The View Up Here

Random scribblings about kites, photography, machining, and anything else

Archive for November, 2013

Amputee – Follow-Up

Posted by Tom Benedict on 19/11/2013

Just over ten days ago I took Ember in to have his leg amputated. So much of the last six months had revolved around efforts to save his leg, it seemed like the wrong move in so many ways. But the last ten days have convinced me that we did the right thing.

Ember: Amputee

His spine no longer twists when he walks, he’s able to sit while he eats, and the constant signs of pain are gone. Within a day he was jumping up to our bed by himself and jumping down with the use of a foot stool. By day three he didn’t really need the stool any more. And by the end of that first week he was running, hunting, and chasing the other cats around. For the first time since he was hit by the car, he’s turning back into a cat.

Ember is not completely out of the woods, though. His chronic constipation is better but it’s still there. He’s on a laxative and a stool softener, and probably will be for life. We also learned how to give kitty enemas, and have had to administer them twice so far (no pictures of that, please!) This morning we took him to his vet to have his staples removed and to get a general checkup, which he passed with flying colors. We may have to give him another enema later in the week, but other than that he’s doing great.

I don’t know what the next six months will bring. But I’m glad I get to share them with Ember, enemas and all. He’s my bud.

– Tom

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A Progression of Kites

Posted by Tom Benedict on 13/11/2013

In my previous post I gave a bit of a history of the cameras and gear I use for KAP. But I left out the most important part of KAP: the magic levitation machine that makes the whole thing go. The kite.

Something I didn’t know when I first got into KAP is that while any kite can lift a camera, you don’t use just any kite to do KAP. When I ordered that first Brooxes BBKK kit years ago I thought I had a good lifter kite. It was big. It had pull. Perfect, right?

As it turned out, no. It was a big parafoil with the most amazingly complicated bridle I’d ever seen. I never could quite get it in tune. The kite did fly. I can attest to that. But if the wind dipped even slightly or gusted, it would quit flying. And sometimes it would overreact to a wind shift and just take off sideways. It was fine when all I was doing was flying it as a kite. But for KAP it was frustrating!

Turns out the kite had an amazingly narrow wind range. Wind range is the term used to describe the wind speeds a kite can operate in. There are a couple of reasons why you want kites with wide wind ranges when doing KAP.

First, the wider the wind range on your kite, the fewer kites you need to cover a range of speeds. Say you have a bunch of kites that can handle maybe 4mph difference in wind speed. To cover everything from 5mph to 25mph, you need five kites. You could cover that same range with three kites that have a broader wind range.

Second, hanging weight on a kite line effectively shrinks the usable wind range of the kite. At the high end the kite will still fly off the wind and crash. But at the low end the kite will simply run out of lift, and your camera and rig will hit the ground. So if you start with kites that have a broad wind range to begin with, chances are it’ll keep flying when you hang a rig on the line.

Finally, nearly every flying session will involve a range of wind speeds. It’s inevitable. We don’t live in a wind tunnel. Real wind has dips, gusts, thermals, down-drafts, etc. Real life is messy. If you start with a kite that can deal with a range of wind conditions, your chances of keeping your camera in the air when the wind changes goes up.

I wound up selling that parafoil and getting a pair of related kites: Flow Forms.


The Flow Form is a soft kite invented by Steve Sutton. In many respects they look a lot like my earlier parafoil, except for the bridle. The Sutton Flow Form bridle is a very simple arrangement of lines that don’t need to be tuned. The tuning is all in the keel geometry. The Flow Form 16, shown here, starts flying around 6-7 knots, can lift by 8-9 knots, and only starts to over-power around 20 knots. For me it was a great place to start doing KAP. It packs down to a bundle the size of a travel pillow, and can be pulled out, shaken open, and launched with relatively little effort. It’s still my go-to kite for travel.

Unfortunately Air Affairs, the company that made the Flow Form 16 and Flow Form 8 I bought, are no longer making the kites. The KAP community is still trying to find good replacements. So far some of the better ones come from HQ Kites. But I’m still trying to keep mine patched and flying.

For the record, I don’t use my Flow Form 8 for KAP any more. It’s small, and smaller kites are more prone to react to small changes in air pressure. Put another way: they dance in the sky. This is not what you want as a stable platform for photography. By the time the wind is fast enough to let me fly a rig from the FF8, I’m ready to pack it in. At those speeds the wind is abusive.

