Issue 56: ProFile with Pam Kirk & Mike Dennis

One of the joys and delights of working on Kitelife is the opportunity to “interview” the noteworthy folks who’ve made a difference in kiting – or who are making a difference now. Well, this issue of Kitelife, you’ll get to meet Pam Kirk and Mike Dennis from San Diego. And this couple has been involved in kiting, specifically “Sport” kiting, for a long time, and in several different ways.

I first met Mike and Pam about seven or eight months ago on the sands of Huntington Beach at one of Dave Shenkman’s annual Kite Parties. We chatted for a while about a number of kiting things, I gave them my little “Thanks for what you do for us” speech, and we also brushed over the possibility of Pam and Mike doing a Kitelife Interview… and came to no set conclusions other than a determination to try. And with one thing and another, it’s taken us this long to get it together!

A few months back, I sent Mike and Pam a set of “interview questions.” Well, they received them all right, but – business deadlines being what they are – they didn’t have time to get them completed. Moreover, it turns out that those questions really didn’t suit their style, so they’ve worked to cover the same ground in an “article” rather than an “interview” format. So do we really care how we get the information? No – we do not, so articles are just fine.

And them there’s the flow of information. Pam and Mike have worked diligently to provide the article you’re about to read – but it is decidedly incomplete at this point… You see, Pam and Mike started flying “stunt kites” in the mid-80s, and were present and involved at the start of it all. And that “early stuff’s” the part you’ll get in this issue of Kitelife.

BUT WAIT – THERE’S MORE… because after their original ventures into stunt kiting (individually and as a team), Pam went on to become the forth member of the very best kite team in existence in those early years – the “Top of the Line Flight Squadron.” So next issue, we’ll get more history from Pam and Mike about their days with the “Flight Squadron.”

Okay – dig in… This one’s really a pretty decent article – or actually two of ‘em. Pam’s remembrances come first, followed by Mike’s. Enjoy…

Getting Started
by Pam Kirk

Our interest in kite flying began in the spring & summer of 1983 in Columbus, Ohio. Starting out as the proverbial “looking for something to do”, armed with a couple of Gunther kites purchased from a local hobby store, it quickly progressed to an every weekend activity. Kites were somewhat hard to find as there were no “kite stores.” We found some nylon kites at one of the better toy stores. Being a seasonal item they were discounted heavily just before summer, so we stocked up. Most of them didn’t fly very well. We eventually met the members of the local club, COKA ~ the Central Ohio Kiteflyers Association. We were fortunate to have an organized club right there in our area. Some of our best friends were Tim Preston, Herb Herrmann, Mike & Nancy Keating and Fred Bell. There were cars full of kites and we were having a great time. The best local field was close to our home, too ~ 32 ball diamonds big! Even more fortunate, COKA was hosting that year’s AKA Convention to be held at a local hotel with the flying fields at the front door. Miller Makey, president of COKA, and his wife Betty, convinced us that we shouldn’t miss a minute of it. We couldn’t have imagined what was in store.

Although we had “crashed” the party, we made our way onto the field with the help of club friends and observed from a distance all the different creations, including the Japanese Hamamatsu team. The local Marysville Honda plant had sponsored the teams’ travel. We actually got to help fly their kites. One of them eventually was displayed in the atrium of the science center where Mike worked. We did join AKA on that Friday night and for an additional $20 each we were allowed into the Auction. We didn’t win anything at the auction, but we did buy two Happi Coats from Dave Checkley. Little did we know at the time that a lot of the people we had watched that weekend would end up being life long friends.

One of the events we remember the most was the night fly which to this day is the best we’ve ever attended. The weather conditions were at their best. There were kites with lights everywhere. People were even stopping on the freeway to try and figure out what was going on. A couple of flyers had attached Christmas tree lights along their flying lines and had run extension cords from their rooms to power them. The common sense kite cops quickly put an end to this! Most of the lights were simply pasted on the night sky, but a few were lazily doing circles and figure eights. We knew those had to be dual line kites. There was one in particular at the back of the flying field that would travel in a perfectly straight line, come to a dead stop, turn 90 degrees and travel in another perfectly straight line. We were fascinated. We didn’t know what kind of kite it was or if it was a kite at all because all of the dual line kites of that era could only make circles. We found out the next day that it was Don Tabor flying his newly designed Action Kite. He had linked two lines sets together which put the kite at about 300’ and had a small 6” florescent flashlight attached to a fiberglass tube that was suspended across the two tow points. The Action Kite was definitely on our wish list.

