From Discourse 11
INTRODUCTION BY SCOTT SKINNER
Flying to very high altitudes may be the most visceral of emotions for the new kite flier. It’s so easy to just continue to let out line until your kite is out of sight – only you know that the line you’re holding is connected to a flying object far out of sight. After this first experience, most of us move on, saying, “Been there, done that,” and really never test the upper limits of our personal flying spaces. But some continue to find ways to go higher and higher. Like all kite fliers, this group is limited by their environment – you just can’t “casually” fly above 10,000 feet when you’re surrounded by controlled airspace and the rules and regulations that come with it.
So the attempts to fly to very high altitudes are as much about finding an appropriate place to fly as they are about the logistics of flying line, reel, and kite. Finding a physical location that is appropriate for numerous high flight attempts, where you are away from controlled airspace, and where line breaks or kite crashes can be handled safely, is no easy task.
As an aside, I remember flying with Professor Ben Balseley on an Air Force gunnery range where we could legally fly to 18,000 feet within the area’s boundary. Flying on Kevlar line, we had a line break (a splice came loose on our capstan) and were extremely concerned with catastrophic possibilities surrounding the trailing line: caught by a passing car or truck on the highway, caught in expensive farm equipment, or simply dragged across property, pulling up fences and plants.
Bob Moore’s journey to set the world altitude record for kite flight is illustrative of a thoughtful and responsible approach. With years of experience, he has seen his share of mistakes and problems, but every year brings new technical skill, and he continues to challenge Canadian Richard Synergy’s modern altitude kite record. “Don’t try this at home,” as they say on reality TV, but enjoy reading Bob’s narrative.
A CAMPAIGN TO BREAK THE SINGLE KITE ALTITUDE RECORD
The single kite altitude record was claimed in the year 2000 by Canadian Richard Synergy at 14,509 feet above ground level.
Bob Moore, a 58 – year- old health professional from Sydney, Australia, recently made a sixth series of attempts to reset the record. Along with three fellow Australian Kite Society members, Bob has managed over 25 high altitude flights from a disused airstrip at Cable Downs, a 50,000 acre sheep station near Cobar in western New South Wales, Australia. The most recent series of flights in September 2011 saw a big Dunton-Taylor delta soar to 14,121 feet above ground level, just 388 feet from the claimed Synergy record.
A CHILDHOOD DREAM BY BOB MOORE
As a 9-year-old child in the western suburbs of Sydney, Australia, I wanted to be a meteorologist. I never did fulfill that ambition, but I did have a sense of connection to the wind and sky through kite lines. My kites became increasingly bigger and my lines longer. Although my kites would have reached just a little over 500 feet above ground level, that seemed halfway to the moon to an 11-year-old boy. Lawrence Hargrave was my hero.
At that time I lived in a neighborhood with a particularly obnoxious older boy who took great delight in teasing younger children. One day he took to shooting at my kite with an air rifle and bragging that he was going to shoot it out of the sky. I just flew my kite higher and higher until it was nearly out of sight. I read the Guinness Book of Records. An entry described the Blue Hill box kite reaching 12,471 feet in 1896. It seemed very high, but I thought if they could do it, then I could go even higher.
TURNING THE DREAM INTO REALITY
The year 2003 was a pivotal year. I had already been dabbling with kites in a local park for two years, since my two young boys were able to run about.
Receiving Maxwell Eden’s The Magnificent Book of Kites from my sister for my 50th birthday added the final ingredient to the high altitude cake. In it were designs for lots of kites, but one stood out: the Dunton Taylor (DT) delta or “fast climber.” This proved important in my quest for a suitable high altitude kite. It was the year I decided to break the world altitude record.
I flew kites to higher and higher altitudes. I flew a six foot delta through clouds to 2,300 feet, and little did I know I was breaking the law, although I found it exciting. I read of Richard Synergy’s year 2000 record claim on the internet. I built bigger and bigger versions of the DT delta that flew to even greater altitudes, but I quickly found that my line was a limiting factor and that with long line lengths, a powered winch and reel system was needed. I spent hundreds of hours researching all aspects of kite design, construction, line properties, drag, lift, atmosphere, wind, winches, and GPS (global positioning system). The years from 2003 to 2005 were trial and error, but I am a fast learner.