Unfortunately, with just the FF16 in my kite quiver, there were days when the wind was too light to fly. So I started looking for other kites. This is where your local flying conditions and your own preferences for KAP will drive which kites you gravitate toward. In my case I needed lighter wind kites, so that’s the direction I went.

Larger Flow Forms were available, but I wound up going with framed kites. Soft kites are good for getting “reach” (downwind range) without incurring too much altitude. For getting out over water, or for flying over difficult to reach subjects they’re great. But for getting lots of altitude when you have to stand close to your subject they’re not ideal. For that, framed kites are a better choice.

My first framed kite was a 6′ rokkaku a friend of mine sewed using the plans from Gary Engvall.

Hexagonal Levitation Machine

A well-tuned rokkaku provides a great deal of lift in a little amount of wind, and is a joy to fly. A poorly-tuned rokkaku is a disaster on the end of a string. I can vouch for Gary’s plans, my friend’s prowess with a sewing machine, and above all Gary’s bridle tuning guide found on that same web page. This kite continues to be one of my favorites. It’s 6′ high and 5′ wide, and breaks down to 5′ if I leave the cross spars in place. It’ll break down to 32″ if I break down the spars.

I later added a second rokkaku to the bunch, a 7.5′ from Didakites. The bridle it came with was awful, but after I replaced it with as bridle made to Gary’s specifications, it became a solid flyer. Because of the sensitivity to bridle tuning I don’t recommend rokkakus as first kites. But they make great second (and third!) kites.

About that same time I also made a new winder out of half inch plywood, a bunch of bolts, and a skateboard wheel. It’s shown here with my Didakites rokkaku.

The winder

It flies in lighter wind than the 6′ rokkaku, and is now my main kite for lifting my DSLR rig. (Remember how heavier rigs will reduce the wind range of whatever kite you’re using? It also helps to start with a kite that can lift more weight.) This one is 7.5′ high and 6′ wide, and only breaks down to 6′ unless I break down the cross spars. So it’s a little less convenient to carry, but it’s fun to use.

In an ever-expanding quest to fly in less and less wind I picked up two other kites along the way. The first was a Fled, a kite specifically designed for KAP by Brooks Leffler.


It’s almost the same size as my green rokkaku, but flies in much less wind. It’s also not capable of carrying as much weight. Like the Flow Form it has a bridle that doesn’t require tuning, so it’s a good beginner kite. But it’s only really suited for lifting the lightest rigs. I’d never fly my DSLR on this. But I’ve flown compact cameras, cell phones, and Gopros, and it’s one of my go-to kites for mapping. (Mapping KAP rigs only let the camera point down, and tend to be very light and easy to use.) It breaks down to the same size as my green rokkaku unless the vertical spars are disassembled as well.

The other is a DoPeRo, another kite also specifically designed for KAP by Ralf Beutnagel:


DoPeRo is short for Double Pearson Roller. If you imagine the above kite without the rectangular center panels, that’s what a Pearson Roller looks like. Throw in those panels and it’ll haul up even heavy DSLR rigs in almost no wind. The one catch with the DoPeRo is that it’s 6′ high and 9′ wide. It’s big. In my case it’s too big and too complicated to be assembled without putting it on the ground.

Here’s another instance where your local flying conditions will dictate some of your choices. A great deal of the KAP I’ve done has been over raw lava. If you’ve never stepped on rock that’s less than a hundred years old, imagine standing on a pile of broken glass. Early on I learned how to hold a kite in the air while installing all of its spars, and then launch it without letting it touch the ground. I can’t do that with the DoPeRo, so I can only use it at sites that are ground contact friendly.

I love flying the DoPeRo, and try to get it out every time I go to the beach. But it’s not my primary KAP kite because of the whole issue with the razor sharp rocks. DARN! If you do the bulk of your KAP from grass fields, though, keep the DoPeRo in mind. It’s a good performer. Like the rokkaku, it’s sensitive to tuning. In this case Ralf’s original plans are the go-to for problem solving.

One whole branch of the kiting world I haven’t mentioned is deltas. There are some incredibly affordable delta kites that make beautiful lifters. The Levitation Delta and its sister kite, the Levitation Light, both from Into the Wind, are excellent lifters for under $100 US. Unfortunately I don’t own either one so I can’t tell you of my first-hand experiences. But I’ve seen both flown, and can attest to their utility for KAP.

