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Reasons I Left the AKA

Posted by Tom Benedict on 23/02/2014

A couple of years ago I let my membership with the American Kitefliers Association lapse. A bunch of stuff was going on at the time: Rydra was getting a craniotomy to remove a brain tumor. I’d just been assigned the task of designing and building the mechanics of two CCD cameras for a new instrument. And artistically I was in the dumps when it came to kite aerial photography. When the renewal notice came in the mail, I didn’t even open it.

I originally joined so I could take part in the annual AKA KAP photo competition. The competition takes place at the AKA Annual Conference, an event I’ve never been able to afford to travel to. The rules are simple: Print up to three photos made using a camera suspended from a kite, and mail them to the AKA rep by the due date so they can be presented at the convention for review. Conference attendees vote on the photos, and the winner is declared on the last day of the convention. Only members in good standing with the AKA can compete. When I let my membership lapse, I let my ability to enter the competition lapse as well.

I had opportunities to rejoin the AKA. Rydra recovered from the brain tumor. I finished the two cameras for the new instrument. And I eventually got back into kite aerial photography and photography in general. The Annual Convention came, the competition was announced, and still I didn’t renew. Maybe next year. Or maybe not. I just didn’t feel a need to rejoin.

When I was a member of the AKA I got Kiting magazine. The format for Kiting typically includes a cover story – usually a convention – contributed articles – usually about conventions or competitions – and the reports from the Regional Directors – usually covering conventions and competitions. Oh! And one KAP article. Except for the KAP article, I really didn’t get a lot out of it. My Regional Director never once mentioned the state I live in, never once covered an event out here, and his report never really had much in it that applied to me. Increasingly, I got the feeling that if I wasn’t on the competition or convention circuit, I wasn’t really doing kites. Not the way the AKA expected me to, anyway.

I also got on the AKA’s online forums. Just like Kiting magazine, these mostly focused on competitions, conventions, and why the AKA has such a hard time attracting and keeping members. I tried to contribute to the forums, but I never got the feeling my input was ever really read. Apparently my version of kiting just didn’t apply. Over time I quit logging in. There wasn’t really anything there for me.

About a year ago I got into RC airplanes. Gliders, specifically. No, they didn’t take the place of kites for me. In a way I learned to appreciate kites even more for how cleanly they use the wind and the air. And I joined the Academy of Model Aeronautics – the AMA. So when my shiny new AMA membership card arrived in the mail, I was eager to see what the AMA’s approach was like.

For starters the publication I got, Park Pilot, covered a lot more ground than Kiting. Articles covered choosing a radio, choosing a plane, new gear reviews, how-to construction articles, tips on flying aerobatics, tips on approaches and landings, how to put together a crash kit for the field, and how to fly safely. There were even articles about competitions, but they were never the entire focus of the magazine. As a beginner, and even after a year, I felt represented.

Over time I gravitated toward sailplanes. I was a little alarmed to find out that it’s an incredibly competitive branch of model aeronautics. Speed records are set by high-end carbon composite dynamic slope soarers. Precision soaring events are won by carbon kevlar bagged wing ships flown to within a second on a clock. Timed pylon events are run using only the lift generated on slopes. I’m not a competitive guy. I fly to have fun. The AKA’s focus on competition was one of the things that drove me off. The deeper I dug into sailplanes, the less I thought there could be a place there for a guy like me.

To my delight I found that there was. RC Soaring Digest, a volunteer-published magazine for RC soaring enthusiasts, covers these competitions, but unlike Kiting it also covers construction techniques, walks around full-sized sailplanes, travel articles showcasing wonderful places to see and fly, historical articles on record attempts, even articles covering people like me who just want to put a plane up and have a good time. It’s all fair game.

Eventually I joined the RCGroups forum. Though not an official part of the AMA, the RCGroups forum is, nonetheless, the online watering hole for all things RC. There are forums there to discuss competitions and rules. But there are also forums to discuss scale modeling, DIY electronics, radios and radio mods, foam planes, home-built planes, slope planes, thermal planes, jets, helicopters, multirotors, seaplanes, you name it. If it can be flown, it’s represented. If it can be stuck in something that flies, it’s represented. And when someone like me gets on and posts a wacky idea, people read it and comment on it. Sometimes they even get excited about it.

Between the KAP Forum, the AMA, RCGroups, and RC Soaring Digest, I had my interests covered. I was disappointed the AKA wasn’t part of it, but such is life.

Some months back there was a proposed rule change for the annual AKA KAP competition. I weighed in as a KAPer, and non-KAP members of the AKA weighed in as well. The discussion was very slanted. One non-KAP participant implied that KAPers were basically greedy bastards for not donating their prints to the AKA convention auction at the end of the competition. Another questioned that sending prints to the competition could cost upwards of a hundred dollars or more, arguing that a Walgreens print only costs $25 to print and ship. (Walgreens?! Do they use Hahnemule paper and archival inks?) When KAPers pointed out that maybe… just maybe… someone who has put thousands of dollars and hours into their art might not be satisfied with a drugstore print, the non-KAPers basically blew them off. End result? No changes to the rules. Don’t like ’em? Don’t play.

So I didn’t.

Today I got email from the AKA saying how regrettable it was that I hadn’t renewed my membership, and asking me to participate in a survey so they could better serve the kiting public. So I participated. The questions were good. Why did I leave? Why didn’t I renew? What did the AKA offer that I most valued? What would it take to get me back? I answered as truthfully as I could.

Reading back through my answers to the questions, I was a little surprised at how acerbic I was. But the more I thought about it, the less I wanted to change what I wrote. Because in the end it was the truth. This is why I didn’t renew. This is why I don’t plan to come back. And this is what it will take to attract kiters like me. Want to attract new members? Learn to bend.

– Tom

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