed by thousands. But let’s not stop there. We need to talk about those Skyshark spars he continues to develop and produce, and now you’re starting to get the real picture. And finally, there’s Jon’s relationship with the Level One family of kites imported from Germany. Taken separately, the components of Jon’s business are merely “interesting,” but lump them all together and you’ll see that Jon is truly an astounding member of the kiting community. Together with his lovely wife, Marieanne, the Trennepohls are a solid “force” in all phases of kiting… Pretty fair for a small “family business,” eh?
But… somewhere in there, there’s also a real man we hardly ever get to see, so we asked Jon to talk about the different parts of his kiting life, and even to discuss a few “personal” items about himself, too!
Jon, the kite pilot…
Hi, Jon. Let’s start this interview off the easy way. How did you first get started in organized kiting? When did that happen, what got you started, and what really grabbed your interest so that you stayed? Tell us a bit about how you felt with a kite in your hands, and how it changed your outlook.
Back in 1987 I showed up for band practice at a friends house and he had a Hawaiian Team Kite set up in his basement that he had just got at the local kite shop. I had never seen anything like it. I had flown a Delta single line kite that I had bought in Hawaii years before but had never heard of a kite that you could control with two lines. My friend Mike then turned me on to flying sport kites and gave me my first copy of American Kite Magazine. It did not take me long to get hooked. I liked it so much that I opened a kite store two months later.
Once you got rolling, who did you fly with and who acted as your teacher or mentor? Did you join a club, or hang out with a group of fliers, or just fly alone?
As far as other flyers, my friend Mike and another flyer, Jerry, started flying together all the time and kind of taught ourselves. We learned to fly team together.
I have to say I developed my own style of flying, but if I was influenced by any one person it was Cris Batdorff. Just watching him fly was so inspirational. He was a true soul flyer. Being able to capture the freedom of expression through flying a kite like Cris was a joy to watch. He showed me that sport kite flying could be a form of entertainment for yourself and to others. I went on to learn a lot from watching and asking question of other good flyers. The progression of new things being done with kites is never ending. The more you fly, the more you learn. I love the sport because there is no end to how good you can get.
Sooner or later, you got to the point where you wanted to compete. Was that a natural outgrowth of flying, or did someone approach you directly to start competing? Tell us about your early comps, Jon.
Mike and I went on to fly in our first competition at Wright Patterson Air Force base which I think was just a novice precision event. I took last place. I went on to win the event the next year. My first real event was Experienced Precision at the Great Lakes sport kite event. I remember flying really well and taking second place and got beat by someone flying a Flexifoil. I’m still trying to figure that one out.
At that point I was hooked on competition and started traveling to different events around the states to promote Sky Burner Kites. I remember going to the California Open in San Diego in the early 90’s and after flying in EIP, EIB, and then sitting with Marieanne, watching masters class and this guy Miguel Rodriguez starts his routine with his kite on it’s back, nose away, and wondering what could he possibly be about to do. Well, he knew exactly what he was doing. What a great flyer and routine. Another young flyer that was there was Scott Aughenbaugh, from Hawaii. Seeing what these guys could do with a kite really moved me forward in my flying.
I also started flying pairs with by good friend Mike (Bluesman) and we were determined to do well and win as much as we could and we practiced all the time. We went on to win several national events.
The competition scene was big at this time. We had three magazines covering kites in the States and one that covered the American Kite circuit that listed the standings every four months so you knew who was winning in all classes. To win the American Kite circuit was the big deal or to get voted kite flyer of the year by the other kite flyers. I was voted kite flyer of the year in 1995. It was definitely one of the biggest highlights of my flying career. I have to say things have changed a lot. I can really say that those where the good old days. I still compete a few times a year and still enjoy it. I hope the sport comes back to what it once was.
Okay – by this time, you’re firmly entrenched in the sport kite competitions. And about then you would have gathered some sponsors. Tell us how the sponsorship deals got started and what all that meant for you.
I have to say I did not have many sponsors, except myself, being Sky Burner Kites and the carbon tube companies Black Diamond and then Sky Shark tubes. We did sponsor a lot of great flyers in the past, David Bui, Todd and Eddie, Lam Hoac (we still sponsor Lam) to name a few. I have to say as the competitive sport kite scene has diminished and there are less competitors and spectators. The money spent on sponsoring flyers has become increasingly more difficult. The return isn’t there. As it is, there are not many high end sport kite manufacturers left.
Almost no one travels to other conferences to fly anymore. There is very little press for products and relaying who won with what kite or tubes. Your online magazine is really the only one left. We still sponsor some flyers with tubes and kites. We do a bit more in Europe. They seem to travel, fly and push products of manufacturers more than they do here.