A delta I have flown is the PFK Nighthawk. As far as I know these are only available from Paul’s Fishing Kites in New Zealand. These are some of the craziest kites I’ve ever flown. They start flying around 6-7 knots and can lift upwards of 10-12 knots. I don’t know the top end of the wind range on the Nighthawk. A fellow KAPer has flown a Nighthawk off of a boat in gale force winds, and managed to do KAP of the boat. It is an insane kite. I find that it pumps the line when it’s up in a lot of wind, though, so if your KAP rig is prone to oscillating it may not be your best bet. Either that or add a bungee between the kite and the rig. (Yes, this works. But that’s another post…) When every other kite is hiding in your kite bag, the Nighthawk can still come out and play.

One last delta I have used for KAP was a 19′ delta I borrowed for an archaeological KAP session.

Big Delta

This thing is terrifying to fly. I’d only use it for KAP if I was absolutely desperate. I have a standing offer to buy one of these from a kite shop that closed its doors a while back. I might get it simply for lifting line laundry at kite festivals. But only if I flew it off an anchor, and only if I was using #500 line or stronger. Even in light wind it’ll go from slack line flying to iron bar arm-wrenching pull in seconds. It’s a monster.

There are lots of kites out there that are good for KAP. The KAP Forums are a great place to ask questions and get feedback on any kites you might be interested in getting. The folks there are some of the finest in all the Internet. Kites, cameras, rigs, radios, no matter what your question is, that’s the first place I go.

Something to keep in mind if you get into KAP is that conditions won’t always lend themselves to flying a camera. In those instances you can always just fly the kite to fly the kite, and enjoy the scenery for its own sake.

Evening Landing

And should you accumulate a whole quiver of kites for doing KAP, they can all get air time when the wind is wrong, the light is bad, or you just don’t have a subject that turns you on. It’s all fun.

Three Birds on a Wire

Besides, once you get into kites it’ll give you a whole new perspective on the world. We all live under the same sky. We all fly in the same wind. And when someone tells us to get lost, we all get to go outside and play.

Go Fly A Kite Poster

– Tom

Posted in Kite, Kite Aerial Photography | 7 Comments »

Then and Now

Posted by Tom Benedict on 08/11/2013

I recently did a KAP session that brought me back to my first experiences with kite aerial photography. For anyone who reads my blog, some or all of this will be old hat except for the bit at the end. Feel free to skip ahead. If this is your first exposure to kite aerial photography, I hope the following doesn’t bore you to tears. There’s a fun story here.

Back when I first started doing kite aerial photography, I used a Nikon Coolpix 5600 in a Brooxes BBKK rig. I initially bought all the bits for a bare rig, but after my first couple of flights I ordered a leg kit and a set of PeKaBe blocks. This whole mess was driven by an ancient Futaba 72MHz radio, and had to be aimed “blind” by looking at the camera, looking at the subject, tripping the shutter, and hoping.

Current Setup

Despite the way that sounds, it worked great. I learned how to fly. I learned how to aim. I flew every chance I had, and produced a lot of good photographs. I had more hair back then, too, and most of it hadn’t turned gray yet.


Kids and time took a toll on the hair, and sometimes the KAP contributed to the graying process as well. But it was a lot of fun.

I’m a firm believer in “good enough”. “Good enough” is what I fly every time I do KAP. “Good enough” is what we do at work most of the time because “perfect” costs too much and takes too long. But I’m also a tinkerer. “Good enough” is a good reason to continually improve on what you have, because no matter how good “good enough” is, it can always be better.

Eventually I changed out the camera to a Canon A650 IS. In terms of image quality it was a massive step forward over the Nikon 5600, which was already old when I first stuck it on a kite. But it was heavier. So in making that change I had to move away from one of my “I can make it better” adventures, which was to make my rig lighter. To improve the camera I had to go in the opposite direction.

KAP Rig August 2009

The A650 treated me well, too. The improvement in image quality drove me to try new things and push myself as a KAPer and as a photographer. During this time a combination of wanting to do verticals as well as horizontals, and an overall improvement in panorama stitching software convinced me that I needed to be able to change the orientation of the camera in-flight. So I took my aging BBKK rig and added a plan-rotation, or horizontal/vertical (HoVer) axis.

Sit 'n Spin

I also upgraded the pan axis gears, changed the radio over to 2.4GHz, and made a ton of other changes as well. But that’s neither here nor there…

Bit by bit my rig was getting heavier, but more capable. I returned to some of the places I’d done KAP with my Nikon 5600, and continued to travel to new places I had never before tried KAP. It was a real workhorse.

