From The Flight Deck: Kite Flying Tales

From The Flight Deck: Kite Flying Tales

by Kevin R. Dingman


Just as we scribe details of a troublesome flight in our logbook, so the snowfalls and venomously-bitter cold of last winter are now recorded. Inches and feet, extreme temperatures and lessons learned; from north to south, many of these were charted as new records. Now, April showers bring May flowers, and this year we can record the arrival of spring with renewed appreciation. Soon, grass on the airports and yards will need to be mowed. Not only is it time to get out the bat, ball, glove, lawn mower and cleaning supplies, but it’s kite flying season too – if there is such a thing.

For a lot of us (Wright Brothers included), kites were one of our earliest endeavors into the flying realm, along with gliders and rubber band airplanes. Before the days of two-handled controls and rip-stop nylon, kites were made of wooden sticks covered with paper, most of them by a company called Hi-Flier. Instead of fancy handles, you flew them holding a ball of kite string with a stick through the hole in the ball’s middle. The string came from a dime-store called Woolworths, Ben Franklin or Kresge’s and the stick came from the woods – back when there were woods next to your house. If the kite was deployed in a stiff wind, the string would cause the inside of your pinky finger to bleed, completely unnoticed. Ah, those were the days.

Chemicals, Compounds and Carcinogens

In addition to kites, string, and balsa wood airplanes, the dime-store also had BB’s for your BB gun, rolls of caps for your cap gun, pocket knives, baseball cards for the spokes of your bike, model airplane glue, spray paint and all the sugar-infused
candy you could ingest – all right there on the shelves. No locks, no restrictions and no ID required. We were free to use our own judgment and if you liked your dime-store, you could keep it. Unfortunately, this freedom also allowed the purchase of candy cigarettes, over-the-counter codeine and morphine, lead-based paint, rat poison with arsenic, insecticides with DDT, and a host of other products laced with hazardous chemicals, compounds, and carcinogens. Adults perused the aisles of the store smoking their Winston, Lucky Strike, Camel and Marlboro cigarettes. Perhaps it’s best, after all, that the government intervened with some product and social regulations to make our kite shopping less hazardous.

In the spring, we went to the dime-store for our kites; Dad selected a box-kite and we three boys were given the diamond-shaped ones. I didn’t like box-kites and never understood why until I was older; it was the aesthetics. Dad’s box-kites were square and never had a tail. A square doesn’t look very aerodynamic, and a kite just isn’t a kite without a tail. Mom let us tear up old pillow cases and bed sheets to make tails for our more streamlined-looking diamond kites. Three or four two-foot sections of linen, tied together with granny knots, made a fine tail. Their diamond shape, along with a tail, made them look agreeable, like the two-seat, twelve-cylinder Jaguar, the Beech Duke and runner sleds. And not so much like a Volkswagen van, Piper Apache or toboggan. Now I understand: the square box kite, without a tail, wasn’t sexy.

After construction, failure to get the kite airborne was both common and frustrating. Without the guiding assurances from Dad, it often seemed impossible. And, once aloft, the ability to keep it airborne was not to be taken for granted. If the wind was to change speed, or shift direction, the string could go slack and the fragile paper kite would either flutter pathetically to the ground tail-first or point its nose at the earth, thereby increasing tension on the string and impacting the ground just below the speed of sound. A kite with no tail has nothing for its flier to work with to stabilize it when there are shifts in the wind. In a light, steady wind, that’s fine, but it’s a good idea to add a tail, in case the wind shifts speed or direction.

Once stabilized in the air, learning to maneuver around and away from obstructions was the next milestone. Even Charlie Brown found it necessary to explain to the Peanuts gang the formidable truism of the “kite-eating tree.” As a novice kite flyer, the learning curve was thusly fraught with setbacks, disappointments and broken kites. Once mastered, however, the full therapeutic effect of a bloody crook in your pinky finger could be realized.

Perhaps there was a deeper meaning to kite flying than Dad and we boys realized. After all, we were just a bunch of kids (Dad included) playing outside and getting grass stains on our jeans. By donating her linens, Mom not only got the four of us out of the house, but she had facilitated stability. Innately, Mom let us tear up pillow cases because she knew that the winds of life are never steady for long; especially when raising children. For her three boys, kite flying was an early success and confidence builder. Once older, we got involved with Dad’s RC model airplanes, but, even armed with the confidence gained from kite flying, we never developed the skills and patience that he had for building planes. But still, I fell in love with the processes, smells, mechanics and aesthetics of kites and airplanes.

Another spring “togetherness” ritual, and one not so enthusiastically anticipated, was washing and waxing the cars. Waxing Dad’s Ford Mustang, which I hoped would someday be mine, was a labor of love. Kites, model airplanes and the Mustang are the reasons I still like to get hands-on with the maintenance and cleaning of airplanes. And the warm, kite-flying air provides an opportunity to do just that, to clean out the hangar and wash our plane, enthusiastically. There are a million products for cleaning and polishing boats, cars and airplanes and, fortunately, we can still purchase some pretty serious solvents and cleaning products from the dime-store, some of them not so good for all parts of the plane or our skin. I begin by pulling the Duke around the corner and running a leaf blower through the hangar to blow out the winter dust bunnies, dirt and other bits of wintertime stuff. I’m still finding some sawdust and drywall powder from building the office. If ambitious, you can next throw a few buckets of soapy water on the floor and squeegee it out.

Sponge Bath

After the hangar is clean, a warm, soapy sponge bath is in order, top to bottom and front to back – for the plane, that is. When administering the sponge bath, pay close attention to the areas most affected by winter ground operations. There are areas, though, where a sponge bath is not enough to do the job, and certain grime needs more effort. But, if you use the wrong products or techniques, disaster may ensue. And be careful with the idea of using a power washer; especially on hinges, locks, landing gear and in the wheel wells. All that grease in those Zerk fittings is there for a reason. Behind the cabin combustion heater’s exhaust, engine nacelles and the entire underside of the plane, for example, more serious chemicals, compounds and carcinogens are needed. For the interior, it’s time to remove the winter-grimed floor mats, clean the carpet and upholstery, dust and clean the instrument panel, take out the blankets and sanitize the O2 masks. Maybe even clean the honey pot and its surroundings…. maybe.

Kites and Kids

It was easier to get the kids to clean the plane than it was the cars, and my kids enjoyed the trips we’ve taken in airplanes – even the ones on the airlines. They can certainly handle the controls of an airplane, but none ever developed an interest in becoming a pilot. I hadn’t thought much about why. Maybe it’s because we never flew kites – not even an ugly box kite. How did I let that happen? “The cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon….” I suppose. With springtime chores looming, kite flying may again have to wait, but “we’ll get together then…you know we’ll have a good time then.”

If you’re accustomed to hiring someone to clean the airplane, I encourage you to reconsider and do the sponge bath part yourself. Take the kids along, even the grown-up ones. Check the operating manual for compatibility of products and then make a trip to your dime-store for some chemicals and compounds. Maybe you should pick up a kite and some string while you’re there. Next, get permission and snag some linens from home to use as rags; take some extra – she’ll understand. You never know when the winds will change and you might want to use the extras to make a kite tail, in order to make a kite tale, even if it cuts into your pinky finger. I wish I had.

DingmanKevin Dingman has been flying
for 40 years. He’s an ATP typed in the B737 and DC9 with 20,000 hours. A retired Air Force Major, he flew the F-16 then performed as a USAF Civil Air Patrol Liaison Officer. He flies volunteer missions for the Christian organization Wings of Mercy, is employed by a major airline, and owns and operates a Beechcraft Duke. Contact Kevin at

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