In early 2004, I met Michael Richards, proprietor of Kite Magic. I was looking for kite building materials. I mentioned my plan to break the altitude record and his eyes lit up. He said he would like to be part of the attempt. I thought, “Great, expert help.” He built the first big DT delta from ripstop nylon and fiberglass tube. We tested it locally and it flew extremely well without any changes to bridle settings. It is a powerful and very strong kite design with outstanding flight characteristics, developed from hundreds of hours of testing small kites in local parks. It has remained the only kite design we have used in over six years of record attempts. We currently have four of these kites and a fifth lightweight version with a carbon fiber frame.
If my calculations were correct, I needed very strong, very thin line and a winch that was not only robust enough to cope with high line tension but could operate continuously for up to 12 hours each day. I also needed somewhere to fly with safety and so discovered I required permission from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. Getting this permission and finding somewhere to fly is a story in itself.
In 2004, I built a prototype winch and purchased a box trailer. The winch would evolve through three major versions and several important modifications. I ordered 10,000 meters [about 6 miles] of 200 pound Spectra line through Michael Richards and Innotex in the USA. There were many other kite designs considered, but only five types were constructed and trialed, including delta, DT delta, Hargrave box, delta box, and winged box. I learned how to sew, and although my kites aren’t up to competition s tandard, they are s t rong and fl y exceptionally well.
In June 2004, the authorization was finalized with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA). High altitude kite flying was new to me as well as CASA. The town of Cobar was chosen because it is free of air traffic. Cobar weather station would provide wind data from routine balloon flights each morning. The first visit to Cable Downs, a sheep station near Cobar, was a trial to 10,000 feet. I was excited and a bit nervous about what may happen.
I went alone, as the team was not established yet. It was extremely taxing both physically and mentally, and conditions were hot, dry, and dusty. The long days were very draining, with flies, dust, and heat taking its toll on my energy and patience. Despite that, I managed to fly my big, black DT delta to over 4,200 feet above ground level on the first flight. The second flight on the same day was even higher at 6,500 feet, but the kite was lost when a splice on the 10,000 meter Spectra line separated at the 3,000 meter point. Another valuable lesson learned, but indirectly costing me over $6,000. I then resolved that I would not fly high altitude kites alone at Cable Downs or anywhere ever again.
Equipment used for kite altitude record attempts.
Every cloud has a silver lining (I hope), and the kite loss and subsequent search enabled me to meet local people who assisted me to recover line and the kite. I guess without these hardships, the altitude record would have less meaning. Sometimes I think this is a rationalization that allows me to continue with this quest. If it were easy, then I guess a lot more enthusiasts would be doing it. It certainly isn’t easy. I’ve read of and spoken to people who say they are going to try to break the altitude record, but I never hear of them again. I guess when they try to go beyond a few thousand feet, they soon realize there is more to this than meets the eye. It requires a lot more than a big spool of fishing line, a medium delta, a protractor, and a catenary equation [an equation used to solve for the height at which a kite is flying above ground].
Following the kite breakaway in October 2004, the testing was over, although I did try some smaller deltas and achieved 3,500 feet in light conditions. The rest of the time was spent carrying out a two day ground search for the big, black kite. I walked 60 kilometers [about 37 miles] but never found it. I saw emus in the wild, a first for me.
After I returned to Sydney, a farmer found the kite. I had been searching 12 degrees too far east due to a mix up between magnetic and grid north on GPS units. We live and learn, and I came back to Sydney fitter, slimmer, and wiser!
A lot of valuable lessons were learned in the October 2004 testing. It was a shakedown session and certainly a lot of issues were shaken out, up, and down.