BBKK HoVer 3

I found myself pushing it more and more. Finally I convinced myself that doing KAP in the golden hour was the way I wanted to go. But there was no way to get the high shutter speeds necessary for the A650 to perform well without introducing horrific noise to the photographs. So I took the plunge and swapped it out for a DSLR, a Canon T2i.
T2i KAP Rig - Front

More camera. More weight. But it was a good move. Not for the reasons I’d imagined, though. True, the T2i let me do KAP in the golden hour, and I used it that way when I could.

Hapuna Prince Late in the Day

But I found that the golden hour doesn’t apply to KAP the same way it applies to tripod photography. Don’t get me wrong. Good light is good light. But sunset silhouettes from the air just don’t work the same as they do from a tripod. If the entire ground is in silhouette, you might as well not be flying a kite.

Hapuna Prince at Sunset - Corrected

The real strength of the T2i in the air was its capability to generate 14-bit RAW images. Early on I learned that doing KAP at rocky beaches resulted in photographs with dark, muddy rocks and blown out white surf. I was never happy with my rocky beach KAP. The reason is that the scene was presenting more than the 8 stops of range I could represent in an 8-bit JPG image. With the camera metering the average of the scene, the rocks were darker and the surf was brighter than the image could handle. And by metering the surf or the rocks, the rest of the scene went to pot. But a 14-bit RAW can contain roughly 14 stops of information. Through careful post-processing, details that would’ve been lost in a JPG could be recovered from the RAW file.

Why I Like RAW

In almost every respect, my KAP setup had become a tripod in the sky. I could use the same camera, the same lenses, bring home the same 14-bit images, and use the same processing as if I had made the pictures from a tripod. The only remaining step, of course, was a viewfinder that let me see what the camera was seeing.

I spent an unfortunate amount of time trying to get a video system to work. This was back when FPV systems for RC airplanes and helicopters were in their infancy. The hard lessons had not been learned, so there were stumbling blocks aplenty. But eventually the FPV community came up with some more reliable systems, one of which worked for me.

chillKAP Closeup

(Though this is, of course, Rydra who’s operating the KAP rig… I was the one photographing her. My fingernails aren’t that color.)

Which more or less brings us to today.

T2i Rig Midair #2

Six years of KAP, six years of change. Most of it has been good, even the non-KAP stuff.

One of those changes was an update to our building at work. Electrical costs keep rising, so our management made the decision to install a photovoltaic system to offset some of those costs. Not being the kind of people to do things halfway, they paved the roof with panels – 562 of them. At 260WDC apiece, it winds up being 121kW of AC power. I could see the work being done from the ground, but I couldn’t help wondering… What would it look like from the air?!

Our headquarters building has a funky roofline that looks great from the ground. Back in 2007 when I first got into KAP, I did a session over it to see what the roofline looked like from the air. The Nikon 5600 only really worked well for KAP under hard sunlight, so I did the flight during my lunch hour. The wind was marginal, but it was good enough. The session went well, and I came home with a number of good photographs.  It’s been a familiar KAP subject ever since. I still have a print of our building from that first KAP session in 2007 hanging on my office wall.

Because of my familiarity with the subject, I had a good idea where I wanted to position the camera for this new set. All that was left was to do it. The wind was rotten at lunch time, so I did the flight in the evening after work. The wind was better than it was back in 2007, but an overcast sky made the light a little more blah than I was after. Still, the session went amazingly well. The video feedback let me frame each photograph just the way I wanted it, my aging BBKK rig performed flawlessly, and the T2i delivered a solid set of RAW files for me to work from. That night after processing the photos I sent some of the pictures out via email to our company. Our Operations Manager came in a couple of days later to comment on the pictures and saw that print of the 2007 picture hanging on my wall. “Hey! You should do a side-by-side comparison. Show then and now, you know?”

I still had all the original files from that flight back in 2007 burned to CDROM sitting on my desk. I pulled up the original, got a better crop of it, and stuck it beside the one I’d just done.

Then and Now

Despite the slightly different angles, I couldn’t help comparing the two. I’ve made a lot of changes to my gear through the years: camera, radio, video, new axes, you name it. But pulling up the original JPG from that old Nikon 5600 really brought home how good I had it back then, too. All the improvements I’ve made have been marginal compared to the KAP itself. Kite, rig, camera: that’s where the real magic happens. The details are just… details.