For Christmas of that year, Santa brought me a 10-pac of Rainbow Stunters and Mike an Action Kite. We had each secretly placed an order with Fran Gramkowski of High Fly Kites. Unfortunately for Mike, he didn’t get to fly his kite a lot, as it was quickly adopted by me! A couple of months later on Mike‘s birthday and after a very cold and windy day of flying, we found ourselves on the front page, above the fold, of the Columbus Citizen-Journal. The fame was fun, but I think it was the controllable power of that kite that hooked me, forever.

One of the first events we attended was in Dayton, Ohio at the United States Air Force Museum on Labor Day weekend. There were kite making competitions, but my focus was on their first ever dual line event. Back in those days, it was first place or nothing. I had been properly motivated by a friend, Dave DeBolt, when he said, “Ain’t no woman gonna win this!” With that said, I had won my first competition. The AKA Convention was held in Nashville, Tennessee, with the theme of course being music. I had decided to make a kite to not only compete with in the dual line event (no wind, so I crashed), but in the comprehensive as well (receiving an Honorable Mention). The “Music Kite” which it was dubbed, was my rendition of the Action Kite on which I appliquéd the musical score of the first half of the song Happy Birthday to commemorate AKA’s 20th.

One of the founders of COKA, Miller Makey, became the president of AKA that year. Mike & I were asked to be on the Board of Directors for that year ~ Mike as Treasurer and I as the Recording Secretary. We learned quite a bit about the workings of such an organization. A lot of decisions had to be made that year concerning a changing and growing AKA. One of the better decisions we made was to grant the local flyers of San Diego the right to host the AKA Convention in 1985.

Over the winter, we had thought about making our own kites. We had seen other peoples’ creations in the AKA News and in Kitelines magazine and at some regional events. By springtime, Mike, myself and our best friend Bob Rowe got together and Heads Up Kites was a reality. Bob came up with the company name and I immediately envisioned what the logo would be. Bob had a full time job, Mike was working at the Center of Science & Industry and I was quickly learning how to make kites. Eventually we found ourselves selling many different types of kites at large regional craft shows, which led to gift shops and the like in several Eastern states.

We were still flying nearly every evening and all day on the weekends. We were also going to most of the regional kiting events during this time. It was our first trip to the Smithsonian Kite Festival and to Washington, D.C. I competed with my “Music kite” and won 1st place in the Figural category. Soon, word was getting out about this stunt kite team in San Diego, headed by Don Tabor and his new Hawaiian Team Kite. We soon started planning a two week vacation traveling around California. We would see Yosemite, the Golden Gate, Big Sur and all points in between, with the highlight being the Convention. What a grand time we would have. The hotel right across from the fly field and the Pacific next to that. What a pleasant part of the country, we thought.

We knew that “the team” was going to fly and we really wanted to see them in action. Well when I did, I knew then and there ~ “I have got to do that!” A day or two before the San Diego Convention started, we were able to go to the Top of the Line factory, which at that time was a very small “cottage” business. We bought our first Hawaiian from Don and Pat Tabor, autograph and all. I competed with this kite, but without a good result. I was walking my kite onto the field when Lee Sedgwick yelled to me, “Remember, don’t touch the ground!“ (Back then you were immediately DQ’d for such offences.) As I was headed into my favorite move, a two inch high ground pass, I proceeded to plow right into the sand ~ unfortunately. Throughout that week, little did I know at that time that the wheels had been put into motion and that my life would eventually be changed dramatically.

Upon returning home, we continued flying only with a bit more zeal. Mike had a friend at work that became interested in what we were doing and wanted to know where he could get one of these kites. Mike called Pat and arranged to purchase their kites wholesale. We became vendor #40 and the first to sell the Hawaiian Team kite in the state of Ohio. The friend that Mike worked with, Vern Balodis, bought his first Hawaiian. Soon after, his wife Sue had her own Hawaiian as well. Vern, Sue, Mike and I became fixtures on the local kite field.

