by Donna & Jeff McCown
First published in Kiting magazine 2011 Vol 33 Issue 1, updated photos added 2018
So you’ve had a sport kite for a while, and you’ve flown to the point that your control is together: left, right, up, down, various geometric shapes, you can land and launch at will and maybe even learned a trick or two. You now find yourself wondering what is the next dimension or level to which you can take this new skill. You may want to consider pairs flying. It can be said that pairs flying is the best of both worlds. You have the creative freedom of individual flying (you’re only limited by your own skill), and the challenge of precise formation flying afforded by a team; plus, the pairs format gives more space for throwing in tricks (two can learn a new trick faster than three or four on a team).
Now that you’ve decided to fly pairs, the first thing needed is a partner. Your partner should be the most important consideration, because the issue of compatibility can make or break most pairs. One issue to consider is time. Do your personal schedules match to be able to put in the amount of practice time needed to reach a common goal? The more technically advanced your flying becomes might mean more practice time would be needed. On the other hand, you might just need an occasional flight to relax after the occasional bad day at work.
Time scheduling is, for the most part, directly tied to the common goal. This is another key point to compatibility. The common goal will typically determine how much time will be spent practicing. If you both decide to fly only for recreation, for fresh air and exercise and just the thrill of having your kite in the air, then one or two sporadic nights per week will suffice. If you both decided, eventually, to pursue exhibition performances, or competition, then it might be necessary to schedule more practice time. Bottom line is, kiting is one of those things that the more you put in, the more you get out of it.
The idea of flying style is another point to be addressed. Will your pair be content to just fly the basic geometric shapes and curves, or will you pursue the more technical side by adding tricks? If one member chooses a simpler style and the other wishes to fly a more technical style, the technical partner may feel held back. Conversely, the less technically oriented partner may feel unduly pressured. A good compromise can be reached by keeping the geometric and loopy style but add in two or three of the simpler tricks like stalls, axels, or slides.
A correlation can sometimes be drawn between flying style and musical taste. If your pair decides to try choreographing flights to music, agreement on the music to which you fly will be important. The most direct way to do this is each person brings a selection of music to be considered by both partners. The selections are given a listen by both partners, and eventually a choice is made that suits the technical ability, musical taste, and aerial vision perceived by each pilot.
Now that you’ve found a partner, the next thing to do is get the kites to match. If you were fortunate enough to find a partner who flies the same model of kite you do, then at this point you’re ahead of the game. The reasons for having “matching” kites are pretty simple. They need to fly the same speed, turn the same corners, and have the same flight envelope in general. Also, when the sail colors and graphics are the same, it all just tends to look better in the sky. If you and your partner have different kites, you might be able to get them close after some tweaks and adjustments, but to fly your best, a matched set should definitely be given some thought. If you’re not sure about which kites to check out, talk to other pilots in your area, particularly those who are experienced in pairs and/or team flying. If no other pilots are close by, you can do Web searches for kite dealers or club forum pages as well as kite manufacturers. You’ll be surprised where a chain of Web links can lead you.
While you’re thinking about kites, you should also think about line sets. Things to remember when deciding what lines to fly and how many sets to make are wind variances where you live or fly, type of kite(s) you might fly and size of your flying field, and also, lest we forget, your budget. If you can, try to have two sets of lines, one shorter lighter set for light winds and a heavier longer set for high winds. For my own pair, Windjunkies, we fly four different sets: 90# by 110’, 150# by 120’, 200# by 135’, and 300# by 135’. The 200# set tends to be the one we fly most with either a standard or vented kite. These line sets are also repeated so we have one set for practice and one set for performance or competition. Line lengths between each pilot should also be the same length. It has been found that staggered lines can make the kites fly unevenly and usually this also makes the wing (follow) pilot have to move or run more to keep the same speed control.
The next order of business is to get into the air. First, we need to define the role of each pilot. As each pilot is standing side by side ready to launch, the pilot on the right is the captain or lead pilot. The person on the left could be called the second or follow or wing pilot. The job of the lead pilot is to make the calls for the maneuvers and set the pace and flow of the routine being flown. The job of the follow pilot is to answer or obey the calls given by the lead and hold the formation, be it single file, line abreast, or echelon, as well as holding horizontal and vertical lines when being split from the lead.
The most basic maneuvers are follow maneuvers, turns in an up and down or left and right direction as well as basic shapes. As you begin to get better at follow drills, you will see your lines not only crossing and touching, but even twisting or wrapping around each other. Don’t worry. This is actually a useful skill and can be used a number of ways to construct parts of a pairs ballet. Just remember that when flying shapes, the lines will wrap around each other. In order to undo this, simply fly the maneuver in the opposite direction. The key is to keep your cool the first few times this happens. Once you get used to the feel of a compound wrap, you’ll be able to fly out of just about any mistake like a pro.
