A few years back, I tried flying a dual-line stunt kite at the Eiffel Tower. It was a violently hot day and the only wind was an occasional dry wheeze. The standard launch technique of backing the kite off the ground by yanking the grips doesn’t work in such conditions. At best, it stays aloft a few seconds before crashing to earth. There’s simply not enough wind.
While the Eiffel Tower may have been just for the birds, summer in the Windy City attracts kite fliers from all over the country. Chicago’s a natural for the pastime. But there are some unique challenges to kiting in the city: power lines are everywhere, all the parks are lined with trees, there are very few wide open spaces. FAA rules don’t permit flying above 400 feet and it’s rainy enough to deter fliers who know that: even though they’re flying with a cloth line, it’s still capable of conducting electricity when damp. Nonetheless, throughout mid-summer, the sky above the city’s lakeshore gets dotted with everything from traditional diamond kites, four-line “quad” sport kites, parafoils and seven-foot Japanese Rokkakus, or “roks,” octagonal kites with richly illustrated sailcloth front panels. Occasionally an inflatable lizard or an octopus kite shows up floating across the ether in Astrobright orange, as if it just crawled up out of Lake Michigan and took to the skies, trailing tentacles of wind-whipped Mylar.
There are several kite groups in town, ranging from amateur clubs like the Chicagoland Sky Liners to corporate-sponsored sport kite teams like the Chicago Fire. Charlie Sotich, a member of the Sky Liners since 1982, used to spend his free time building model planes. He started making kites in the 1970s after friends asked him to help them build miniatures to fly at a local festival. Sotich acquiesced and made a few out of paper napkins, usually no bigger than a postage stamp, rigged with strips of bamboo split out of a wok brush. Miniatures are still his specialty. “If I come out with a kite that’s bigger than 10 inches,” says Sotich, laughing.” I get made fun of.” The Sky Liners were most active throughout the nineties, but Sotich says it’s been difficult to motivate members recently. Locally, members of the Sky Liners prefer Cricket Hill at Montrose Park though fliers grumble that “lots of soccer playing” interrupts their open space, a predictable bump in kiting’s relationship to a crowded metropolis.
Five or six years ago, for instance, a kiter named Dave Kennedy helped the Mayor’s Office of Special Events organize the first-ever Kids and Kites Festival. Even though it was an immediate hit for kids, the event didn’t pass without controversy. Held alternatively in Lincoln Park at Montrose and at the Museum of Science and Industry, for some dedicated fliers, Daley’s contribution to kiting has been a mixed blessing.
“It’s a terrible place to fly,” the 74-year old Nelson Borelli says of the Museum of Science and Industry location. As Borelli tells it, the festival wasn’t at all what professional fliers had in mind. After paying airfare to fly in professional instructors to help kids build kites and put on demonstrations, enthusiasts realized their passion for flying was being written off as kid’s stuff. “That whole festival promotes this idea people have that kiting’s just for children. Serious kiting can’t be done by small children—it’s like sailing, for instance. You have to follow rules, exercise patience. They distribute very cheap kites every year.”
A professor emeritus of Northwestern’s Department of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine, Borelli spun off a division of the Chicagoland Sky Liners to focus his passion for single-line sport, or “Fighter” kites. Borelli describes Fighter kites as “a bit of a stepchild” in the kiting world, at least compared to dual- or quad-line sport kites. “Dual-liners with their stunt kites have been prima donnas,” Borelli snarls. “They buy their kites, often as much as $500 apiece, from companies that manufacture them for competition. It’s exciting because there’s money involved.” Borelli builds his own kites and sees Fighter kiting as requiring a more intimate facility with the craft. Distinct for their rhomboid-shape and lack of a tail, Fighter kites have two bridles, a spine in the center and a bow across the top. “Their main feature is maneuverability,” explains Borelli. “It’s a single line that you pull and that causes movement in the direction of the nose. Slack in the line causes instability in the kite and that’s how you change its direction.”
Fighter kite competitions are pretty much exactly what they sound like: originating in Southeast Asia, opponents would coat their lines with a mixture of glue and ground glass called “manjha.” Then competitors would take to the skies a distance of a mile or so from each other and attempt to sever one another’s line. In the American version of Fighter kite competitions, players don’t coat their lines and fly in much more constricted airspace, usually less than 100 feet. A judge announces whether contact with an opponent’s line will be scored from above or below and competitions are won by accumulating points.
As a serious pursuit, the honor for the ultimate kiting locale belongs not to Chicago, but further north. Dispelling the myth that kiting’s just a warm weather sport, Borelli cites Kites on Ice as by far his favorite kiting event. The festival takes place the first weekend of February at the University of Wisconsin Memorial Union in Madison. With major sponsorship by department stores and airlines, kiters are flown in from as far away as Switzerland and Japan for synchronized, Fighter and sled kiting on the frozen surface of Lake Mendota. Kites on Ice is the kiting world’s version of the Iditarod, without the danger of sled dogs devouring the corpses of their fallen masters. “It’s one of the best festivals in the world,” says Borelli.