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Why Not Try Precision Flying?

Hang on, don't stop reading yet - precision isn't just about competition, it can be fun for all kite fliers.

"What is precision?" I hear some of you ask. At its simplest level, precision is a type of kite flying where the flyer tries to reproduce exact shapes, called "figures" with his or her kite in the sky. There are competitions where flyers are judged on how neatly and close to the standard the can perform a set of figures.

Now obviously, not everyone wants to compete, and that's fine. But just because you don't want to enter a competition is no reason to ignore precision. Flying the figures used in precision competitions is a great way to improve your kite flying skills, such as finesse, delicacy and control. Flying compulsory figures is challenging, and above all can be great fun.

Some people do regard flying figures as a bit boring - I did at one time - and its true that it is perhaps not as immediate a thrill as trick flying, but flying a figure perfectly is difficult, and if you can learn to do it well, there is a great sense of achievement.

Precision flying need not be solitary. A group of people can fly figures in turn, comparing their performances and learning from one another. My local club has organized such things at fly-ins in the past, and if you are interested, someone from STACK could come along to your next fly-in to help you have a go. Ultimately, the other great thing you can do is actually try flying figures with other people; two, three, four or more people flying figures together. Yes, this is difficult, but it is great fun.

OK, so I've convinced you to have a go, but what are the figures, where are they defined? All of the figures are taken from the Compulsories Book which is part of the International Sport Kite Rule Book (here). They range from fairly straightforward to unbelievably difficult. You can download the rulebook, but it's not that much help as although it has pictures and key features it really isn't a tutorial. In this tutorial, I'll be describing one of the more straightforward compulsory figures. If you want to learn more, you may be able to find a copy of an excellent book called "Sport Kite Magic!" by David Gomberg which provides descriptions of many of the figures, though sadly this is now out of print. There are also animations of the figures available on Roy Reed's site (here).

Now before we go any further, let's be quite clear, I'm not claiming to be that good at these figures myself (at least not the individual ones), but I'm still having fun trying. I don't claim to be an expert, but I do have the books, a word processor, a bit of interest and some experience, and I hope that I can use the first two to transfer some of the interest to you.

As with anything, before getting into the detail, we have to cover a few basics.

The Competition Grid

OK, here comes the technical bit.

If you imagine a huge rectangle in the sky in front of you, twice as wide as it is high, that rectangle will be the "canvas" on which your kite will "paint" the figure. How big that rectangle is is the tricky bit to explain.

We all know that in a strong enough wind, a kite will fly all the way up until it's overhead, and right out to either side. We call this the Wind Window. When there is enough wind, this is a quarter of a sphere - a bit like an old fashioned opera house, or the dome of St Pauls cut in half. As the wind reduces, you are no longer able to fly as far out to the sides, or quite as far up the sky. We say that the wind window expands and contracts with the wind speed.

The rules define the competition grid - the canvas - in terms of the angle that the kite makes relative to the flier. The top of the grid is the place where the kite is at an angle of 53° from the ground (see the diagram "Competition Grid - Side View").

Competition Grid - Side View

The sides of the grid are defined as the place where the kite makes an angle of 53° from a line directly downwind from the flier (see the diagram "Competition Grid - Plan View").

Competition Grid - Plan View

The first important thing to realise at this point is that the grid is quite a bit smaller than the area that the kite can actually reach (see the diagram "Competition Grid - Front View"), and, to put it another way, given some wind there is quite a lot of sky that the kite can fly into that is outside the grid.

Competition Grid - Front View

The second important thing to realise is that the size of the grid does NOT change with wind speed, as it is defined by an angle. Thus your figures should not change size as you practice them in different conditions. This also means that as long as the wind is not right on the lower edge of your kites flying wind range, it should be able to fly right out to the edge of the grid.

Since it is defined by an angle, although the size of the grid does not vary with the wind, it does vary with line length. With 150 foot lines, the full grid is about 240 feet wide by 120 feet tall. Using 125 foot lines, the grid will be 200 foot wide by 100 foot tall.

To avoid confusion (huh?), the rules describe the size of figures in terms of percentages of the grid (see "Competition Grid - Front View" again). So the ground is 0%, and the top of the grid is called 100% up. The centre of the grid is called 0%, the extreme left is called 100% left, and the extreme right is 100% right. Easy isn't it? The diagrams show the grid divided into 10% squares. On 150 foot lines, each 10% percent of the grid is 12 feet.

Lines

Figures are best flown on long lines, 140 feet to 150 feet typically. This is to make the figures nice and big. As mentioned above, with 150 foot lines, the full grid is about 240 feet wide by 120 feet tall. Flying the figures large means that there is a reasonable distance, and hence time, between parts of the figure.

The shorter your lines become, the more frantic it becomes to get the figure done fast enough. Also the bottoms of the figures get pretty tight as lines shorten. On 125 foot lines, if you have to fly at 5% up (which you often do) the middle of your kite will be at 5 foot off the ground. If your using an 8 foot kite, the wing tip will only be 1 foot off the ground! On 150 foot lines the clearance will be a slightly more manageable 2 foot. 100 foot lines are really the shortest length for precision flying practice, and ideally you should not drop below 125 foot.

It is also worth mentioning that if you intend to practice in higher winds (and competitions go from 2.5 mph right up to 28 mph) then you should use heavier lines even if the kite does not pull enough to need them. This is because the weight and the drag of the bigger lines help to slow the kite down. I have seen competitors using 300 lb and even 500 lb lines, even though the kite would not have broken a 150 lb set.

On the topic of higher winds, it may also be worth getting a set of air brakes, or other such devices, which also can be used to help to slow down a kite towards the upper end of its wind range.