The most important lesson was not to trust factory line splices. So the first task was to inspect all of the 10,000 meters of Spectra line, replacing all the splices with more generous overlaps. The Innotex factory technician maintained that 25mm overlap was sufficient, but I argued that when line is under compression, splices are unlocked. I allow a minimum of 100mm overlap, but now my lines are continuous lengths of 6,000 meters, splice free.
The second lesson was line cannot be compressed under full tension on the storage reel. A capstan and low compression storage system is required. In the six months between testing and the April 2005 series, I rebuilt the winch and obtained new 300 pound UHMWPE line (similar to Dyneema or Spectra).
I also knew that attempting the record solo was out of the question. Fortunately, I gathered together a crew including kite experts Michael Richards and Roger Martin, and Greg Moore, Hugh Moore, and David Moore. Hugh is a former survey technician. Together with David, they surveyed and established the theodolite [a precision instrument for measuring] reference points. Greg is a maintenance mechanic and looked after the winch.
A very accurate survey of theodolite reference points was carried out by a mining surveyor. These points were established to enable kite position and altitude to be determined via triangulation, but this method is only valid with clear skies. In later attempts, we have not used this technique due to lack of time and expertise needed to use the theodolites. In any case, the GPS units and the telemetry have proved more than enough for very accurate altitude verification. Theodolites are still used as a visual method of tracking kite movements.
Again, the months before the April 2005 attempts were filled with preparations, including a NOTAM (“Notice to Airmen”) zone approval to protect against aircraft incursions. There were numerous additions to the conditions for flying big kites to high altitude, but fortunately most of these conditions decreased risk of line breakage and kite loss.
The week we were at Cable Downs was characterized by hot, dry conditions with light and variable winds. Several days were spent on the disused air strip, launching and relaunching the kite in a futile attempt to force the kite above 6,500 feet. We reached that altitude on thermals with a larger 165 square meter DT delta. After four days, Michael, Roger, Hugh, and David returned to Sydney. Greg and I were left to carry on for a few more days.
On our first day, we were frustrated by wind that dropped at 4,000 feet, and we spent many hours releasing line and then counter winching, attempting to force the 120 square meter black kite through the soft patch to better winds higher up. The conditions were hot and it was easy to lose concentration, which is what contributed to a broken line. On this series of attempts, I attached a 162 MHz tracking transmitter and used a Yagi directional aerial to receive the signal. This provided some means, hopefully, to track the kite if it went down. I left the winch unattended briefly and the line caught around the winch frame, cutting the line. The kite drifted off with the tracking transmitter beeping, but the kite went down in rough country almost 25 kilometers [about 15 miles] away. About $1,300 worth of kite, line, and instruments are still out there in the bush. Despite several searches with tracking equipment, we were unable to locate the lost kite. We packed up and headed home.
I learned several more lessons, one of which was that no matter how good the kite, line, and winch, you can’t fly high without wind. The winch must be improved and the line must be treated with the utmost respect. I planned another series of attempts in October 2005, only six months after this series.
Our attempts six months earlier were hampered by hot, dusty conditions and lack of wind. For these attempts, Michael Richards, Hugh Moore, and Greg Moore were with me again. Our efforts were hampered by light and variable winds and a low level jet stream. The first few days were characterized by reasonable ground winds, but a persistent soft layer between 3,000 and 5,000 feet prevented any appreciable altitudes being attained. The best was 4,000 feet on day three.
On day four, we encountered a low level jet stream at 5,000 feet which took the kite suddenly to 7,000 feet. The winch motor struggled to control the line and burned out. We lost the kite into a neighboring property but recovered it the next morning. Much time was wasted retrieving the kite and line.
We had to abandon any further attempts.
We used telemetry for the first time at Cable Downs, which I had been testing on local fields for several months. It proved to be a very useful tool to have live data on a computer screen. It was a disappointing end to the week, but I took away more valuable lessons about the winch design and flying techniques. It became clear at that stage the limiting factor would not be equipment, as we were progressively ironing the bugs out, but the ultimate limitation would be wind or lack thereof. The late winter and early spring winds seem to offer better potential, and as a bonus, the temperature is much more pleasant for us kite fliers. However, we persisted with April for the next few series of attempts, as that was the most convenient in respect to business and work commitments.