By now you’re really pretty integrated into the competition scheme. What did the associations with other pilots, this “camaraderie,” mean to you? And who were you always competing against back then – and is there anyone from those days still out there flying competitively today?
It was always fun getting to know the flyers you competed against. Some were really friendly and others were very serious and it took longer to get to know them. Overall, we all had a lot of fun. We all tried to learn from each other’s styles and new tricks in order to push the sport forward.
I have to say the flyers to beat were Ron Reich, Abel Ortega, Bob Hanson, Bob Childs, Dean Jordan, Pam Kirk, Allen Nagao, Scott Aughenbaugh, Brian Vanderslice, Dodd Gross, Miguel Rodriguez, Eric Wolf, Lam Hoac, Brian Champie, Jim Baldo, and Paul DeHope. David Bui was one of the only flyers I know to get a perfect 100 points on the American kite circuit. There was also this young kid that started to show up all the time who beat the pants off everyone most of the time named John Barresi.
The only flyers I know that are still competing after the 19 years that I have been doing it are Eric Wolff who was a great flyer before I started and is still a great flyer and still does individual, pairs and team.
I am not sure if they were flying this season but I would mention Miguel Rodriguez, Brain Champie, Vern Balodis, Lam Hoac… And John Barresi is back for sure.
These days you’re mostly competing on the Indoor scene… What about indoor flying appeals to you?
From the very first months of flying kites I was into flying kites in little to no wind. You really had no choice living in inland Michigan if you liked to fly a lot. I went to competitions always hoping for light wind. Most of my routines were developed around light wind. So when the wind was light I had an advantage, I also developed kites that flew in no wind really well. I was always volunteering to fly when most would not, so when I had a chance to fly indoors it came pretty easy. I have always loved the entertainment side of flying, and this is the best avenue right now. It is not just flying in no wind, but the interaction of kite and pilot to put on a show. I think this side of the sport is moving in a very positive way.
Jon, Mr. Sky Burner…
Okay, we’ve kind of dealt with the early years of your stunt kite flying. Time to switch horses a little bit and begin to deal with Jon Trennepohl, the kite businessman.
Since you’re extremely well known now as a kite designer and builder, please tell us what prompted you to start designing and building kites yourself rather than just buying the newest and hottest kites right off the shelf. When did your first kite designing and building efforts start and what special flight attributes were you searching for that you couldn’t buy at the time?
Within a year of starting our kite store in 1988, I started designing kites. It was mostly due to kites being too heavy to fly in our inland wind conditions. By using lighter and better framing components, I also got enhanced performance. One of the best recommendations I ever got was from a great kite maker named Adrian Conn who told me if I was going to manufacture kites, don’t ever give up the quality of your kites. This really stuck with me, and I think it shows with our company and its success.
All right. Assuming that you created a few prototype kites that you felt weren’t quite top-notch, when did you achieve the first kite you felt to be “worthy” – one you were willing or even anxious to fly in Open Competitions, and perhaps even sell to others?
There is always a learning curve with getting your designs to a point where you think they are ready. It took about a year to get it right and the Sky Burner kite was born. This was in early 1989, then came the 3/4 version called the Afterburner and I went on to fly these kite in sport kite events all over the states.
What are the Sky Burner kite family successes? And are there any kites you’ve made that you felt were excellent flying machines that didn’t do well for some reason?
A big highlight for us was when the original Sky Burner was voted kite of the year by Kite Lines Magazine back in 1991.
With the Pro Dancer came a really different concept, a sport kite design with an enlarged scalloped wingtip with a separate trailing edge supported by a batten that held the sail tight to stop vibration. The original Sky Burner was also quite noisy and this rear batten helped alleviate that. This added stability and lift to the kite by having larger wingtips. I really think I was the first to do this. We have definitely made some kites that were maybe ahead of their time and were slow to take off. The 3/4 version of the Pro Dancer called the Star Dancer was like that. David Bui’s Tika never got off the ground.
Now, sometime early on, you created a kite that’s become something of a legend in the industry – the Pro Dancer SUL, which as far as we know has the production longevity record for a UL kite. When did you design the Pro Dancer, and what’s kept it in production all this time? (Yes, we KNOW it’s a darned good kite, Jon!)
The SUL version came basically from the standard version. We started doing this version in 1993. I have to say we are still producing this kite on a regular basis. Why is it still popular? I am not sure, but I think no one wants to spend the time to hand build a kite that keeps the weight at around 5 oz. The sail is simple and most are all one color to keep the weight down. But the time it takes to hand make the parts that make it light are the hard part. The spectra bridle alone takes me more time to make than to frame the kite. It’s just a great design for flying in no wind.
