Kite Basics

“A kite is a heavier-than-air, tethered aircraft kept aloft close to a perpetual stall by the wind.”

A kite has three essential characteristics:

A structure designed to produce lift from the wind,
A flying line (tether) that keeps the kite from flying away,
A bridle that aligns the face of the kite to the proper angle in the wind for lift. In some cases, the flying line attaches directly to the kite’s face or keel and governs its angle of attack.

“The kite is an intermediary between heaven and earth. It’s the physical counterpart of prayer.”
– Ben Ruhe.

Types of Kites

There are thousands of different kites and they can be divided into four main types: flat, bowed, cellular (box), and air-inflated. In this website, when searching for specific kite information, start with one of these to narrow your search. Virtually all of these categories have numerous variations, like the winged box, or the sled (which relies on wind pressure to give it shape).

For more insight into the challenges of categorizing kites, read the discussion of Anke Sauer’s “Jack-in-the-box” kite.

How Kites Fly

Kites are heavier-than-air flying structures controlled by three main forces: lift, gravity, and drag. Lift is the upward force created by wind pressure on the face of the kite, which makes the kite rise and keeps it in the air. Gravity is the downward force on the kite which works against lift. Drag is the air resistance acting on the kite as it travels forward. The kite flies most efficiently when the three forces are balanced at an imaginary point, known as the center of pressure.

Read an explanation of the Bernoulli Principle by Tal Streeter. For the “path of least resistance” taken by a kite in flight, see the excerpt from Measuring the Sky, Streeter’s book in progress. In-depth kite aerodynamics is a subject of great interest. To learn more about kite aerodynamics explore the works of Peter Lynn, who has an uncanny ability to describe how kites work in an accessible way.

Where to Fly

The best places to fly kites are large, open spaces such as parks, public playing fields, and beaches. A good launching site should be open to the wind and well away from trees, tall buildings, and electrical power lines.

Beaufort Wind Chart

Around 1805, Admiral Francis Beaufort of the British Admiralty devised a scale for wind force, to help sailors gauge wind conditions while at sea. His scale runs from 0 (calm) to 12 (hurricane). Average kites fly well in light, steady winds from about 8 to 15 miles per hour (Beaufort 2, 3, 4); delicate kites require lighter breezes. Wind speeds of up to 20 miles per hour are generally safe for larger, sturdy kites with strong lines, but only exceptionally well built kites of appropriate materials should be flown in winds more than 24 miles per hour, as you risk injury or loss of your kite in these winds.

Wind Speed Beaufort Category How to Judge the Wind
0 mph Calm Smoke rises vertically.
1-3 mph Light Air Smoke drifts; wind cannot be felt.
4-7 mph Light Breeze Wind felt on face; leaves rustle; weather vanes move
8-12 mph Gentle Breeze Leaves and twigs in motion; light flags are extended.
13-18 mph Moderate Breeze Wind raises dust and loose papers; small branches move; flags flap.
19-24 mph Fresh Breeze Small trees in leaf sway slightly; wavelets form on ponds and lakes.
25-31 mph Strong Breeze Large branches move; telephone lines whistle.
Launching a Kite

To launch in good winds, stand with your back to the wind and hold your kite up to catch the wind. Let line out only as fast as the wind lifts the kite. If the wind lulls, pull in line to make your kite gain altitude.

In light or gusty winds have a friend hold your kite 100 feet or more downwind from you, with the line stretched tight. When you signal, your friend should raise the kite in both hands so that it catches the wind. As soon as your friend releases the kite, reel in line to make it climb.

Running is the hardest way to launch a kite. The uncontrolled tugging on the line makes kites dive and crash. Let the wind and your reel do the work instead.

Controlling a Kite

Careful line handling lets you control your kite when it is flying. Maintain a steady line tension to keep your kite flying evenly. Take in line to move your kite in the direction it is pointing. Let out line to change its direction.

Also use the line to keep in touch with your kite. If the line goes slack, the wind has lulled. Reel in line to slow the kite’s descent. If the pull on your line increases, check to see if a gust is causing your kite to loop or dive. Let out line to help it recover or soften its landing. Always leave some line on your reel for unexpected gusts.

If your line tangles with another kite line, hold your line steady and walk toward the other flier. The tangle will move down the lines so that it can be undone.

