Issue 67: No Wind, Low Wind Flying

Somewhere there is a mythical world where the breeze. are always a constant, perfect 10-12 mile. per hour. There are neither gusts nor lull.. No obstructions litter the field . Somewhere. . . but it sure isn’t here!

It’s happened to all of us at least once. Sooner or later we find ourselves standing at the good old flying field, kite in hand and . . .no wind. Dog gone it, another afternoon shot! But don’t dismay. . . help is at hand!

Extreme low wind situations are flyable. It’s not tremendously easy the first few times but, as you get acquainted with the conditions and techniques involved, it’s intensely rewarding. In time, the challenge of flying at this low extreme can even become preferred.

“After work, I used to check the trees as I drove home, looking for any breath of wind.” says veteran low-wind flyer Lee Sedgwick. “After a while, I was tired of getting ‘skunked’ and decided that I’d better learn to fly in the light stuff.”

“There are a lot of variables involved in low wind flying,” Lee told us. “The lightness and type of kite, diameter and weight of the line, and the maneuver. performed are all factors. So is the stamina of the flyer; unless the wind is above 3MPH you’re probably going to have to move to keep the kite in the air.”

Although nearly any kite can be made to fly in low wind, the consensus is that short, lightweight lines are the best to fly it with. It’s important to remember that line exerts drag as well. The lighter the line, the less surface (therefore drag) is presented to the wind. Heavy lines can also weigh the kite down and make for sluggish response times on the part of the kite. Most flyers have a good selection of lines in their bags and these low situations are a good time to select light, short ones. “I usually use about 80 feet of 75-80lb. Spectra,” Lee notes. “The running maneuvers are easier to do and the control is better.”

Flyers who utilize handles may wish to explore other option. for light-wind usage. Feel is especially critical and anything that has a deadening effect between the kite and the pilot’s hand may be a disservice. If handles are a must, try keeping a finger or two directly on the lines to monitor subtle differences in pull. Any advantage that will put you in greater “contact” with the kite is worth exploring.

Picking a kite can be a little harder. Even though nearly any will do, there are some choices that will cause the flyer less initial frustration. Most light-air enthusiasts prefer one either with graphite or aluminum/carbon composite spars because of weight and stiffness. Another good rule of thumb is that the less overall weight to sail area will produce the better light wind kite. Taut sails also appear to work better than those with larger amounts of billow. Standoffs can be a matter of practical necessity.

Flexifoils, one of Lee’s favorite low-wind/no-wind machines, work extremely well but, again, will require ultra-light spars in most cases. Diamond-shaped kites can work well in specific conditions but generally fall into the “difficult” column. Stacks are usually not recommended and tails are definitely out unless you count yourself among the superbly conditioned!

Regardless of the kite selected, its a good bet that you’ll have to make some adjustments to it in order to have it perform at peak levels. Weight is at a premium so look for ways to shave off the excess. Vinyls can often be trimmed or changed to lighter sizes. The same applies to bunji cord.

Sails should be tightened to make optimum use of the surface area. In some cases, substitute spars will provide a lighter, tighter and therefore better framing option. Serious devotees of extreme low wind will find several kites on the market specifically designed for that purpose. Weights for these “ultralights” run to an average of about 10 ounces but there are good low-wind flyers as high as 13-14 ounces and as low as 6.

A good location is one of the prime requirement. for extremely low wind situations. Beaches, public parks, and even parking lots can all serve as good sites although there are drawbacks with each. Beaches, while providing some of the best shot at small amounts of breeze, often counter with soft, uneven footing. Parks usually have the best footing but can present ruts or holes and become slippery when freshly watered or dew-covered. You’re also more likely to find obstructions like trees, buildings, and people in park areas. Parking lots deliver an excellent surface with no ruts or bumps. They can also provide some nasty scrapes and bruises from falls.

With practice, even heretofore unconsidered options come into play. “The spaces between buildings often works well,” according to Lee. “Wind in the form of drafts can rush around structures even on calm days. In the early evening, if you happen to live near, a large city, a gentle breeze can come up from thermal cooling of the surrounding countryside.”

The same can hold true for lakefront locations. There is nearly always a bit of breeze at the end of the day. It may not last long, but it’s usually there.

There are also location considerations for the kites themselves. Sand can provide a great surface for launching a delta-shape stunter . . . but it can be a problem with ‘Foils as sand tends to work its way through the mesh on the front of the kite and down into the cells. Contact with damp surfaces like dew-covered grass will quickly impair the ability of any kite to perform at its peak. Foils launch easily from paved surfaces but rigid-frame kites may encounter problems with the same maneuver. Even kites equipped with standoffs occasionally fail for lack of any way to gain footing. Of course, a crash or a wing drag on hard surfaces can be particularly damaging. Suffice it to say that the type of kite being flown should be considered when choosing a location.

If an asphalt surface is selected, Lee recommends carrying a couple of push pins. These can be pushed into the asphalt to provide the tiniest of ground stakes for your lines. You can also use a suction-cup/hook like the kind used to hang stained-glass on windows. Just stick it to your car window and. . . viola! A carabiner clip can be fastened your kite bag for the same purpose but in any event, for low wind flying, you can leave your long ground stakes at home!