The Trennepohls, a “company”…
Jon, we’ve a couple of questions regarding the “people” involved in your business. Let’s start with the obvious “heart” of the company (after yourself, of course) – your business manager.
Somewhere along the line, probably when you began selling kites fairly regularly, your fine lady Marieanne got involved in the business. Can you tell us how that happened and why? We know all about the “wife” role she plays in your life (most of us have a “significant other”), but how did Marieanne get involved on the business side of things?
When we opened the store, Marieanne was working as a freelance Court Reporter and raising a daughter. She worked at the store whenever she could. In 1990 I convinced her she should quit her job and work full time at Kites & Fun Things and Sky Burner Kites. I have to say she runs the show around here. If you want technical info and such, you talk to me. If you want to give someone an order and have it be right and you need to know what is in stock, you have to talk to the boss – and that’s Marieanne.
When she’s not answering the phone or running the Sky Burner office and watching your backside while you’re on the road – does Marieanne fly kites? And when she’s not totally immersed in the kite business, what would Marieanne really rather be doing for her own personal enjoyment?
Yes, usually she will fly kites when we are on vacation with not too many people around. We actually used to fly pairs on the beach in Cabo. She has a Cody that David Bui made for her that she will fly.
She spends a lot of time in the summer gardening and then there is Niki, our dog, who she is with all the time. She also loves to cook. She loves good wine and loves hanging out at the beach.
For that matter, do YOU ever get time off from your 24×7 role in the community as “Mr. Kite?” If so, what’re your personal pleasures? What does Jon do for fun?
I have to say that kites are my life, but it has always been important to find other things to do so as not to get burned out on kiting. I have to say my other passion is playing golf. I also play tennis on a regular basis. After competing in sport kiting for so long and it being so subjective, golf is just the opposite. No one cares how it looks, you just count the strokes. Seeing some good music now and again is always a good thing. I have to say life is good, thank you.
Okay, time to ask about the “other” guy people read about, but many have never met – Wayne Brunjes. We see Wayne’s name listed on several of your kites as co-designer. How did that all come about? In other words, what is Wayne’s role in the overall scheme of things?
We had Wayne walk into our shop in 1991 and he really never left. He has been involved with our business ever since. He is a graphic artist. He has always done our company logos, advertising, catalogs, and he plays a role in our kite designs. Wayne sets up sail graphics and is a whiz at setting up patterns. We can sometimes have a concept for a kite one day, and start on it early the next day, and be flying it the same day. Wayne also flies with the team.
He really has done a bit of everything around here. He has run the store for us on occasion. He has also done both of our web sites, Skyburner.com as well as kitesandfunthings.com. There isn’t much he hasn’t done around here. He is originally from New York, went to college here in Michigan and then, well… We just adopted him.
Well, those are the Sky Burner people we know about… Are there other folks who’re involved in your organization that need special mention? If so, who are they and what roles do they play?
Gary Maynard from the Windjammers has helped a lot through the years. He did our original web site and logos. David Bui had a huge influence both as a technical person and as a flyer. Ron Thornton who runs the store on occasion so Marieanne can get the heck out there sometimes.
There are numerous other people who have helped us over the years and we thank them all.
The Sky Burner family of products…
Now anyone who’s been paying the least bit of attention knows that Sky Burner kites are not the only items Jon Trennepohl sells. Let’s get into the “other” products here…
Obviously, kites need to be framed in something. So when you started building kites, did you have a line of spars that you used exclusively in your kites, or did you select spars from various manufacturers that fit the requirements of Sky Burner kites?
When we first started is was always hard finding a good supply of carbon spars to build kites with. We started with pultruded carbon tubes and then quickly went to using the wrapped carbon tubes. We first started experimenting with the G-force tubes after Kurt Degener gave me a bunch of tubes that he got as samples from different manufacturers. I found some really stiff tapered tubes in the box and made my own external ferrules to see if they would work in kites and found the performance better than anything I had seen yet. Kurt thought they would never work for kites and turned me over to the gentleman who actually made the tubes and we made changes to the tubes to make them work in kites and they became known as G-force.
After G-force I continued to work with the same manufacturer and developed the Black Diamond Tubes, which also produced the THP tubes for Alan Nagao, and Falhawk who produced the Platinum Kite Series. And then came Sky Shark.
Somewhere along the line however, you ended up forming a relationship with a small California company that made carbon spars. Why were you interested in a spar company, and how did this association all come about?
