The Simple Joy of the Fighter Kite

For many years now, I’ve been building and flying fighter kites. To me, they are beautiful in their simplicity and their motion. They can be a thrill when flown on a short line or in competition. They can be a kind of mobile mandala or meditation target when I fly alone. They connect me to the sky.

As kites go, fighter kites don’t get a lot of notice. They don’t make a big display and they aren’t easy to capture in photos or film because of their quick, darting flight. They do not pull hard like many multi-line stunt kites. They maneuver on a single line through line tension, and a flyer needs to know when to pull the line and when to give the kite slack line. It’s much like flying a leaf on a thread. They’re not complicated. A simple diamond shape with a spine and a bowed spar from wingtip to wingtip is the most common form, though there are other variations. They usually aren’t much more than two feet across, and they don’t have much surface area for decoration.  They can be temperamental, and getting one to be consistent takes some patience and care.

Once you get a fighter kite in the air, you are rewarded with a lively little dragster that responds quickly to your inputs, moves with unmatched speed, and changes direction in an instant. It is designed to be unstable on a slack line, and stable on a taught line – the secret to the kite is it’s flexibility. A fighter kite is the high performance race car of tethered flight.  When you fly one on a short line, it is quick and reacts in an instant, when you fly on a longer line a fighter takes longer to react and becomes more tame – you can fly one in any way that fits your mood. A fighter’s motion can be hypnotic.  The speed and adaptability of a fighter kite is part of it’s charm. While a stunt kite is always the same distance from the flyer due to fixed line lengths, a fighter’s single line gives the flyer options. You can fly on any line length you choose. Once you master the skill of flying one, that simple kite can be a source of great joy.

I found fighter kites through a combination of curiosity and luck. It started with a kite catalog that interested me in flying kites. A fighter kite peaked my interest, but fighter kites aren’t commonly mass produced for sale in the west. In India and southeast asia, where they originated, the kites are made of bamboo and tissue paper, and flown on cutting line. The line is coated with rice paste and powdered glass, and when two lines come in contact, one is cut. Therefore, the traditional fighter kite is commonly a disposable object. There aren’t many that are mass produced from fabrics or more durable materials. I found books about building them, and that had appeal to me, but I really  began to understand them when I met a group that had just formed to build and fly them. Since that time, I’ve been a fighter kite specialist, and they’ve been a source of entertainment and joy for many years.

I have flown fighter kites in competitions, I have flown fighters on cutting line and felt the joy of cutting and being cut, I have designed and built kites to fly indoors (you have to back up to keep the kite flying) and I have won prizes at kite festivals for my kites. That simple kite form has been very kind to me over the years. I enjoy designing and building fighters. I’ve always been proud to fly my own creations.  I build my kites out of Mylar or Clearphane (a plastic film that is semi-opaque, a colored cellophane.) and I also use a material called Orcon, which is a lightweight, flexible ripstop plastic material that was once used as a vapor barrier in aircraft.  I use graphite rods for my bows (the flexible spar from wingtip to wingtip) and bamboo for my kite spines. I build them with three point adjustable bridles so I can adjust the balance of the kite and adapt to wind conditions. I’ve been pleased with the results over the years.  I don’t rush my kite building, but I can build one quickly in a few hours. I have experimented with sail shapes and materials, and I have my favorites, but in the end, they all produce the same result, a kite of speed, simplicity and pure joy to fly.

The photos below are of a swallow-tailed fighter I call a Firefly. This example is made of mylar, using a bamboo spine, graphite rods for the bow and the tail battens, contact cement, packing tape to reinforce the places where the sail is under strain, and loose-leaf page reinforcements at the place where the bridle lines go through the sail to attach to the bow near the front of the kite. This example isn’t bridled yet, but in the sky it will be kinetic art.

Firefly_Front      Firefly_back

The front of the kite.  Red mylar is very visible.       The back side. Fighters are designed to flex.

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