In early spring of 1986 we had read an advertisement for the 1st Annual East Coast Stunt Kite Championships. This was, I thought, the chance to see just who was the best flyer on all of the East coast. Again, plans were made to go. The four of us along with four members of my family flew there on the new People’s Airline. Pay your fare on the plane. Times have changed, eh? We didn’t fly as a team, but I flew Ind. Novice and took 1st place and won the very first production 10 foot Rainbow Flexi-foil. Mike and Brian Keating, a couple of flyers from our local club, at the last minute asked if Mike & I wanted to compete with them in Open Team. We had never flown together. Our logic was 3 trophies, 3 teams competing ~ so, why not? Even though we were up against “the Team” now called the Flight Squadron. We really messed up, but managed to take 2nd place!

Even before returning home, the four of us, Mike, myself, Vern and Sue were ready to start flying as a team and we became known as Team Hawaiian Punch. Every spare minute was either spent on the field flying or at our favorite local pub talking about flying.
The AKA Convention that year was held in Newport, RI. What a lovely little town with all those “summer cottages” overlooking the sea. I had entered a kite in the Flat & Bowed category and won another 1st place. It was a simple Sled kite with a very detailed appliqué of a dragon eating the Sun. This was to commemorate a total Solar eclipse that occurred that weekend. In ancient times people thought that eclipses were caused by dragons eating the Sun, so they would all get together and make as much noise as possible to scare the dragon away ~ and it worked every time! Again, during that weekend, we were able to watch the Flight Squadron in action.

1987 brought more travels and competitions. All the members of Hawaiian Punch were now ready to compete individually and as a team. Because I had won the event last year, I was forever thrust into the Open Class and now competing against all of the top ranked flyers. Also, as the rules were written back then, if one member on a team was in the Open division, the entire team had to compete in the Open Class. No pressure! Wildwood II was our first outing. We thought our team did well for the amount of experience we had and who we were up against. The Squadron was, of course, the team to beat. They were individually as well. Team captain, Ron Reich had taken notice of us and became somewhat of a mentor that weekend. He gave us drawings of a few of their maneuvers for us to learn. We were all quite awestruck.

A new event was being organized for that year in San Francisco to be held at the Marina Green. It was the West Coast Sport Kite Championships and for the first time there was to be prize money. Team Hawaiian Punch counted this one to experience, but we sure did have a great time! The 1987 Convention in Dulles/Washington held the same results for us.

Again, another winter and spring season out on the field constantly practicing. It had paid off this time as when Wildwood III rolled around, Team Hawaiian Punch had placed 2nd in the Team Precision event, beating everyone but the Squadron. Individually we had all greatly improved as well with more trophies coming home with us. I was especially thrilled when I had beaten all three members of the Flight Squadron in the Precision event and taking 2nd place. That’s when I believe they took notice and began hinting around about a possible four person team….

Someone else had taken notice as well. Fran Gramkowski of High Fly Kites had offered sponsorship for myself along with Lee Sedgwick and Sue Taft for the WCSKC that fall. I was very happy and grateful and accepted his offer.

The ’88 Convention in Chicago was to be the last time Hawaiian Punch would compete. We placed 2nd behind hometown favorites Chicago Fire. It was a bittersweet time for me knowing that I was almost certainly leaving the Midwest and heading for the West Coast and joining The Flight Squadron.

After saying good-buy to my family and friends and my teammates, I flew to San Diego on February 2, 1989.

Mike’s memories of early kiting history
by Mike Dennis

Pam and my experiences in kite flying at the beginning and for the first few years were very similar. We had been to three National Conventions, served on the Board of the AKA and started a part time business, Heads Up Kites. We were going to the field almost every day. Kiting was certainly the center of our lives. But our common experiences were going to change in the spring of 1986. That year, we had heard of a kite competition being held in Wildwood, NJ. For some unknown reason we knew we had to be there and started making plans almost immediately. The more we planned, the more people who wanted to go. Eight of us in all. Knowing we were going to be on the sand and in the sun for long periods of time, I looked for something we could use for shade. At a close-out store I found these odd looking dome tents called Cabanas. They could possibly be the first Cabanas used at a kite festival. But that is really a trivial first. Wildwood was known for serious historic firsts.

