Outdoor Tracks: Wheelchair Kite Flying

karyThe ocean waves are pounding on the shore beside you as you lean back and enjoy the sun. The wind is behind you, the breeze filled with the aroma of the sea. Before you the sky is a deep blue, dotted with white puffy clouds gliding by. Seagulls soar overhead, intrigued by a strange object dancing around in the sky. First it goes rocketing upward, then turns sharply and dives straight down, only to pull out of the dive mere inches from disaster. It skims the ground, wingtip nearly touching the sand as it zooms along before blasting high in the air again.

People stop and point, vehicles slow down to watch. What is drawing all this attention? It’s a kite, of course! This isn’t your run-of-the-mill hold-onto-the-string-and-have-a-snooze kite, it’s a two-string 5-foot-wingspan stunt-kite, and you’re controlling it!

OT913A couple of winters ago my wife and I were lucky enough to be able to escape winter and camp in Texas. We stayed on South Padre Island, in the Gulf of Mexico just north of the United States-Mexico border. There is a beautiful county campground that is right near the beach, and reasonably priced. We soon noticed that a decent wind blew most of the time. While touring the beach areas — and there was 40 miles of beach — it became evident that wind sports were very popular. There were wind surfers zooming up and down the beach. Kite surfers doing spectacular jumps, seeming to hover high in the air, then gliding safely down and landing on their boards! There were surfers taking advantage of the huge waves being kicked up in one portion of the beach. These things look like a blast, but they’re not too feasible when you’re a quadriplegic!

I noticed a fellow get out of his car and haul a lot of equipment over to the beach. He put on a wetsuit and a harness, had a ski that looked kind of like a wake-board, and unrolled a kite. Then he used an air pump to inflate the kite. It was huge! In must have had a 20-foot wingspan! I was intrigued and went over to talk to him.

“That looks like fun!”

“It’s a blast!” he replies, noting my power wheelchair. “What happened to you?”

You gotta love it when somebody has the guts to ask right up front about your disability.

“Car accident a long time ago,” I say. “Broken neck.”

“Bummer,” he says.

Stuff happens,” I shrug. “How do you steer that kite?”

“Easy, this harness holds the kite, I don’t have to hold on at all. Then I steer by pulling on one line or the other … you could run it no problem.”

“It might be a little dangerous, especially if it drags me to deep water!” I say.

“True, but there’s two kite shops up town, they’ll have smaller ones,” he says. “You could rig one up to steer just like mine.”

“I’ll look into that, thanks!” I watch him rig up, take note of how the kite is controlled, and then head off to pursue the newest adventure! Back at camp I share what I’ve learned with my wife.

“I think you should get one!” she says, and I grin from ear-to-ear.

Sure enough, next time we are uptown we find two kite shops and we stop to look. The fellow at one outfits us with a 5-foot wingspan two-string steerable stunt-kite. Then we rig up a bar to steer it, and a line to hold the kite. With this set-up, even I can handle the kite in heavy wind.

OT2913Flying the kite takes a little getting used to, but is relatively easy. There are two lines tied to the kite, and they extend down to the control-bar. The control-bar is tied in the center to my seat belt on my chair, holding the full force of the kite — it has been known to drag my power chair several feet in soft sand by the end of the afternoon! Then I steer the kite by moving the control bar so that one end is closer to the kite than the other. If you pull on the left line, the kite will rotate counter-clockwise. Likewise pulling on the right line will rotate the kite clockwise. The trick is to equalize the line-lengths and stop the kite’s rotation when it’s pointing in the direction that you want it to go.

These kites travel and turn very quickly, and can end up in the ground in a split second. After a little while you develop a feel for it and can skim the ground at high speed. It is very comfortable to have a wheelchair that can recline and has a headrest on it when flying kites. When set up like this, I can lean back and fly for hours. What a fun low-cost way to spend an afternoon!

Stunt Kite FAQs
Q. How do you hold on to the kite?
A. The control bar is tied to my seat belt. I don’t need to hold it at all, merely steer.

Q.  How much wind do you need?
A. Some kites are fine in 5-mph winds, the larger ones need a little more. They are also adjustable to handle different conditions. You can fly them in winds of 20-mph or more, but they may drag you around a bit.

Q.  How much do kites cost?
A. A good two-line kite at a kite shop in the 5-foot wingspan ranges between $100 and $200, although after checking eBay I see that you can find some two-line kites for as low as $25.

Q.  Where do you fly kites?
A. I fly them in any open field. They are a great thing to wrap up and take with you when you are camping, going to a beach, or even just at the playground with the kids. Once you start flying a kite that is steerable, it most certainly will draw a crowd. They are a lot of fun to watch.

Q.  How long are the lines?
A. The lines are about 60 feet long, although I have extended them out to about 90 feet and then it seems to give more time to react to the kite. Longer lines seem to make it easier to fly for me.

Q. Does it take much strength to fly the kites?
A. No, it takes very little strength to fly them. The line that attaches the control bar to your belt takes all of the force.

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  1. Violet says:

    That’s Awesome Kary!! How relaxing it looks :)

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