The View Up Here

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

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.

ff16

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.

Fled

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

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

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7 Responses to “A Progression of Kites”

  1. Wonderful overview – thanks Tom! I think KAP might very well become my weekend hobby during gradschool 😉

    -James

  2. Nice description of kite behaviours Tom. I like it when you write with such enthusiasm. I’m a recent convert to the ITW Levitation so I’ll have to gush about it- once it’s re-sparred its brilliant. I honestly can’t explain it but it has a kind of progressive lift capacity, you can hitch a rig to it and (provided you have a clear down wind horizon) it will absorb the load and climb; after a few metres of line you can feel it pull for more…so a 2nd rig is no problem!

    I believe the kite pivots to adapt to the load because it very rarely pulls beyond my strength. It has a truly wide wind range- provided the spreader spar is beefed up.

    Keep flying,

    Bill

  3. […] I described the evolution of my KAP rig from my first flight to the rig I use regularly today. In A Progression of Kites I described the additions I made to my kite bag over the years, and what those kites provided for […]

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