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Single-Line Kites: A basic glossary

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A sigle-line kite soaring across a blue sky

Kite-flying is a popular hobby with many faces: traditional family pastime, artform, traditional craft, science and extreme sport. Unfortunately, people new to kiting sometimes get confused by the great variety of technical terms that can be used. This article provides kite-flyers with simple definitions of the main terms used when flying kites that have just one line,as well as generally accepted names for the main types of kite.

Parts of a Kite

Line: the string you hold when the kite is in the air.

Reel or Winder: the object that stores the flying line, similar in some ways to a fishing reel. This can be a simple set of sticks with the flying line wrapped around, plastic handles with a pair of projecting forks to wrap the line around (the most common form), or winders that look a lot like a fishing reel. Whatever form they take, it is vital that you make sure that the end of the flying line is actually tied to the winder, or you will get to the end of your flying line and simply lose the kite to the wind.

Sail: the fabric or paper that makes up the horizontal (or nearly-horizontal) parts of the kite. Sails provide lift. This takes advantage of air resistance to keep the kite in the air, the same way an aeroplane flies.

Leading Edge: the front edge of the kite sail.

Trailing Edge: the back edge of the sail.

Frame: poles, rods or sticks that hold the kite in shape. Parts of the frame have many different names, but the most common are spar (a rod that goes roughly side-to-side; longeron or spine (a rod that goes front-to-back); spreader (a rod that holds other rods apart); riser (small rod that lifts part of the kite out of the flat plane).

Bridle: the loop or loops of string that join the line to the rest of the kite. On some soft kites, the bridle can look like the complex lines of a parachute. Simple bridles control the angle the kite flies at, complex bridles also hold the kite in a certain shape. Some kites do not have bridles at all.

Tail: used to keep kites stable, pointing the right way, or just for decoration, tails are long, narrow and flexible.

Drogue or Basket: bucket or bowl-shaped objects on the end of a line behind the kite, they are sometimes used instead of a tail as they do not need to be so long.

Dihedral: a bend or curve in the kite that helps keep the kite stable.

Keel: a vertical piece of sail material beneath the kite like the keel of a boat1. Keels help keep the kite stable, and provide a place to attach the flying line without a bridle.

Things A Kite Does

Pull: simply, how hard the kite pulls against its anchor or the person holding it. Technically, pull is a combination of the upwards lift of the kite and the force down-wind due to the kite's drag.

Pitch: the motion a kite makes when its nose moves up or down. The pitch of a kite can change the way it flies. A kite with too much pitch will not lift as well as it might, a kite with too little pitch will stall and nosedive out of the sky.

Roll: a 'wiggle' along the length of the kite where the right or left sides move up and down. A slight roll will make a kite move to the side - that is how two-line kites work.

Yaw: a twisting motion made by the flat kite, where the nose of the kite turns left or right.

Put your hand flat on the table. If you lift all your fingers or the heel of your hand off the table, pretending there is a horizontal rod through the middle of your hand, that is pitch. If you twist your hand flat on the table, pretending there is a rod straight down through the middle of your palm, that is yaw, and if you twist your wrist so that your thumb side, or little finger side comes up, that is roll.

Wind Words

Wind Shadow: the area behind an obstruction (such as trees or buildings) where the wind is not blowing. The wind shadow can be much longer than the height of the obstruction.

Turbulence: 'mixed-up' wind, with flows in more than one direction (sometimes even down!).

Beaufort Scale: a way of measuring wind speed.

Kinds of Kite

There are only eight basic forms of kite, although there are many variations on these themes:

Flat: flat kites are just that, flat. The frame holds the sail completely flat, and often surrounds the edge of the sail. Popular flat kites are the three stick or barn door kite and the dragon or serpent, which incorporates a long tail as wide as the kite.

Bowed: bowed kites have frames that cross the kite, left to right and top to bottom, but do not surround the sail. The cross-wise parts of the frame are bent or curved upwards. The bend can be built into the frame, or held in using cords that pull the frame into a curve.

Box or Cellular: three-dimensional kites which often look like flying boxes. They are often made of a repeating shape or cell. The two most common shapes of cellular kite are rectangular boxes and tetrahedrons.

Delta: an extremely popular and useful kite, triangular in shape (hence the name). Deltas have a single spreader, a spine down the middle, and rods long the leading (front) edges of the kite. They can fly in a wide range of winds, and lend themselves to a range of variations on the theme, such as seagull or swallow shapes. Most sport stunt kites are based on the delta form.

Sled: sled kites have little or no frame. Most kites (those mentioned above) have a dihedral that goes up at the sides, but sled kites are higher in the middle. The pressure of the wind holds the kite open, so no frame is required across the kite, and many do not have frames running up and down the kite. They can be folded up to a very small size and so are often sold as 'pocket kites'. They are easy to make and fly and do not break if they crash, so they make good starter-kites for children.

Foil: foils are similar to sleds, but lack any sort of frame. They are dual skin kites - air enters between the skins at the front of the kite and inflates the kite. Careful design means that the kite then takes on a shape and profile very similar to a wing. This generates a lot more lift than a usual single-skinned kite. Most foil kites have bridles with lots of 'legs', similar to the shroud lines of a parachute. Foils are also known as parafoils and flowforms, especially if they have been designed to resemble other objects. Famous flowforms include the giant kites of New Zealander Peter Lynn. He has produced trilobites, octopi and geckos the size of trucks and houses.

Rotor: rotor kites are rare. They do not gain lift from sails. Instead, they spin to gain lift. Typically, they will use the wind to make a horizontal rotor to spin (vaguely like the blade of an old manual lawnmower). This spin generates lift by a process known as the Magnus Effect. Some rotor kites have helicopter-style rotors and fly in the same way as a gyrocopter. Rotor kites fly better in high winds, but are often unstable.

Compound: The constant effort to create new and interesting kites often results in compund kites, that share aspects of the other seven groups. Typically compound kites include winged boxes (a box kite with delta wings) and various combinations of sled and framed kite to make interesting shapes, such as the Stingray by Adrian Conn (a delta kite with a centre section made of a parafoil).

Of course, it's not really as simple as that - there are kites with two lines, four lines or (rarely) three lines instead of just one, but they are still variations on the themes above.

Stunt Kites: kites that can be steered around the sky for entertainment purposes. The majority have two lines (pull the left line to turn left, the right to turn right), but some have four lines. The second two lines allow the kite to be stopped in the air, spun on the spot or even to be flown backwards.

Power Kites: stunt kites that are flown to experience the sheer power of the wind. Typically having two lines, they are usually foil-type kites that exploit wing-type aerodynamics to generate a lot of lift and/or drag.

Traction Kites: large foil-type kites that are usually designed to have more drag that lift. This means they can pull the user at great speed in a buggy, on a land-board (an off-road skateboard) or on a snowbaord. There is also a whole subset of traction kites designed for use by surfers. These kites usually have inflatable sections so that they can be recovered and launched from the water's surface, and have a distinctive tightly-curved arch profile. Traction kites always have four or three lines to allow for braking.

1Fin that goes down vertically into the water

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