Man-lifting kite

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A man-lifting kite is a kite designed to lift a person from the ground. Historically, man-lifting kites have been used chiefly for reconnaissance. Interest in their development declined with the advent of powered flight at the beginning of the 20th century. Recreational man-lifting kites gradually gained popularity through the latter half of the 20th century, branching into multiple sports. In the 21st century man-lifting kites are often used in kitesurfing, where brief launches can be followed by safe water landings and parasailing, where kites are towed behind a vehicle.

Roald Amundsen, the polar explorer, is lifted from the ground using a man-lifting kite during tests in 1909.
Man-lifter War Kite designed by Samuel Franklin Cody (1867–1913).
Lawrence Hargrave (seated) with his man-lifting kites in Stanwell Park, 1894.

Early historyEdit

Man-carrying kites are believed to have been used extensively in ancient China, for both civil and military purposes and sometimes enforced as a punishment.[1]

The (636) Book of Sui records that the tyrant Gao Yang, Emperor Wenxuan of Northern Qi (r. 550-559), executed prisoners by ordering them to 'fly' using bamboo mats. For his Buddhist initiation ritual at the capital Ye, the emperor parodied the Buddhist ceremonial fangsheng 放生 "releasing caged animals (usually birds and fish)".[2] The (1044) Zizhi Tongjian records that in 559, all the condemned kite test pilots died except for Eastern Wei prince Yuan Huangtou.

Gao Yang made Yuan Huangtou [Yuan Huang-Thou] and other prisoners take off from the Tower of the Phoenix attached to paper owls. Yuan Huangtou was the only one who succeeded in flying as far as the Purple Way, and there he came to earth.[3]

The Purple Way (紫陌) road was 2.5 kilometres from the approximately 33-metre Golden Phoenix Tower (金凰台). These early manned kite flights presumably "required manhandling on the ground with considerable skill, and with the intention of keeping the kites flying as long and as far as possible."[4]

Stories of man-carrying kites also occur in Japan, following the introduction of the kite from China around the seventh century AD.[5] In one such story the Japanese thief Ishikawa Goemon (1558–1594) is said to have used a man-lifting kite to allow him to steal the golden scales from a pair of ornamental fish images which were mounted on the top of Nagoya Castle. His men manoeuvered him into the air on a trapeze attached to the tail of a giant kite. He flew to the rooftop where he stole the scales, and was then lowered and escaped.[citation needed] It is said that at one time there was a law in Japan against the use of man-carrying kites.[6]

In 1282, the European explorer Marco Polo described the Chinese techniques then current and commented on the hazards and cruelty involved. To foretell whether a ship should sail, a man would be strapped to a kite having a rectangular grid framework and the subsequent flight pattern used to divine the outlook.[7]

17th to early 20th centuriesEdit

In the 17th century, Japanese architect Kawamura Zuiken used kites to lift his workmen during construction.[citation needed] In the 1820s British inventor George Pocock developed man-lifting kites, using his own children as guinea pigs.[citation needed]

In the early 1890s, Captain B.F.S Baden-Powell, brother of the founder of the scouting movement and soon to become President of the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain, developed his "Levitor" kite, a hexagonal-shaped kite intended to be used by the army in order to lift a man for aerial observation or for lifting large loads such as a wireless antenna. At Pirbright Camp on June 27, 1894, he used one of the kites to lift a man 50 feet (15.25 m) off the ground. By the end of that year he was regularly using the kite to lift men above 100 ft (30.5 m). Baden-Powell's kites were sent to South Africa for use in the Boer War, but by the time they arrived the fighting was over, so they were never put into use.

Lawrence Hargrave had invented his box kite in 1885, and from it he developed a man-carrying rig by stringing four of them in line. On 12 November 1894 he attached the rig to the ground on a long wire and lifted himself from the beach in Stanwell Park, New South Wales, reaching a height of 16 feet (4.9 m). The combined weight of his body and the rig was 208 lb (94.5 kg).

Alexander Graham Bell developed a tetrahedral kite, constructed of sticks arranged in a honeycomb of triangular sections, called cells. From a one cell model at the beginning of the 1890s, Bell advanced to a 3,393 cell "Cygnet" model in the early 1900s. This 40 foot (12.2 m) long, 200 lb (91 kg) kite was towed by a steamer in Baddeck Bay, Nova Scotia on December 6, 1907 and carried a man 168 feet (51.2 m) above the sea.

Samuel Franklin Cody was the most successful of the man-lifting kite pioneers. He patented a kite in 1901, incorporating improvements to Hargrave's double-box kite. He proposed that its man-lifting capabilities be used for military observation. After a stunt in which he crossed the English Channel in a boat drawn by a kite, he attracted enough interest from the Admiralty and the War Office for them to allow him to conduct trials between 1904 and 1908. He lifted a passenger to a new record height of 1,600 ft (488 m) on the end of a 4,000 ft (1,219 m) cable. The War Office officially adopted Cody's War Kites for the Balloon Companies of the Royal Engineers in 1906, and they entered service for observation on windy days when the Companies' observation balloons were grounded. Like Hargrave, Cody strung up a line of multiple kites to lift the aeronaut, while greatly improving on the details of the lifting gear.[8] He later built a "glider kite" which could be launched on a tether like a kite but then released and flown back down as a glider.[9] The Balloon Companies were disbanded in 1911 and were reformed as the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers, forerunner of the Royal Air Force.[10]

Roald Amundsen, the polar explorer, commissioned tests on a man-lifting kite to see whether it would be suitable for observation in the Arctic, but the trials were unsatisfactory and the idea was never developed.