What kite should you use?

Firstly its got to be a two line delta. Flexifoils are out of the question, as are most quad line kites, except the Revolution. (There are a whole set of figures just for flyers of Revolutions and similar kites, but that is beyond the scope of this article - any volunteers?)

The serious flyers have ultra light kites for low winds, standard kites, and kites with vents for higher winds! Luckily you don't need this to have a go, most sport kites in the 6 foot to 8 foot range are fine.

Out and out freestyle/trick kites like the Benson Deep Space are probably not ideal, though many which are less "twitchy" are certainly useable. The more traditional full size deltas, such as the Airdynamics T5, the Carl Robertshaw Fury or the Benson Phantom are ideal. The ¾ size deltas such as the Benson Outer Space are also OK.

Turns

You will be using various sorts of turn to fly the figures. Turns can be characterized by how you start the turn, by pushing or pulling, and how you end the turn, by pulling or pushing.

The Pull-Push turn is the most basic. You pull with one hand to turn the kite, and then release (push) the same hand when the kite gets where you want it to go. In fact you push a whisker before it gets there, to take account of the slight time lag in the kite responding. This gives a smooth curve, useful for broad figures. Pulling causes the kite to speed into the curve, and the push release causes the kite to slow as it straightens.

The Pull-Pull turn is also used for broad curves, but speeds the kite up on the exit. Pull with one hand, then pull with the other to stop the turn. This is needed if your turn ends up somewhere where there is little power, such as near the ground, or the edge. You can then return both hands to neutral at a safe point.

The Push-Pull turn is used a lot in precision. In this case you sharply push (more a punch really) the "wrong" hand - that is to turn left you punch right - and pull back that hand even faster to end the turn. Pushing decreases power and slows the kite on entry to the turn, pulling powers it out of the turn. Push-Pull turns produce really sharp, angular corners. Practice this a lot - try 90°, 60° and 45° turns.

Finally, the Push-Push turn requires you to push out one hand, then push out the other to stop the turn. This slows the kite on both parts of the turn. This is useful for a landing if you run forward immediately after it. It is also useful in the complex figures (I'm told) where there is so much to do that it helps to slow things down.

Speed Control

All of the figures (at least all of the figures for individual fliers) are supposed to be flown at constant speed throughout the figure. Unfortunately, the kite doesn't fly at constant speed throughout the grid. In the centre of the grid, in the power zone, a kite will fly faster, towards the edges, slower, since it is at more of an angle to the wind. When diving downwards the kite will fly faster, when it is flying upwards, it will fly slower (this is down to gravity, and is pretty unavoidable).

Thus to fly a figure at constant speed the pilot must compensate for all of these effects. Speed control is probably the most important aspect of precision flying.

Speed is controlled by line tension. Pull back on both lines, the kite speeds up, push forward, the kite slows down. To achieve a full range of control you move your arms, but you also move your feet. No this is not a bizarre way of flying a quad-line kite, what I mean is you walk about! Walk forward to slow the kite. Walk backwards to speed up the kite. Watch the kite, and feel the tension in the lines. Learn to move in order to fly the kite at the speed you want it to go at, not just whatever speed it happens to be doing.

Speed control is going to require a lot of practice, but don't worry, you can fly the figures with your speed varying, just bear in mind the ultimate aim.

The Figure

I know it's taken a long time to get here, but it's time for your first figure. Yay! Just a simple one to start with, as we've had so much of the boring introductory bits to get this far, but even this figure is deceptively difficult, and I hope will whet your appetite for more.

Look at the diagrams of the figure. The lighter lines show the grid. The dark line shows the path traced by the nose of the kite. The kite symbols mark the start and end points (normally called "In" and "Out").

By the way, you can fly all the figures the other way around (mirror image) but I shall ignore this, as they're hard enough to describe as it is!

OK, off we go.

Figure DI07 - The Jump

The Jump (DI07)

This is a nice figure, both to describe and to fly. It uses both sharp push turns and a curved turn, and requires straight flight and speed control as well. It is easy to fly, but hard to get perfect. Take a good look at the picture.

Fly a horizontal pass from left to right at 5%. This is very near the ground, so if you're a bit nervous you can start off by shifting the whole figure up a bit (I won't tell anyone), and move down as you gain confidence. At 10% left, just before the middle, use a push turn to turn very sharply through 90° into a vertical climb. No - push the lower hand, the right one - try it again when you've repaired the kite! Make sure the climb is vertical, and try not to wobble after the turn. Walk back a bit to compensate for the kite climbing. Climb vertically to 80% then fly a smooth half circle to the right. The radius of the circle is 10%, and you will need to stop walking back and perhaps start forward slightly as the kite goes over the top so as to keep the speed constant. Straighten up on a vertical dive; you will need to walk forward a little to keep the speed in the dive the same as in the earlier climb. At 5% (which will seem a lot closer to the ground when diving downwards) punch another left 90° turn (so the right hand again) into a horizontal pass. Keep this low and straight, and don't wobble. You need to make sure this is at the same height you flew on the entry. Hold this line and fly out.

The main things with this figure are to get the lines nicely horizontal and vertical, the turns really sharp and wobble free, and the half circle nice and smooth. The most important thing is to make sure that the two horizontal passes are at exactly the same height. If you can manage it these should be really close to the ground. Regulating the speed on the climb and dive is also important, and watch out not to overshoot the exit from the half circle.

OK, that's it for this now; have a go at this figure in your own time (as they say), perhaps try a few others, and maybe we can compare progress on the field sometime soon.

Diagram credits

The diagram of the figure is taken from the IRBC sport kite rule book.

Kite Montage Picture