Gonzo Death Traps From the Early Days of Aviation: Man-Lifting Kites

Before airplanes were perfected for reconnaissance, WWI-era armies used man-carrying kites as their eyes in the sky. 

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National Archives

It's 1918, and wartime aviation is still in its infancy. The airplane is not even two decades old, and dirigibles and hot air balloons are all too easy targets for advancing artillery units. For a brief time on the battlefields of WWI, kites -- the oldest method of aviation -- fill a technological hole in battlefield reconnaissance.  

Compared to the other available modes of aviation, man-lifting kites were lightweight, portable, and quick to the air. Once aloft, the "pilot" could survey the battlefield and signal enemy positions down to the ground. They could be assembled and dissembled quickly, and could be flown at various altitudes.     

The above image depicts an army test flight of a kite system designed by Samuel F. Perkins, a Boston based kite maker and promoter. But even at this time, Perkins was playing catch up with Europe's kite technology. "The American effort was really sporadic," Scott Skinner, founder of the Drachen Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to kite history and education, tells me. "All of the European armies experimented with these systems prior to World War I, and frankly they were a lot more serious about it and a lot more successful at it than the Americans were." The Americans would never use the kites on the battlefield, but the Germans and French had them on the fronts.

HOW DID IT WORK?

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In the top right corner of the image you can see a lead kite in the distance (I mistook it for photographic damage before Skinner pointed it out to me.) Once the kite team lifted the lead into the air and tested wind conditions, the stringer kites were flown one by one until there was enough lift to raise the "pilot" from the ground. 

The pilot's safety mechanism was his team on the ground. The crew operated a winch, reeling him closer or letting him fly further away depending on conditions. If the pilot was too heavy or carrying equipment, more kites could be added to the string to increase power. "But the bigger issue is always stability," Skinner says. "It's easy to make them fly; it's not always easy to keep them stable in all wind conditions. There was a real element of danger." If the kite line became too vertical, it could careen out of control.

These dangerous shortcomings were realized by Perkins himself, when, during a 1912 test flight at 200 feet, he lost control of the kite. An article in a edition of Electrician and Mechanic from that year recounts how he survived, explaining "the many kites by which he was suspended... parachuted and prevented him from dashing to death on the earth."

But there were other -- perhaps more stable -- man-lifting kite designs abroad.

Samuel Franklin Cody was an American expatriate in Britain who, after a successful career in the theater business, became interested in aviation. He was the first man in Great Britian to pilot a motorized plane, and he also invented this winged box-kite system (resembles a prototype batplane, no?), known as Cody kite system, seen in the images below.

This system could be flown up to 3,000 feet in the air. Compared to the Perkins system, it was more stable because it only relied on one rigging, rather than a string of kites.  

But the practical uses on the battlefield were always limited. The kite operator was still something of a target, although the light waving of the kites would provide a bit of  a challenge for gunmen. After the war, the airplane rendered man-lifting kites obsolete, at least for military purposes. Done with lifting people, they were used for aerial photography. Traces of the man-carrying kite concept can be seen in modern paragliders pulled by boats, and, of course, in experiments by weekend hobbyists.

The early days of aviation inspired all sorts of gonzo experiments in aviation. Looking back, steam engine-powered helicoptersbat-wing glider suits and, even a few decades later, merry-go-round plane launchers, seem like dead-ends of engineering. But perhaps such experimentation should be expected -- people are, after all, inclined to dream of ways to lift us very earth-bound humans into the sky. 


Presented by

Brian Resnick is a staff correspondent at National Journal and a former producer of The Atlantic's National channel.

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