I met Erez Borowski when he worked for Easton and we were buying tubes and parts from them. Eventually Erez started his own business making Sky Shark tubes called Health Sports Technology. I had always known and respected Erez as a competitor and we became friends. He eventually got into manufacturing tubes for other industries and wanted someone to take over the kite end of his company which is what we did. I always liked his tubes especially after he developed the tapered competition air frames.
Obviously, this entity has become Sky Shark spars over the years… How much “hands-on” do you have when it comes to determining the design specs for these spars? And do you handle the entire Sky Shark production? I guess the question here really is – are you the spar designer, the production manager, the sales/marketing rep, or the whole enchilada?
I have always had something to do with the design specs for the tubes but since taking over Sky Shark completely I certainly wear more hats. Producing wrapped tubes is a lot more involved than most people think. These are really hand made tubes with a lot of variables. The materials we are using to make the tubes are in high demand by other industries which makes getting them a challenge.
And… There’s also another kite company in your business life, is there not? How and when did your relationship with Level One come about? And how has Level One worked out for you over time?
Level One initially came to us for Sky Shark Tubes back in 2001. Shortly thereafter they asked us if we would consider being their US Distributor. I’ve always like their kites and their quality is excellent so we decided to give it a try. It has been a great relationship. Level One is owned by two brothers, Olaf and Jens Frank in Germany. They are both passionate about the kite industry and have done a lot of new and innovative things. We’ve enjoyed working with them very much and the kites do very well.
Finally, you also have a production relationship with Pam Kirk and Mike Dennis of “Heads Up Kites” in California for Sky Burner sails, correct? When did Heads Up begin sewing production sails for you? And we can assume that you continue to sew your own prototype sails, of course.
It seems Mike and Pam having been with us forever. They have been sewing Sky Burner sails since 1996 I believe. They are the best. They have this wonderful passion for sewing sails and making kites.
Yes, I still do my own prototypes. I sew a lot of the prototypes and do a lot of repairs, but I have to say I do not like repetitive sewing. Every once in a while I sew a few kites for friends. I would much rather have a kite sewn by the team of Pam Kirk & Mike Dennis.
Now, have we got it all? Anything else in your business arsenal that we’ve missed? Any other associations that you care to mention?
Seems like we are always doing different things around here. I also design sport kites for Premier Kites. The T & T (Trick and Track) was the first. They did a version made in China and we also did a version made here in the US, which we still do. I believe we’ve done 7 designs for Premier. I really like working with Premier. They have given me the opportunity to bring out some really nice sport kites. They have taught me a lot about production. They really do care about the kites they produce. We also supply some of the manufacturers in the US with polycarbonate fabric and framing parts. Our big thing is service and repair. We repair sails and reframe kites of all types.
Finally – the Fun stuff…
Whew… Kitelife is about “businessed” out after all those questions – and I imagine you feel about the same way. Now, on to the “fun” stuff.
Jon, you have to be spending a fair amount of your year on the road somewhere in what most of us think is a “dream job.” Jon, give us your fair approximation of the number of days you’re away from home each year. Does Marieanne ever get to go along?
I don’t travel as much as I used to. In 2004 I was gone close to 3 months of the year. I used to be gone all the time, yes, Marieanne goes sometimes but obviously someone has to stay home and take care of business. For that reason she is really selective about where she goes.
What’re some of your favorite trips – either festivals or comps or sales trips or business meetings that you truly look forward to making? (We’d also ask about the trips you really dread making, but will understand if you choose not to answer that one.)
There have been trips that I will certainly never forget. I have been to Japan and that was a great trip. Marieanne and I got to go to Bristol England and Dieppe France one year and had a wonderful time.
I spent many years going to Colombia for an organization called Yaripa doing festivals all over the Country, flying in front of the largest crowds ever. Fano is a great event to attend. I love being a guest at the Toronto kite festival. I always look forward to Wildwood for the ECSKC. Roger Chewning is a wonderful host. I always look forward to Dave’s Kite Party in California. We always used to look forward to the KTAI show. Is there any event I don’t like to go to? The ones where it rains and it blows over 25mph all weekend.
We’ll also imagine that there are a couple of Festivals that you attend every year by choice, rather than necessity. Which ones are they, and why do you find them enjoyable?
I have to say that Dave’s kite party comes to mind first. It is so laid back and I get to hang out with other sport kite flyers. I get to see some of the flyers that I don’t get to see anywhere else. I get to hang out with other designers and manufacturers to share ideas with.