We skipped 2006 attempts, as I had work and family to focus on. The break gave me a chance to build a new winch and refine the on-field methods we used. I purchased a new telemetry system from the USA and spent some time learning how to use the software, practicing on smaller kites in our local fields. I was now very aware of my responsibility to stay under 400 feet above the ground in Sydney’s busy airspace. The period from October 2005 to April 2007 saw a big leap forward in our equipment and knowledge.
For the April 2007 series, I had a new team member, Barry Coppenhall, a kite enthusiast from England. He specializes in Indian fighter kites. Also returning were Michael Richards and Hugh Moore.
I arrived at Cable Downs early. Barry and Michael arrived later that morning. We launched the kite around 11am, and this would prove to be a big factor in not getting near the record that day.
There was a steady breeze from the southeast. We gained altitude gradually, and by 3pm the kite had reached 10,000 feet with a few “soft spots” prolonging the ascent. However, the wind dropped from 18 to 12 knots, and we struggled for an hour just to stay at 10,400 feet.
I made the decision to start bringing the kite back, as we had to land the kite before last light, which was in three hours. In hindsight, our late start cost us the chance to work the kite higher. At 3,000 feet, the kite line broke and, although we tracked the kite with GPS telemetry, it cost us two hours retrieving the kite and line the following morning. This again robbed us of flying time on day two.
Back on the field, we spliced the recovered line onto the reel and launched kite two, a white and black DT delta, as kite one had minor damage from falling into a tree. Since the day before, the breeze had swung toward the east at 105 degrees, and several soft spots had developed from 4,000 to 9,000 feet. We eventually achieved a little over 8,300 feet, but again I think we could have added at least 3,000 feet to that given an earlier launch.
Day three was better, and we flew to over 9,100 feet, but I got the feeling the wind had passed its best at the end of day one. Three consecutive days over 8,000 feet was still pretty good.
Disappointment was the feeling for the day, with early promise turning to frustration as the wind died suddenly at 12pm and the kite was stranded three kilometers [about two miles] away. After a long walk, we eventually got the kite out of a tree. The nine hour journey back to Sydney was done in good spirits, as we had just set a new Australian record and perhaps the second highest in the world.
We had a break for two years, and in that period, I incorporated small improvements to the winch. The most significant was the addition of a line payout meter which is based on a land distance wheel. In real time we know how high the kite is, where the kite is, how much line is out to within a few meters, and line angle at the winch. The data we still needed was line tension, and the piece of equipment that measures line tension was on the way courtesy of Doug La Rock at Kite Builders Forum.
After a two year break, Michael Richards, Mike Jenkins, and Roger Martin joined me for four days of rain, storms, thunderbolts, and lightning – and 9,119 feet above ground level. We camped for the first time on the edge of the airstrip. It must have
signaled the rain gods to work their magic, as it absolutely bucketed down. However, despite the very small window of opportunity, we flew one of our big DT deltas to 9,119 feet above ground level. I also took some KAP at 2,200 feet. The equipment worked well, and there were just some minor modifications and repairs to do.
We already were planning our next series in late March or early April 2010 when I proposed an extended period at Cable Downs. Unfortunately, none of my team mates could afford to be away for two weeks.
The big change this year was that the flying field was now extended from a narrow 1.2 kilometer strip to a 1.2 x 1.5 kilometer field with scattered trees. This is a big bonus, allowing much lower line angles and more flexibility to play line in and out without fear of snagging trees.
The preparations for 2010 were bolstered by sponsorship from DSM Dyneema in Holland with supply of Dyneema fiber to Cousin-Trestec in France for braiding. While we don’t have financial sponsorship, we do have lines provided. Some parts for our winch are from Lewis Pulleys, and Universal Instruments loans us the theodolites. The lines may last one series or many series, but eventually they need replacement.