Landing a Kite

In moderate winds, reel in your kite slowly, pausing if too much tension causes it to loop. With a hard-pulling kite, walk it down. While a friend holds the reel, put the line under your arm or hold it with a gloved hand and walk toward the kite, to bring it in without increasing the apparent wind speed.

Kite Safety

Remember that you are always responsible for your kite and its line.

Never fly near busy roads or over other people.
Never fly in stormy weather or near power lines.
Never fly near airports or in airplane flight paths.
Increase your caution with the size of your kite. Big kites can overpower anyone in heavy winds.
Never leave young children unsupervised during their first flights.

Two Federal Aviation Administration regulations apply to kites weighing less than five pounds:

No person may operate a kite in a manner that creates a hazard to persons, property or other aircraft.
Kite flying within five miles of an airport requires the approval of the airport.

There are more stringent regulations governing kites weighing more than five pounds. Check with the FAA.

Some localities have other laws and regulations governing kite flying. For example, some cities prohibit flying kites over public roads. Check with your local authorities before you fly.

For more information about safety, read this excerpt from The Kiteflier, a British newsletter.

Kite Glossary

Airfoil: a surface especially curved to make air flowing across it provide lift.

Beaufort Scale: a scale for gauging wind force by observing conditions on the ground.

Bowstring: the string that secures the curved spar of a bowed kite.

Bridle: the line or lines that runs from the kite’s sail and to which the control line is attached.

Cover: the fabric of a kite, covering the frame and designed to catch the air. It can be made of paper, cloth or nylon. Also called the sail or skin.

Dihedral: a V-shaped angle, where the kite face is divided into two planes. Created by either bowing the cross-spar or using an angled dihedral piece.

Downwind: the direction the wind is blowing.

Drag: the resistance of a kite to the wind. The amount is affected both by the weight of the kite and by its surface area.

Drogue: a conical “cup” open at both ends. It has the same effect on a kite’s flying behavior as the tail.

Frame: the rigid structure of the kite to which the sail or cover is fastened. Also called the “bones.”

Handmade paper: material from which kite sails are made in many cultures. Because of Drachen’s special interest in paper kites, it includes these papermaking terms in its glossary:

Acid Free Paper: paper that is free from any acid content or other substances likely to have deleterious effect on the paper or its ability to last over time.

Bast: fiber that comes from the inner bark of shrubs and trees. The bast of Gampi, Mitsumata, Kozo, hemp and flax is long and strong, excellent for papermaking.

Kozo: general name for a variety of mulberry trees. Kozo, characterized by its long, strong fibers, can be made into a very strong and dimensionally stable paper. Kozo can be easily cultivated and produces much of the bast fiber used for Japanese paper. Japanese Kozo is of higher quality—stronger and finer—than Kozo imported from Thailand and Taiwan.

Sizing: An additive to paper to make it more impervious to ink or moisture, thus eliminating pigment bleeds. (Internal sizing: Sizing that is added before the sheet is formed, either in the beater or in the vat. The substance alum is commonly used. Surface, Tub or External sizing: Sizing added after the sheet is formed. Common external sizing substances are potato and corn starch.)

Washi: Japanese paper (wa = Japanese; shi = paper).

Hummer: a device fitted to kites that whirrs and hums in the breeze.

Keel: a triangular fitting on some kites which adds stability in flight.

Kite Train: two or more kites flown from the same control line.

Lift: an upward force, created by wind pressure on the kite face.

Sail: see Cover.

Spar: the horizontal part of a kite frame.

Spine: the vertical part of a kite frame.

Stability: the ability of a kite to keep flying on a straight course.

Strut: extra pieces of dowel or bamboo which reinforce the frame.

Tail: fabric or paper tied on to the line or streamers attached to the bottom of the kite which adds to the kite’s stability.

Turbulence: currents of wind created by obstacles in its path.

Upwind: the direction the wind is blowing from.

Vent: opening in the kite sail to improve stability.

Windspeed: the speed of air on the face of the kite.

For more information on all these topics, consult the American Kitefliers Association (AKA) manual, How To Fly a Kite (PDF), revised edition, available for free download.

“The freedom of art and artists is still severely restricted by the artists’ common habit of regarding their own navels. Art in general has spent a lot of time and effort looking at its own navel. In order to reorient artists’ concern and to reestablish touch with and influence on life, we raise our eyes and look at the world beyond the limits of “art”,…” – Otto Piene, More Sky, (under the heading of “kites”)