Now give us an idea of the kind of flying you really like to do… For instance, Sky Burner makes and markets the Little Light Rok. Do you or Marieanne enjoy flying SLKs? And you also sell the venerable Pro Dancer SUL. Where does that kite fit on your personal “pleasure” chart? How about the Indoor stuff (I-Nak and Level One’s Amazing)? Team kites? Individual Tricksters, and/or Precision kites, and/or All-Arounds? And how about specialty kites like the Level One Thor’s Hammer? Or do you sneak out of the house to go off by yourself and play with quad-line kites? And if you had to pack just a single kite (ANY kite) to take on a vacation, which one would it be?
Right now the kite I have in my bag that I fly all the time if the wind is decent is the Delta Drive because it does the most for me. In light winds I am really enjoying the Freestylist UL right now. My idea of ideal flying is going out by myself and putting my headset on and flying to whatever happens to be in my mp3 player. I am definitely into the soul flying thing. Impromptu flying is where it’s at. Whatever comes up on the PA when I am doing shows is ok with me. You make the best of it and entertain the best you can. When I am designing something new I strictly fly that. You really have to get into a kite during design time. I do enjoy the single lines. I have a stack of 12 LL Roks that I enjoy and my 120 Sutton Flow Form. I really want to spend more time designing and flying single line kites
And please tell us a bit about your experiences and delights in the Pairs and Team portions of the sport… And for heaven sakes, please tell us a bit about “Dogs Playing Cards!” (We’re fascinated by the name of the team, if nothing else.)
I have to say that flying pairs and team are the most fun. This always brings out the social part of kite flying. Spending time with your friends, the joy of practice and getting better at something and sharing it. We have always learned that it is all for fun and to not take it seriously. We were in Wildwood one year and we happened to go out to a local restaurant and there was a two person band playing music while we were eating and they were really entertaining and fun to watch. They were called Dogs Playing Cards. We started talking about getting a team going and said if we did we would call it Dogs Playing Cards. The Dogs were born. I have to say we are still flying regularly and doing events. We are looking for a new team name. We have to do too much explaining about the name. We are starting to get more invites and our name needs to be a bit more kite related.
Speaking of vacations and other fun events, what individual fests or comps or parties stick out in your mind as seminal, not-to-be-missed events? For example, does the mention of a particular Berck sur Mer or Cervia festival make you dream about being there? How about some of the early fests in the USA? Perhaps the Hawaiian fests, or some Florida comps, or a business trip to Australia? Or maybe the Guadeloupe 1997 affair? And perhaps there are some small, little known affairs you’ve attended that left you with a big grin and a warm feeling?
Dieppe in France should not be missed. One of our favorite events in the states was the Great Lakes Stunt Kite Championships. The World Cup events that American Kite / Daniel Prentice put on were always a blast. Fano was a great experience for me. I know that I have mentioned more above.
And how about the people you’ve had the opportunity to share the field with, or do business with, or just rub shoulders with? Who are some of the folks, both the notables and the non-entities, that you’ve truly enjoyed hanging with over the years? And is there anyone you’ve met whom you feel is truly a “Kite God” who deserves our unbounded respect and admiration?
Marieanne and I always tell each other when we look back at the “why did we ever get into the kite business,” we tell each other about all the great friends we have and the places we have gotten to go to from being in kiting.
Some of the special friends I look forward to seeing: Joel Sholtz , Corey Jensen,. Pam Kirk, Mike Dennis, Brian Champie and Miguel Rodrigez, Lee and Sue Sedgwick, Jim Cosca, Lam Hoac, Carl Robertshaw, The Sky Dance Team, Jeff Howard, Tim Benson, Mike Delfar, Allan Pothecary, Daniel Prentice, Kathy Goodwind, John Barresi, David Brittain, Bob Childs, David Bui, Eric Wolff, Dave Shenkman, Steve Hall, Ron and Sandy Gibian, Dean Jordan, Brian Smith, Ken McNeil, Chris Shultz, Mark Reed, Al Lim and Val Deihl , Tomas Sasaki, Dodd Gross… Wow, the list goes on. So many people to mention.
But, if you want to know who the “Kite God” is, I would have to say Ray Bethell. After being on trips with Ray and just being around him is awe inspiring. The talent and passion he has is incredible. These people make being a part of the kite industry worthwhile.
Jon, thanks SO much for taking the time to share all of this information with us. You’ve been such an integral part of the whole US kiting scene for so many years that you’re almost a fixture – and a superb one at that! “Thank You” for all you’ve done for the entire kiting community. We’re delighted to have someone of your caliber and stature share this kind of information with us. We all wish continued good luck to you and Marieanne in the future!
My pleasure. I really want to thank you, John and Geezer for asking me to do this. I also want to thank you for all you do for the kite industry. Your energy and passion for kiting is unsurpassed.
Interview by John Barresi & Dave Shattuck