Once you have mastered follow the leader drills, flank drills are next. For purposes of this drill discussion, we will reference the basic square. Begin by flying a single file ground pass about 10’ in altitude from left to right across the wind window. Just before you reach the right side, the lead pilot would yell “turn” or “now,” some type of call to cue the turn. As the turn from the horizontal plane to the vertical plane is made, the kite orientation also changes. When both kites turn at the same time, the orientation changes from single file to line abreast (side by side). When you turn from horizontal to vertical, the #1 kite should still be on the right and #2 on the left. As your kites climb, cue the next turn (left) before you reach the top of the window. This time going to the horizontal plane, the kites will travel single file again, but this time from right to left, but the #2 kite will be the lead kite. The next turn (down) will have the kites side by side again, and before reaching the ground, cue a right turn back to the ground pass. If everything went right, the #1 kite should once again be the lead and #2 following single file and both kites flying from left to right as when the square was started. You’ve just completed your first flank maneuver. Just remember that horizontally, the kites fly single file, and vertically, the kites are side by side. This orientation can also be reversed. In the horizontal plane, the kites will look “stacked” wing tip to wing tip and nose to tail vertically. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Even the wind window can be divided in a number of different ways. Use your imagination.
Eventually, you will want to take these basic moves and try to make them a bit more exciting. Usually, this would mean adding in music. A good way to start is to have some tunes you like playing in the background. Make your turns on a given beat of the music. Sooner or later, you will start trying to interpret the music. To do this, you will have to take into account the overall style of the music. Often, this is difficult to put into words, but the several components to think about would be specific style or type (rock, jazz, classical, new age, etc.), overall tempo, and dynamic. The overall mood of the music should be thought of as well. Is it sad, uplifting, or intense? Typically, music that is slow, open, and flowing might be interpreted with curves and flowing lines; music that is fast, driving, and intense might be interpreted with hard angle turns. Breaks or stops in the music are typically good places for stalls or landings, depending on their length.
Just as your kite has to be launched, it also has to be landed. Sharply executed snap landings or trick landings and launches are a good way to add interest and excitement.
Now that you’ve decided to plunge headlong into pairs flying and found a compatible partner and maybe even matching kites and line, it’s time for sychronizing your aerial daring duo. I have heard many stories, legends, and myths about the early days of sport kite flying among pairs and teams. I have been told that every team probably had different methods of calling a routine. This would almost certainly make any type of megafly impossible, unless all members got together beforehand to discuss cueing maneuvers. Teams or pairs that lived or flew in the same general area and saw each other on some semi-regular basis would work out their own commonality of calls; however, they would still be different from other areas of the country. These pockets of commonality eventually became known as “tribes,” but for bigger mega-flies, another step needed to be taken.
Sometime in the 1990s, three books were published to show kite flyers a way to start teams: The Basics of Team Flying by Troy Gunn and Jerry Hershey, The No Secrets Handbook of Team Sport Kite Flying by Al Hargus, and Kite Precision by Ron Reich. To my knowledge, these three publications probably did the most for defining common calls. Another thing that had to be worked out was direction. Some folks called maneuvers by “kite” direction, and others based their calls on “window” direction. Kite direction meant that if all the kites were flying upward, a left turn would go towards the physical left side of the wind window; but if the kites were flying downward, a left turn would go towards the physical right side of the window. You can imagine the confusion and havoc this could cause. Now directions are standardized by window direction, meaning that right and left turns always move to the right or left side of the window regardless of whether the kite is flying upwards or downwards.
In order to start making calls, a basic understanding of the parts of the call is necessary. Basic calls happen in two parts: the maneuver or direction, then the execution. The maneuver portion is where the lead is stating a maneuver and/or direction to be performed. An example would be, “Roll left,” meaning the pair would execute a tight roll maneuver in the left-hand direction. Another example would be “Fall in and follow.” Here the lead is stating that the follow pilot should meet with the lead coming into the lead’s tail and following the lead kite in a single file manner. The second part of the call is the execution. This part of the call determines when a turn or maneuver is to begin. Usually it is a single syllable, staccato word, such as “now,” “turn,” or “go.” Using the previous call for a roll as an example, the two parts together would be “Roll left …now.” We already know that a roll maneuver is going to be done in the left hand direction, but the execution command of “now” is what actually starts the roll so both kites can be together and clean.