Low-wind/no-wind flying can pose some real problems to flyers who are not prepared physically. The lower the breezes, the more the flyer is going to have to move to “create” his own. It’s best to start this activity after an appropriate amount of conditioning. Warm-up exercise, particularly of the stretching variety will greatly reduce the risk of strains and sprains.

Now for the flying. . . after all, that’s the fun part!

Extreme flying, either at the top or bottom of the scale is an exercise in finesse. In low-wind/no-wind, it can be like flying in slow-motion. The flyer must “feel” where the kite wants to go in its search for air. Jerky, quick movements do have a place but it is a small one. Generally, they will succeed only in pulling the kite from the air or, at least, drastically out of position. It’s rather like flying in Jello.

The flyer must remember that he is in the process of “making” his own wind in many cases. Any adjustment that can be worked to positive advantage is worth exploring. Don’t neglect the option of moving your bridle clips. Adjustments over 4inches of bridle lines are not unthinkable. Don’t be afraid to experiment! If the adjustment doesn’t work, simply go back to the original marks.

There are several techniques and maneuvers that can be utilized in low extreme situations. They are designed to make use of, or take advantage of, a couple of physical forces.

One of the easier maneuvers to learn is “rowing”. The arms are moved in a motion like rowing a boat. The “wind” is created as the arms are pulled back, the kite coasting during the forward motion. In light air, this is a slow motion process which is used to gain either speed, altitude, or both. Combined with a backward movement on the part of the flyer, sufficient forward momentum is imparted to the kite to keep it aloft.

Once the kite has gained sufficient altitude, it can be directed towards the ground. At this point, gravity becomes an ally. As the kite “coasts” groundward, it can also move downwind. The flyer can walk or even run forward to regain field lost during backward movement. This is, perhaps the most important technique in extreme low wind flight . . .gaining field.

With experience, the kite can be”floated” groundward in an attitude that is nearly parallel to the ground. The kite can be given extra line and the will assume a “nose up” attitude while going away from the flyer in a stall. This is an easier maneuver to initiate than it is to recover and will take a good deal of practice.

Suppose that you are having to walk backwards more than you thought necessary and find yourself exhausting available field space. This is the time to run a 360 (Fig. 1). This maneuver, most easily performed in very low wind situations, consists of the flyer running his kite in a circle of the available flying field.

It is best to start the trick with as much momentum as can be mustered. Basically the flyer runs in a circle, towing the kite behind and slightly to the “outward” side. It is used to ga infield and requires sufficient flying space on the upwind side to get the kite by. Your choice of short lines will benefit greatly here! Be sure to keep a close eye both on your footing and the path your kite is taking. As your skill increases, try 360’s with loops or other figures mixed into the maneuver.

Perhaps an “up-and-over” can work its way into your low wind routine (Fig. 2). For this maneuver, the kite is pulled either by means of running or pumping, to an overhead position. Once this is attained, the flyer needs to run DOWNWIND which will bring the kite arcing towards the earth on the UPWIND side. As the kite approaches the ground, the maneuver is completed by running the kite back downwind like the last half of a 360. It will take patience and much practice to do this one well! It can also be performed by running the kite halfway through a 360, and bringing it over the top from the upwind side.

Another learned technique, like that of gaining field is that of “floating” . It is rather like placing the kite in free fall. As the kite’s lines are often slack, this is best attempted with uncrossed lines. Basically the kite is placed high and allowed to travel on what wind there may be aloft while the flyer tends the lines, making minute adjustments as they are needed. The item to watch for here is the kite’s tendency to fold and dive earthward. Should this happen, be prepared to make a running save. This technique is performed easiest with the Flexifoil and is difficult but achievable with delta-shaped stunters.

Yet another technique, popularized by Lee is that of “lone lining” . Basically, lone lining is flying the kite on one length of line, a loop, which can vary in size from 10 to better than 150 feet. There are no handles or straps employed. The flyer works with the bare line in most cases, although some will splice in a center length of Dacron to get away from the abrasiveness of Spectra or Kevlar line. Because there are no set points of reference, like handles, to determine pre-set lengths, much greater finesse is required to handle the kite.

Lone lining is not a technique to rush into. The potential exists for considerable injury to untrained hands. It must be stressed that lone lining is STRICTLY A LOW WIND TECHNIQUE. This technique should only be used with a kite exhibiting minimal pull! Once the flyer learns how to manipulate the lines in proper fashion, he will be able to play the line out through his hands as well as pull it back in at will, Lee generally uses the lone line technique with the Flexifoil and is able to nearly lay the kite out flat from one end because of the lack of pre-set constraints .

The easiest way to practice low-wind/no-wind techniques is to do it gradually. Start in as light a breeze as you feel comfortable with and begin working your way down . As a helping point, Lee observes that when the kite is above the 45 degree mark in front of the flyer, it tends to generate more lift than pull. The same is true in reverse, the kite generating more pull than lift below 45 degrees . This will help provide a practical reference point for some of the maneuvers listed.

It’s important not to give up when you hit each plateau in your “downwind” progression. Remember: extreme low-wind flying is an exercise in finesse and feel. Don’t try and master everything in one afternoon’s flying. Some of the tricks may take weeks to accomplish easily, but keep at it. Soon you’ll be flying in extreme low wind like a pro. . . and loving it!

By Lee Sedgwick and Cris Batdorff

Republished with permission from:
SKQ – Summer 1991, Volume 3 Issue 2