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High altitude kite flying history
In the early part of the modern era of kite flying, that is 1880 to 1930, the majority of high altitude kite flying was conducted at weather stations in Europe and the United States. After a break of nearly 40 years, recreational kites, including the delta became more readily available and cheaper and by 1965 there were dozens of plastic kite designs including the "bat kite" and other delta derivities. These new light weight kites and and the advent of synthetic materials enabled any child to afford a kite and some would let all their string out to soar their kites to 300 or 400 ft above the ground and sometimes higher. Their are always those amongst us who want to push the limits and are facinated by reaching the boundaries of their physical world. In 1969, a team of Gary Indiana highschool students, with support from the Gayla Kite company, flew a train of 19 plastic delta kites on nylon fishing line. They claim over 35,000 ft above ground level was reached and they maintain line out and a catenary equation were good enough to support their claim for record altitude. Guinness intially supported their claim but later it was disallowed because they calculated altitude from line out and flying angle is not valid evidence It is possible, but I doubt very much that they achieved this height, however, despite my croticisms, it was a commendable effort. My main criticism is the kites were not returned to the launch point. This is vital prerequisite of a successful kite flight and also deliberately allowing over 50.000 ft of fishing line into the environment is bordering on environmental vandalism. This issue is also a major flaw of the Lindenburg train flight of 1919 when the kites were not returned to the launch point after the line broke during retrieval. The Lindenbergflights took place on a daily basis to routinely send instruments into the atmosphere. There were also frequent line breaks which sent 1,000's of metres of high tensile steel wire into the countryside. The wire was broken up by farmers ploughing or mowing the fields then ingested by cows grazing the pastures. Farmers would seek compensation when some cows had perforated intestines and died. It was rumoured that some farmers claimed fictitious stock ailments to augment their incomes.
Above: Are the types of kites that were used in Germany for high altitude flights during routine atmospheric soundings in the first quarter of the 20th century. This is at Lindenberg, site of the absolute world altitude record claim of 31,955 ft in 1919. The line broke on retrieval but luckily they recovered the instrument otherwise they had no evidence. Still a dubious claim IMO if they did not wind the kites in to the launch point. The kites were restored by the Werner Schmidt of the Lindenberg Historical Society and Museum.
Right: Richard Synergy of Toronto, Canada claimed he flew a 270 sq meter Delta to 14,509 ft above ground level on the 14th of August 2000 near Kincardine Canada. This was eclipsed in 2014 by our flight to 14,009 ft.
Image: Richard Synergy and Drachen foundation
Altitude record attempts are not part of mainstream kiting as it is a very difficult task and a narrow field of interest. Some kite fliers are encouraged by their flights to 700 - 800 ft and make claims that they will break the world kite altitude record. They soon find out it's not just a matter of buying big spools of fishing line or string, joining them together and flying the kite out of sight. I hear of more serious attempts such as Richard Crawford's in Wyoming but it seems he has given up at a commendable altitude of 6,500 ft. It is a very difficult project and the biggest barriers are lack of wind, sometimes too much wind and government regulations. It requires a great deal of patience and dogged determination once the equipment and techniques are refined. There are 2 records. One is the single kite record and the other is the kite train or multiple kites on one main line. For all the budding high flyers out there, you must have rock solid evidence. Use GPS or recording barometric altimeters at least, not some guess, estimate or inaccurate method. Line out and kite angle can never be used nor can catenary equations or an elastic catenary as the line's sag or horizontal deflection doesn't represent a gravitational catenary. For very long line lengths not only does the wind add to the sag but it actually exceeds the contribution to gravitational sag from line weight. Also due to changes in wind direction as the kite rises, the line often describes a curve to the left or right and sometimes an ess shape or in rare cases, a spiral. Line out may be 15,000 ft but the direct distance to the kite may only be 12,000 feet and vertical altitude 8,000 ft. The trigonometric calculation may yield about 10,000 ft, an error of around 20%. Although catenary equations do yeild better results, they are still much too innacurate for record verification. The only way of accuratly using trigonometric calculations is with two position telescope or theodolite measurement. This requires accurately surveyed base station positions and clear skies. Compared to GPS telemetry this is a cumbersom method requiring expertise in telescopic or theodolite measurement and does not give easy real time updates of the position and altitude of the kite. Probably the most accurat method of measuring altitude would be laser targeting with a dedicated instrument that is settup in the horizontal plane to sub second accuracy so the kite\'s elevation can be measured to sub second accuracy. The laser distance is sub centimetre accurate and in conjunction with the sub second angular measurement, will produce sub metre altitude accuracy. Unfortunately this requires cloudless skies and carrying several kg of aluminium refective targets which also carry a aerodynamic drag penalty. These instruments may cost up to $50,000 and don't provide a big enough advantage in accuracy to justify the cost.
Left: The Gayla kite company provided the 19 kites. Gary Indiana high school provided the students and a math teacher performed the catenary calculations.
Image: Gayla Kite Company via Kitelife magazine
Images: Lindenberg Museum
Late in the 19th century, a US weather station box kite, a derivative of The Hargraves Box Kite. A meteorograph is between the cells, top centre and it measures and records barometric pressure then transfers to a rolling graph paper with ink pens. Trains of these kites regularly flew over 10,000 ft.
Image: Drachen Foundation
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Image: Lindenberg Museum
The Lindenberg weather station's kite round house showing control switches and line tension dynamometer. The round house was on a turret so it could rotate to point toward the kite.