– Tom

Posted in Kite Aerial Photography, Photography | 4 Comments »


Posted by Tom Benedict on 07/11/2013

Sorry, no pictures this time…

Ember has had a really rough recovery. Almost half a year ago he was hit by a car. The impact shattered his right rear femur into five pieces, tore his urethra, and ruptured his bladder. Over the course of several months he had numerous surgeries, came close to dying several times, and went through enough physical therapy to constitute torture. He came home from his last procedure a month ago.

Within days he became more and more sluggish, his spine began to twist off to one side, and he lost his ability to urinate or defecate. He was massively constipated. It took the vets two days to clear his colon, but eventually he came home for a second time, this time with medication. Within two weeks he was back at the vet having his colon evacuated a second time.

Constipation is a common side-effect with traumatic injuries in cats. But Ember’s problems were compounded by his crooked posture resulting from the injuries to his leg. His vet sent him home with us and asked us to observe him and consider one last option.

I spent last weekend watching him, holding him, petting him, and… yeah… cramming medicine down his throat three times a day. It’s clear he’s suffering from chronic pain. Likewise it’s clear he’s got permanent nerve damage in his leg. Some parts of it are ultrasensitive to touch. Others are completely numb to it. He rarely knows where it is, and several times it was trapped by chairs, couch cushions, or doorways. I helped him to free his leg every time I saw him get stuck, but I could tell he hated it.

Saturday night when it was time for his evening medication, I found him out in the front yard chasing a mouse. It was heart-warming to see him being a cat again, but during the hunt his bad leg flopped forward and wound up covering the mouse. He couldn’t feel it under him, and he couldn’t figure out where it had gone. It all but broke my heart. That night Rydra and I talked it over and came to the same decision the vet had last week.

This morning I dropped Ember off at the vet to have his leg amputated.

– Tom

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Slope: Kua Bay

Posted by Tom Benedict on 04/11/2013

The most consistent slope I have within decent driving distance of my house is the pu`u (cindercone) just south of Kua Bay on the Big Island of Hawaii. It’s about a forty minute  drive by car, and is on the way to Costco. So once every two weeks when we do our big Costco buy, I essentially get a free trip to the slope. So long as I can pack some planes in the car along with the coolers we normally take, I’m good to go.

Walking In

There’s no fence to climb, no gate to go through, no nothing. The trail starts just off the access road to Kua Bay and takes you either to the north peak or the south peak, depending on which branch you follow. The north peak is considerably higher, and is the preferred slope, but it’s only good when the wind is coming out of the north. Most of the time the southern peak – or rather the southern ridge – is where you wind up, as I did in that photo.


Launching is dead nuts easy off this slope. There are no obstructions to steer around. Just toss and fly.


And the flying is nice. The lift zone is a little flat, so once you drop below the horizon you really have to work to get back up into it. With a light enough plane and good conditions you can get way up in the lift, almost twice the height of the pu`u. But at that altitude the lift is pretty minimal. Because of the shape of the ridge, the lift falls off rapidly to either side as well. When you’re facing directly into the wind, there’s almost no lift zone on the left side. The wind rolls around the shoulder of the cindercone. On the right, however, because of the other peak, you can still get lift even 45 degrees to the wind. So the flying tends to be a little asymmetric. But it’s all good.

It didn’t happen the last time I was out there, but on occasion tropic birds will fly the lift off this slope as well. It’s pretty neat to be there, flying your plane, and have a bird or two drop in to check you out. It’s humbling, too, when they eventually get bored, twist a wing, and shoot up effortlessly into the sky.

Walk of Shame

The only real problem with this site is the landing zone and the slope itself. It’s all rock. There are some trees, but they all have thorns that like to tear wing covering. All of my ridge-top landings were hand-caught the day these pictures were made, simply to spare the plane from the wear and tear. But because the wind was weak, I had a ton of landings down-slope. The only thing for it is to hike down, grab your plane, and hike back up. On days like this one I find myself wishing for a little grass.

If you decide to go flying from this slope, be sure to wear sunscreen and a hat (both of which I forgot this day), and bring plenty of water (which I also forgot). The sun can be punishing, and there’s the hike at the beginning and end to contend with.

I brought two planes this day, but only really wound up flying the Zagi 5C wing. I launched my Le Fish a couple of times, but I’m still not 100% happy with the balance on it, and this just wasn’t the slope to test on. That’ll have to wait for another day and a different slope.

– Tom

P.S. All the photos in this set were done by Rydra. She has way more patience with me than I deserve.

Posted in RC Airplanes | 2 Comments »