I arrived five days earlier than my team mates, but there was little wind, apart from one day when I flew our big, white and black DT Delta to 5,000 feet in warm and variable winds that ultimately died and stranded my kite two kilometers [about one mile] to the north. A long walk in hot conditions and then winching in of line through the scrub left me exhausted. I needed a beer, but I can’t have one because I’m diabetic!
When a kite goes down in this country, it always involves a winching of line through scrub and trees. While the line is very strong and slippery, it does get some wear and tear in the process. I have to visually inspect line for significant damage as it’s wound in through the trees and bushes.
I do strength testing of entire line sets from time to time. The last one was done in 2006 on a dry lake bed. It was an epic event in itself and involved stretching three kilometer [about two mile] sections of line around a fixed pulley then back to the trailer to measure tension with a strain gauge.
After I sat out the calm conditions for a few days, I was ready to break the record. But was the wind ready to cooperate?
The other guys finally arrived from Sydney. The team was the same as 2009 with me, Michael Richards, Roger Martin, and Mike Jenkins. We camped on the flying field for the second year in a row, hoping we did not get the rain we experienced last year. We didn’t get much wind but managed our best yet altitude of 10,681 feet above the ground.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to predict the wind with much accuracy beyond a few days in advance. We choose the dates for the record attempts months in advance, so mostly it’s a matter of selecting a period of the year when the mathematical chances of suitable winds occurring are at their highest. That period now seems to be late winter/ early spring, but there are no guarantees.
Our 2011 series started with a bang, as the winds were strong from the north at ground level and good to high altitude. But there were a couple of soft layers that needed several hours of counter winching to force the kite through. A team member stares intently at the computer screen calling out the kite altitude.
The kite rose quickly to 4,000 feet, then we struggled for three hours, the line threatening to sag into distant tree tops. Finally we got beyond 5,000 feet in the early afternoon. It was a smooth climb to 9,000 feet, then another soft layer needed over two hours to work the kite higher.
By 4pm, the kite had reached 12,000 feet, and we all cheered as each altitude milestone was passed. It looked like we may have the record, but time was running out. The kite then rose steadily to 14,000 feet, and we had the record of 14,509 feet in sight.
The kite stalled at around 14,100 feet. We worked the winch, hoping to coax the kite to 15,000 feet, but we spent 40 minutes in vain. I made the decision to bring the kite down, as the CASA conditions allow flying in daylight hours only.
We reached 14,121 feet, 388 feet short of the claimed record: frustrated but very pleased at the same time.
Days Two and Three
Severe weather prevailed for two days with either thunderbolts and lightning, downpours, or kite shredding winds. We sat in the wool shed or headed off into Cobar for coffee and croissants.
We launched at 9:30am with the line shrieking and wailing in a 15-25 knot westerly. The kite rose rapidly to 4,000 feet, then the telemetry transmission stopped. We brought the kite back down to discover the radio aerial had fallen off. We replaced the aerial and relaunched, but this mishap cost us two hours.
The kite went back up to 4,000 feet within a half hour, then climbed steadily to 10,000 feet, struggling in the 40 knot wind. The wind would rise even higher. Even accounting for a 38% reduction in air density, no kite is designed to fly in the ground equivalent of a 45 knot wind. The kite was viewed through the theodolite and it was taking a hammering.
At 12,700 feet, the line broke. I later examined telemetry data at the time of line break, and the kite accelerated instantly to 59 knots. I am not sure why the line broke, but the tension simply may have exceeded line strength (192 pounds). We reeled in over six kilometers [about four miles] of line within 40 minutes. About 2,288 meters of line remained attached to the kite. We tracked the kite down to 550 feet and 19.2 kilometers away.
We went back to Sydney the following morning, exhausted but happy with our altitude. I never imagined kite flying could be such hard work.
We came so close and we are confident of going well beyond 15,000 feet given the right conditions. Next year we will have new lines from DSM Dyneema and a few gadgets to help us in our quest.
We will beat the record, providing the wind gods are smiling.
Watch videos of Bob’s kite altitude world record attempts on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/droceretik