Sunday, March 03, 2013

In This Kind of Flying, Wind is Your Friend

By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor

I was standing in a kite shop in Lincoln City, Oregon a couple of years back – just across Highway 101 from one of the West's most notable kite flying beaches – when I noticed my wife looking at me like I was really diving off the deep end this time.

This wasn't just the usual "are you nuts?" kind of look, but more of a concerned look, like the one the late, great Evel Kneivel's significant other might have gave him when he told her he was going to jump the Snake River on a motorcycle.

Maybe the reason I was getting the Evel eye from Julie was this:
My regular readers know I love to fly kites, and about five years ago, I discovered the truly awesome fun I could have flying my 48" Parafoil dual-control acro kite. Think small, steerable parachute exactly like the ones used by most skydivers today, only hand controlled...that's a parafoil kite. But in my quest to want bigger, faster, more...I was in Lincoln City buying a GIGANTIC parafoil kite that was not four feet wide, but FOUR METERS (just over 13') across. This is the same design as I had been flying, but with about three times the thrust. It is the exact kite you would pick if you wanted to be pulled across an empty parking lot on rollerblades like a crazed X Games wannabe.
See, the small Parafoil I had been enjoying really yanks at your hands when the wind kicks up into the 15-25 knot range. Even in a nice park-like breeze of 6-10 knots, a parafoil kite can fly horizontally in a 180-degree arc in about two seconds. Take that design onto one of Oregon's famous windy beaches and you had better keep it out of the "power zone" which lies straight off your nose low on the horizon. With the wind at your back, a parafoil catches 100% of the wind in that power zone, and even the 48" model will pull you off balance if you don't keep full control when the wind gusts.

So to multiply that flying experience by about three is a complete rush. Unlike my "small" parafoil which comes with two tiny dacron strings that you hold for control, my mondo parastunter has a three-foot-wide aluminum "control shaft" with motorcycle-like handgrips that are SECURELY fastened to 300-pound test line. Visualize a trapeze and you will imagine the control rig of this huge kite.
With a keen eye on the wind, I launch what I call "Kite Grande" and try to keep it out of the power zone long enough to get my feet securely planted in the sand. These parafoils can be gentle in a slight breeze, and are extremely controllable. You can steer with precision, making them stall directly overhead before looping violently many times rapidly towards the ground. But when the wind starts gusting, I can crank and bank this big kite like a pro. Have you ever seen those kite surfer dudes get pulled off a wave and fly forever...being lifted along by, yep...a parafoil similar to mine? That's kind of what can happen when you lose concentration and balance at the same time flying large kites. Once you lose it and the kite is winning, the operator's only save is to dive it hard right or left out of the power zone, or somehow aim it straight up to stall it overhead.
I have to be careful on the beach with this thing, because with the mega-lift it creates, I can find myself on a direct route to Hawaii if I lose focus and let it get the best of me. Each flight is Man versus Kite, my wit and physicality versus Aeolus, God of the winds. I win, and the people on the beach get quite the stunt show. It wins, and my two-hundred(ish) pound frame can get yanked around like a rag doll. It's the Xtreme version of dinking around a park with your child, flying boring little paper kites.

So far, I have always won. Flying a gigantic kite is like flying an airplane, it helps to have focus, and stay ahead of it at all times. But like an airplane, the alternative can slap you silly.