Late 20th and early 21st centuriesEdit

A series of innovations in the late 20th and early 21st century revitalized interest in the field of people being lifted by kites for recreation. These split into several new sports: kiteboarding, where pilots engage in short launches over the safety of water; paragliding and hang gliding, where untethered gliders can remain aloft for hours; and parasailing, where kite sails and pilots are towed behind a vehicle.

The growth of water skiing led to the idea of using a kite during ski shows. From the late 1950s, flat kites began to be used to propel the skiier, while other kites were fitted with seats on the line pulled by a motorboat.[11] The skier was able to marginally control these unstable flat kites by using swing seats that allowed their entire body weight to effect pitch and roll.

In the early 1960s engineers at NASA developed the NASA Paresev experimental glider using the Rogallo wing which lead to an increased interest in man-lifting. The Rogallo wing was popularised by aerospace engineer Francis Rogallo. Concurrently, Tony Prentice of UK at age 13 in 1960 made a flexible-wing-framed hang glider with rope controls without reference to the Rogallo-wing developments of NASA.[12][13] John Worth, associate of Francis Rogallo, exhibited the cable-stayed triangle control frame (which had been exhibited in foot-launch hang gliding in at least 1908 in Breslau) at several scales in stiffened Rogallo-wing kite glider and powered versions. John Dickenson used a tow boat to kite himself in his adaptation of the Ryan flexible-wing craft, a version of the stiffened Rogallo-wing kite in September 1963. Dickenson's Ski Wing water ski kites[14] played a role in promoting delta waterski kiting in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Prior to that, mainly truncated diamond flat kites were used in waterski sport. Dickenson's designs for man-lifting kites and gliders earned him several awards, with some organizations calling him the inventor of the modern hang glider.[15][16]

The invention of the parafoil kite in 1964 and gradual adoption further enabled kites in watersports, as parafoil sails provide tremendous lift and can be controlled as a multiline kite, later specialized into power kites. Parachute-powered water skiing spread around the world as a sport by the 1970s. Over the next two decades, parachutes were replaced with parafoils, and single line lift systems replaced with steerable multi-line configurations.[17] These changes (controllable kites, short jumps rather than extended man-lifting flights, immediate depowering safety devices, and landing in the water) significantly reduced risk to the pilots, helping enable widespread adoption.[18] The rates of kiteboarding injury and death are similar to many contact sports.[19] Earlier boat-pulled delta kites were also replaced with parafoils, leading to parasailing.

By the early 2000s kiteboarding became an extreme sport known for high jumps and mid-air acrobatics.[20] The sport grew rapidly with an estimated 1.5 million kiteboarders globally by 2012, with official events including jump competitions.[21] The International Sailing Federation announced in May 2012 that windsurfing would be replaced at the 2016 Olympics by kiteboarding,[22] but this decision was reversed in November, pushing it to the 2020 Olympics.[23] The sport will be showcased in the 2020 Olympics, and is scheduled to become a permanent Olympic discipline beginning in the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.[24] The format of the event is not finalized, but judging typically includes aerial components.



  1. ^ Pelham,1976, p.9.
  2. ^ Joseph Needham and Ling Wang, 1965, Science and civilisation in China: Physics and physical technology, mechanical engineering Volume 4, Part 2, page 587.
  3. ^ Conan Alistair Ronan, 1994, The shorter science and civilisation in China: an abridgement of Joseph Needham's original text, Volume 4, Part 2, Cambridge University Press, p. 285.
  4. ^ Ronan, 1994, p. 285.
  5. ^ Pelham, 1976, pp.10-11.
  6. ^ Pelham, 1976, p.11.
  7. ^ Pelham, 1976, pp.9-10
  8. ^ Percy Walker. 1971. Early Aviation at Farnborough, Volume I: Balloons, Kites and Airships. London. Macdonald. pp.107-112.
  9. ^ "A shadow of the future". Flight International: 164. 3 September 1988.
  10. ^ Garry Jenkins. 1999. Colonel Cody: and the Flying Cathedral. Simon & Schuster. p.223.
  11. ^ Flat ski kites, history
  12. ^ Hanggliding History - Prentice Kite
  13. ^ Tony Prentice 1960 kite glider
  14. ^
  15. ^ John Dickenson - aviation award Archived 2007-08-31 at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^ {{cite web |url= |title=The FAI Gold Air Medal for John Dickenson |date=19 July 2012 |website=World Air Sports Federation |access-date=28 August 2020}
  17. ^ Peter Lynn A brief history of kitesurfing Archived 19 August 2006 at the Wayback Machine,, 2006
  18. ^ "The Dangers of Kitesurfing". Retrieved 27 August 2020.
  19. ^ "Is kiteboarding a dangerous water sport?". Retrieved 27 August 2020.
  20. ^ "History of kitesurfing". Retrieved 28 August 2020.
  21. ^ "ISAF Kiteboarding Format Trials" (PDF). International Sailing Federation. May 2012.
  22. ^ "Kiteboarding to replace windsurfing at 2016 Rio Olympics". BBC Sport. 2012-05-07. Retrieved 10 May 2012.
  23. ^ "Windsurfing restored to Brazil 2016 Olympics". BBC Sport. 2012-11-10. Retrieved 14 November 2012.
  24. ^ "Kiting's Olympic Future Confirmed". Retrieved 27 August 2020.