The next important thing to remember when learning to make calls is timing and cadence. Timing the call is critical to getting a turn or maneuver to happen in the right place and at the right time. You should give the call early enough to be able to state it clearly but not so early that your partner loses the call mentally before the execution command. If the call is too late, you will be giving it in a hurried fashion to the point that your partner may not hear or understand the call properly. This, in turn, can lead to a maneuver not happening cleanly and/or the pair being spatially out of position in the wind window. The main thing to remember is to THINK AHEAD! As you are flying the current maneuver, you should already be thinking about the next move coming up. This will do more towards getting the call made at the right time than anything else.
On the flip-side of timing is cadence. Cadence refers to the rhythm in which a call is spoken. Usually, a call is two or three short words followed by a one-half to one second pause, then the execution command is given. The time delay between the maneuver call and the execution command should be long enough for you and your partner to be able to comprehend and mentally let it filter through but not so long that over-anticipating the call will make you jump the execution command. This space between the parts of the call is a little different for everyone. You and your partner will have to experiment some to find what works best. The key thing to remember here is that whatever call rhythm and command delay works best, you should stick with it. After you get used to it, you will find that your flying will tighten up significantly.
Now that there is some understanding of the mechanics of calling maneuvers, let’s take a look at some of the actual calls and how they are described. The most basic to start with are follows and flanks. A follow maneuver is just what its name implies. The follow pilot falls in behind the lead pilot and follows wherever the lead pilot goes in “follow the leader” fashion. The follow pilot should aim at the outside wing of the lead pilot on curves. This will keep the spacing between the two kites better through the curves. Typical calls for follow maneuvers are: follow right, follow left, fall in and follow (typically used when recalling the wing pilot from a maneuver where he/she has been split from the lead), follow up (or down) the center (typically used for climbing from a ground pass or dropping from full sky to make ready for some type of split maneuver). These are just some ideas of how to use a follow command. All that is needed is to make it fit how you fly. An interesting reverse is “tail lead,” where the captain puts the wing pilot in the lead while the captain still makes the calls.
The next type of call to consider is the “about,” also called the “U-turn.” This call most likely has its roots in the military command of “about face.” An about turn is simply a tight U-turn where the pivot point of the turn is on the wing tip of the kite or just outside the wing tip. When flying a horizontal line, abouts would be called as “up about” or “down about.” If flying a vertical line, this turn is called as “left about” or “right about.” The thing to remember when flying “about” turns is that these are 180° maneuvers. If the kites are flying side by side, the turn happens at the same time for both kites. This means side by side entering the turn; side by side exiting the turn. The left kite stays the left kite and the upper kite stays the upper kite. If the kites are flying in a follow form, when the turn is made, the following kite will then become the lead kite when flying the opposite direction. Next is the “flank.” These are interesting because each turn changes the formation from follow to side by side alternately. In the same manner as about turns discussed previously, flank turns are also up, down, left, right, with the command being “flank up,” “flank down,” etc. Instead of a curved turn, the flank turn is considered a “hard angle” maneuver. Typically done at 90°, the flank should be flown as a synchronous snap turn but slightly rounded off. It has been found that ripping the turn too hard takes away from the turn happening cleanly. It’s just about impossible to get two kite sails to snap together as if they were one kite.
As stated earlier, each flank turn changes the formation being flown. If flying a horizontal ground pass in follow, the captain could call “flank up…now.” Both kites would turn up at the same time and would be flying vertically side by side with the lead kite still on the right and the follow kite on the left. Assuming that this turn was made at center window, the captain could call “Flank right…now.” Both kites would snap turn right 90° and the lead is once again lead. At the right side of the window, the call could be “Flank down…now.” The kites now once again fly side by side but downward. At half-sky, call “flank left… now.” This time going to the left, the follow kite becomes lead kite since the direction is the opposite. At the left side of the window, the call could be “Flank down…now.” The kites turn to a side by side formation downward. At the bottom of the window (before crashing!) the call could be “Flank right…now.” As both kites turn at the same time, the lead kite is, again, in front where it started.
The next maneuvers to discuss are loops and rolls. Both are 360° figures, but it’s their diameters that define them. Rolls are set with the pivot point being on the wing tip. Loops are defined by a degree of sky. This will be talked about in more detail later. Rolls only have four essential directions: left, right, up, or down. However, there is also the split roll where one pilot flies an up or down roll and the other pilot flies the opposite roll. In the vertical plane, they are split left and right. Calling a roll happens just like you might think. A typical roll might be upwards such as “Roll up….now.” Vertically, it might be “Roll right…now.” In the case of split rolls, the lead pilot’s direction would be stated first, “Down up split roll…now.” In this case, lead flies a downward roll, and wing flies an upward roll. When the roll is completed, both kites continue along their original path in the same orientation as when the roll was started.
