On a bad day, I would spend most of my time untangling the two flying lines, running frantically backwards to no avail time and time again, dealing with the frustration of the parent or brother who had to throw the kite back into the air after each crash and then, when I gave up, spending ages getting the air out of the tail so that I could roll it up. Before the Peter Powell kite arrived, we children had made various attempts at making a kite out of sticks, paper and a piece of string – most were very disappointing and ended up stuck in trees. The best things about the Peter Powell kite were the dual control lines and its robust construction. Mine crashed into the ground on numerous occasions but it was easy to repair and would be back in the air quite quickly (as long as your ‘thrower’ hadn’t got bored and gone home for a cup of tea!).
Here is a link to a YouTube video of someone flying stunt kites in stacks of 3-6. They look wonderful flying together like this. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJXv5Lt06_s
Trying to describe the thrill of kite flying reminded me of the descriptions of the thrill of flying in our two aviation titles – The Boys’ Book of Aeroplanes and Sky Roads of the World. Amy Johnson and Hubbard and Turner are far better at describing what it is like to fly than I am at describing kite-flying. Of course, when these authors were flying they were doing so when manned flight was at the exciting visceral stage, where they stared death in the face on numerous occasions and when the skills needed to fly a plane made of balsa wood, paper and wire were being learned through trial and error by everyone.
The Boys’ Book of Aeroplanes was written only nine years after the Wright brothers made their first successful motor-driven flight. Here Hubbard and Turner describe the thrill of flying in an aeroplane for the first time:
The machine is held back, the motor started by swinging the propeller, and the wild clamour of the motor arises, obliterating all other sounds. The pilot seated by him raises his arm, the machine is released and rushes over the ground, and before the passenger has time to realise it, the machine is in the air, climbing steadily. Glancing right and left he sees the country spreading out like a map, and then looking down he sees the ground, far below, shrinking between his feet. The wind blows hard in his face, but it is not unpleasant, and he soon gets used to it, and also hardly notices the unending roar of the motor behind him. Movements of the pilot's hand and foot on lever and cross-bar footrest send the machine turning, tilting over towards the side to which the turn is made. There is no sensation of giddiness, certainly none of fear; he feels as secure as in an armchair in his own home. Far below, now, he can see the roofs of the aeroplane sheds, and the little black dots, which are in reality men, moving very slowly over the ground. Another turn, and the machine is passing over a belt of trees, and for the first time he feels an indescribable thrill - a thrill of inexplicable pleasure. To fly over the tops of trees is to experience a mystical exultation; flying over grass is nothing, over houses nothing, over water a mere incident, but over trees is a mysterious delight - a riddle that a Sphinx might propound but no Oedipus ever satisfactorily answer.
Another half-circle and the machine heads back towards the sheds, and then the pilot, momentarily turning his face, shouts two words which the passenger fails to hear, but assumes, and rightly, to be "Hold tight!" The nose of the machine suddenly dips sharply downwards, and immediately the noise of the motor ceases, for the pilot has switched off for a glide. The passenger grips the upright spar on his right very tightly, thrusting his legs very firmly against the foot-rest. He misses the noise of the motor now it has stopped, though previously he had been hardly conscious of it. He hears the wind singing against the planes and wires, and sees between his feet the ground rushing up to meet him. High up, the ground, by a simple optical delusion, seems to move very slowly, but increases its apparent motion the nearer one is to it. Faster and faster flows the ground, and then, obeying a slight movement of the lever, just as the passenger imagines a collision with the earth is inevitable, the machine gradually straightens out; there is an almost imperceptible shock at the moment the wheels touch; the machine runs along the ground, losing speed rapidly, and finally stops; and the passenger, his mind still in a whirl with his novel experiences, finds himself at the door of the shed. There is no noise, no rushing wind, only a few spectators standing in front of the machine asking him casual questions which he cannot, for the life of him, answer. He wants to sit still and think, but he is hustled out of his seat, and becomes, to his growing disgust, a mere crawling pedestrian once more.
Fantastic. This description is followed by an even more dramatic description of what it is like to make your first solo flight. Amy Johnson too, a few years later in Sky Roads of The World, is eloquent about the excitement and sheer joy of flying:
As dawn breaks you are treated to such a vision of beauty that you find it difficult to concentrate on the prosaic tasks of fuelling your plane and preparing for the take-off. Brilliant stars in black velvet sky have gently faded away, gracefully giving first place to the rising splendour of the sun. Knowing full well our poor eyes could not stand the sudden sight of an African sun in all its glory, it first sends out faint warning rays of pearly grey, shading to lemon, then pale rose and dim gold, growing ever deeper and more intense till suddenly, as though losing patience, it bursts with dazzling radiance on the uncaring world.
Breathing the dry, tonic air, you jump aboard your plane, longing to be away in the light blue sky, already feeling the fascination of the desert.
First you will be flying over the oasis belt. Tiny groups of mud huts shining whitely in the glowing sun nestle amongst clumps of towering green palms. Some of the ground between is stony and rocky, much of it covered with a fine film of sand. South of the oasis of Tarhit, to my mind most beautiful of them all, stretch three hundred miles of golden sand dunes, wave after enormous wave, as though some god had stretched his arm over a restless sea, petrifying its restlessness into waves of stone.
Amy was the first to see many parts of the world from the air. What a privilege to be the first to appreciate our beautiful planet in a completely new way.
Escaping gravity was the desperate dream of so many people for centuries. It took so long for them to work out the science of flying but that didn't stop them trying. It was only when the Wright brothers grasped the scientific method – proper experimentation (and without killing yourself in the process) – that the answer finally revealed itself. The Wright brothers’ experiments in flight is covered in some detail in The Boys’ Book of Aeroplanes. What is so delightful about the two descriptions above is that they demonstrate that those centuries of effort proved to be worth it – flying was a wonderful experience, particularly for those flying in an open cockpit, ‘close to the wind’.
Oh I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunwards I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-spilt clouds – and done a thousand things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence, hovering there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air,
Up, up the long delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace,
Where never lark, or even eagle flew;
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
Kite-flying is as close as many of us can, or wish to, come to the experience of physically controlling an air-borne object. It does require patience and a certain amount of determination. One day someone will create a kite that you can get into the air on your own, without needing a bored parent or sibling to launch it for you. Also, a kite whose control lines didn’t get tangled would be a great innovation. Sadly, kite-flying has been out of fashion for some time and many children prefer the artificial thrill of simulated flying on their tablet or computer. Perhaps adults who remember the Peter Powell stunt kite can take a lead, get out into the fresh air and show their children or grandchildren what they are missing.