Although AKA had experimented with some dual line events earlier, this was the beginning of organized competition. By the second year an official rulebook was created and set the mark for future tournaments. If I remember correctly, Mike Carroll and Olan Turner were largely responsibly for this. Interesting how the competitions have changed ~ if you merely touched the ground, you were disqualified. Now, an assistant can relaunch your kite and you can win. That first year I finished 3rd in the Novice Class and took home a 3-pack of Peter Powell Stunters. Another first was the introduction of Don Tabor’s new kite, the Spin-Off. It was the exact opposite of the Team Kite. It would spin with its tip in the center of the circle so fast you couldn’t tell what direction it was pointed when you stopped. Half the time it would go straight into the ground! Everybody crashed it. Don was getting a kick out of watching people trying to master it. When Pam flew it, she hit the ground so hard it broke its spine. Don just smiled and went over to his bag and grabbed one from a bundle of new rods. It was obvious he’d seen this before. There was also a flyer there by the name of Ron Reich. He was flying for Skynasaur and was very good. There was one time though when he flipped one leg over the lines, turned his back to the kite, bent over and flew the kite with his hands through his legs, all the while looking at the kite upsidedown. We thought this was a little goofy. Little did we know at that time how much he would contribute to kite flying.

Although I enjoyed myself quite a bit, I always had to work at my competitions, whereas it came more natural for Pam. If I tallied the times I competed in individual precision and ballet it probably wouldn’t be 15 times. I usually placed in the top half of the field, but I never took a 1st. So watching and evaluating other flyers’ routines was enjoyable enough for me.

Team flying and competing was totally different though. From the first time I flew with Pam, Vern and Sue it was immediate satisfaction and unbelievably fun! When the kites are forming perfect pictures it almost feels like you’re flying all four. I’ll bet it’s the same kind of feeling an MLB player has when he hits a homerun.

Here were the same four people coming to the field almost every day, flying the same kind of kite. Our work schedules would allow us to travel ~ and we all got along! So it seemed only natural to form Hawaiian Punch. We were serious about our flying. The team would practice nearly every day, also spending a lot of time together off the field. We were the best of friends. Our motto was “Get Wild ~ Get Crazy!”

Several other teams which were forming at the time like Chicago Fire made us always want to fly our best. High on our list of beliefs was that we could beat the Flight Squadron. After all, they were a team of only three! (This was not to be our honor though, as Fire beat them first at the WCSKC in 1988.) We did have a good routine and beautiful kites. All the teams had great camaraderie between them. Perhaps because it was all so new to everybody. Also, there was a special excitement to formation flying. The spectators see it and the flyers feel it. (Later on, Ron Reich taught us that a good team is able to make the spectators feel it as well.)

As a team, Hawaiian Punch did not have any sponsors except for Fran Gramkowski’s High Fly Kite Co. who provided our flying line of which we were very grateful for. Everything else, including all of our travel expenses, came out of our own pockets. And travel we did. On Memorial Day weekend, it was the big beaches of Wildwood, Labor Day weekend it was on the Marina Green in San Francisco and the AKA Grand Nationals at the end of the season. There were also a few regional events we would attend.

San Francisco was especially fun for me. I can remember the first time we went there, Sue, Pam and I arrived before Vern. So, we walked down to the field to see where we would be competing and thought we were in the wrong place. It was much too narrow! We paced it off and found that if we were to use our standard 150’ lines we would be flying dangerously way over the street and completely across the parking lot on the other side. And this place gets windy! It was a good thing we arrived early. We had time to shorten all of our lines. It certainly was a beautiful place to fly and the cash prize money attracted pilots from everywhere. Vern cleaned up that year and took us out for a celebratory dinner.

It would not be the last dinner I would have celebrating a win with a group of friends…

… to be continued …

AND… throughout ALL these long years, Mike and Pam have also run Heads Up, which is arguably the very best kite sailmaking company in the USA today. They’ve made kites and kite sails for a number of your favorite cottage kitemakers for a very long time, and Heads Up has kept these two lovely folks alive and flying over the years – and I dare say that many, or even most, of you have flown a kite sail produced by Heads Up at one time or another. Yeah, you’ll get THAT fascinating story in the next Kitelife issue too!