Loops are the same maneuver as rolls, just larger and modified by the “degree of sky” to define its size. Degree of sky is a dimension of distance from the ground to the top of the wind window. The typical modifiers divide the window along horizontal lines of one quarter, half, three quarters, and full. If you’re flying 100’ to 120’ lines, a one-quarter sky loop would have an approximate diameter of 20’, a half-sky loop about 40’, a three-quarter sky loop about 60’, and a full-sky loop about 80’. The additional modifier of up or down is only needed if the loop is started from a path at about mid or half sky. If flying at ground or one-quarter sky, the loop direction is generally accepted to be upwards. If the flight path is at three quarters or full sky, the direction is generally accepted to be downwards. Examples of loop calls are: “full-sky loop…now.” (If started from ground, it flies upwards. If started from full sky, it flies downwards.) “half-sky loop down…now,” or “threequarter sky loop up…now.” About turns, mentioned earlier, can also be modified by degree of sky. In review, we remember that about turns are 180° instead of 360°; therefore, when the kite reaches the next altitude or degree of sky, the kite will be flying in the opposite direction. The most common of these turns are half sky and full sky. Here are some examples: “half sky up about…now,” “full sky down about… now.” These are the same U-turns described earlier only modified by an altitude. They allow you to move fairly quickly through the vertical plane of the window in an orderly yet showy manner. Once some basics have been worked out, they can be called more quickly and efficiently by using a series call.
A series is defined as a collection of basic maneuvers arranged in a specific order to create a larger maneuver. The name of the series should be given at least a small amount of thought. The key in naming the series is to be able to accurately “trigger” the series from your memory. In the case of Windjunkies, we had a maneuver that started as a horizontal split with returns and splits about vertical, horizontal, and both diagonal axis. We named it “starburst series” because to us that is what it looked like. When the series came up in our ballet, it was called as: “starburst series…go,” then each turn was cued as it came along as “turn…turn…turn.” Once the series has been rehearsed to the point of being second nature, individual turn commands and descriptions may be eliminated. The whole idea is to get down to the basics of name and cue. Name the series, execute, then just cue the turns with “turn” or “now.” Just remember that if the turns happen on a specific beat in the music, you must give the turn call at the right time so that reaction time puts the turn where it should be.
The next level is what could be termed as flying by execution only. When you have flown a routine long enough and have it fully memorized, the entire routine becomes a series. This could be the ultimate level of calling. It allows the captain to more precisely place turns and maneuvers because you don’t have long, cumbersome, and sometimes confusing calls. All that is needed are three words, “now,” “go,” “turn,” and mostly you will only use two words. In the current Windjunkies ballet, I’m only using “turn” to cue turns and “now” to cue tricks and landings. If flying to music, certain sections may not need calls at all. Specific turns or tricks are cued by the music itself and, therefore, can be placed even more precisely. We have just covered a good number of the specifics in regards to calling maneuvers, but there are some calls that are more general in nature. These are “coaching” calls. To my knowledge, there is no standardized form of coaching the pace of a routine. There will be times, particularly when flying to music, that the pace might speed up or slow down to where you are either ahead or behind the music. When this happens, you can try to fit in a quick line like, “just ahead” or “just behind.” Also, a good old-fashioned “speed up” or “slow down” works just as well. The idea here is to find a way to communicate with your partner or teammates that works best for you.
The final type of call is probably the most important and is the only one that can be made by either partner. This call is “stations.” The main reason for calling “stations” is for safety. Since many of us fly in public areas such as parks or beaches, someone unknowingly wandering into your flight arc is a very real possibility. The second reason for “stations” is if something goes wrong during a practice routine. When working on a new maneuver or series, come confusion is bound to happen. When it does, “stations” can be called, and like in an emergency or safety situation, everything immediately stops and all pilots break from the formation and go to a predesignated place in the sky, typically some form of arch across the top of the wind window. Because this is the only command that can be given by any pilot, I cannot stress enough its seriousness. The “stations” command should never be given in jest or as a joke, and when heard, should be executed with all dispatch. We have just scratched the surface of how to call maneuvers. For further information, try to find a copy of one or all three books mentioned earlier. Since they all have these calls illustrated, they will be able to make more sense. Just remember, the idea is to have fun. Use your imagination and experiment.