Not every kite aerial photography session is a success. Some are less than satisfying. Some, outright failures. And others are disasters.
Today’s session was something between less than satisfying and a failure. After checking the Mauna Kea Soaring wind models I’d planned to fly just south of Mahukona at a historical site I’d flown at before. It’s a tough spot to fly because most of the time it’s downwind of Kohala Mountain. The rare days when the wind shows up, it’s because of a weather pattern that causes wind to follow the curve of the shoreline. Today was supposed to be one of those days.
It wasn’t. The wind was so flat, I didn’t even bother to stop. Sometimes the wind models are less than accurate. When that happens, I try to come up with an alternate flying location. The models said the wind at Kauhola Point would be in the 12-15kt range. Not my favorite, but not bad. I drove past Mahukona and kept going until the turn-off to Kauhola Point.
Things didn’t look right there, either. There was almost no motion in the large palm trees along the road. “Ok,” I thought, “The point is a good couple of miles from here, and can be in a different wind regime. Give it a chance!” I gave it a chance. But when I got there the wind was hardly blowing. I debated putting up the Dopero, but settled on a 7.5′ Rokkaku instead. The kite went up, the pull was just enough to lift the rig, and things looked pretty good.
Kauhola Point used to be the home to a pretty cool lighthouse that was built back in the mid 30’s. I photographed the old lighthouse during World Wide KAP Week 2009. At the time it was one of my favorite KAP images.
A year later the lighthouse was torn down because of the severe erosion of the coastline directly underneath the foundations.
The Coast Guard removed every trace of the lighthouse as well as the old foundations for the generator and engine that used to power it. The lighthouse was replaced with a “monopole structure”, an increasingly common practice when older lighthouses are torn down. Prior to seeing the new lighthouse at Kauhola Point, the only experience I’d had with monopole structures was the lighthouse at Ka Lae at the south end of the Big Island.
The first time I went out to Kauhola Point after the new lighthouse went up was quite a shock! The new one was located farther inland to remove it from the eroding coastline. And it was tall! Far taller than the lighthouse at Ka Lae. But it was still a monopole. Deep down, I was disappointed. I think there’s value in old designs that more efficient stainless weldments just can’t match.
But a good kite flying spot is a good kite flying spot. I’ve returned to Kauhola Point several times since. The monopole is just as challenging to photograph as the old lighthouse, and I wanted to give it a try with the video down-link on my KAP rig. The light was wrong, but the wind appeared to be friendly.
The video down-link let me line up only two really good photos. This first one was nearly directly-down, and worked well straight off the camera. I could’ve wished for a little more room on the bottom, but all in all I’m pleased with how it turned out.
The second was supposed to be half of a pair of photos for a diptych. I wanted one looking at the lighthouse facing toward shore, showing the vegetation at Kauhola Point, and a second looking at the lighthouse and facing offshore, showing the rough waters around the point. I only got the first half of the diptych done before things started to go bad.
As I walked the kite around for the second shot, I noticed it was flying to the left of downwind. Typically on a large kite like a Rokkaku, this means the kite is over-powering. Small asymmetries in the kite are being amplified because the frame and sail are distorting, and it simply can’t fly straight anymore. I was flying with the winder clipped off to a waist belt, so I hadn’t noticed how hard it was pulling until I saw it flying off the wind. A quick check of the tension on the line and I knew I couldn’t reel it in by hand.
Most kiters will tell you that the only way to wind kite line is to walk the kite to the ground and then reel the line up off the ground with no tension on it. If your flying locations are all big wide grassy fields, that approach works quite well and puts the least load on the kite, line, and flyer. But not every location offers this convenience, especially when the kite flyer is flying in order to do aerial photograph.
Lucky for me, there’s enough room at Kauhola Point to tie off and walk down. But not so much that I could get all of the line down in one pass. I tied off to one of the many cement posts that dot the point and used one of my spare carabiners to bring the line down.
I wish I had photos to share of this part of the session. I don’t. I was too busy trying to bring my kite and camera down before my DSLR was dunked in the ocean, slammed into the ground, or wrapped around the lighthouse. I was also too busy swearing at myself as the wind steadily increased. What had started off as a nice five knot blow was well over fifteen by the time I had things ready to start walking the kite down. Even with gloves my hands were killing me by the time I brought it down far enough to get my camera off the line. With the camera secured, I thought the kite could be brought down a little more easily. I was wrong.
When I tell people that I do aerial photography using a kite, most people conjure a mental image of a small store-bought Gayla delta with a microscopically small camera taped to the kite or to the kite line. The reality is that I often fly over two pounds of camera gear using a kite that can lift it with ease.
The kite I was using was never designed to fly in anything more than about ten knots of wind. I had almost doubled that, and the pull on the line was well over forty pounds. It’s hard to appreciate just how much pull a large kite can generate until you’re on the other end of the line.
I almost got it. Almost. Toward the end I found myself wishing the line would just break so it would all be over. I didn’t really want to lose the kite. It’s expensive, and I didn’t really want to have to replace it. But I would’ve offered it up to the sea if it meant I could be done.
Which is almost how it happened. With only fifty feet of line to go, the kite wrapped around the lighthouse and then tried to fly back. The line caught on one of the many bolts that hold the monopole together, and separated. The kite narrowly avoided flying into the ocean by hitting a tree. The line collapsed to the ground, and so did I. With what strength I had left, I cheered.
Getting a kite out of a tree is a matter of having the right tool for the job. I typically travel with some sort of pole in my kite bag. I was lucky enough to have a 24′ painter’s pole strapped to the top of my car, so I used that to fish the kite out of the tree. The wind continued to rise, and the kite was still giving me a good fight until I pulled its spine out and wrapped it up.
I still had a fair bit of work to do before I could pack up. My line was a shambles, my gear was spread all over the place, and I’d managed to lose my sunglasses. I put up a PFK Nighthawk to clear the line and wind it on cleanly. By the time I had all the line up in the air and the tangles free of the winder, the Nighthawk was pulling hard enough to lift my rig. It was well over twenty knots. I did hang the rig from the line and tried to make a few more pictures, but they were flops. Eventually I packed everything away and headed home.
It wasn’t until I was driving back toward the highway that I realized how lucky I was. Sure, the session was less than satisfying. I could classify it as bad. But aside from losing about a hundred feet of line, I had no real loss of gear. I recovered the kite, the rig was taken down safely, and the camera suffered no damage. Not a bad way to end the day. I even found my sunglasses!