Oddly enough, from their inception innovative military strategists have found use for kites. In fact there is historic evidence that kites originated in China as a tool of war. Made of light wood and cloth and designed to imitate the natural flight of birds, these early kites were used for measuring distances to aid in tunneling under fortifications, to chart wind directions, and as communication between ships during battle. However, one of the more unique usage of kites for military applications occurred in WWI. This is another forgotten chapter in the history of kites.

Photo National Archives

WWI was the first major conflict in which aircraft were utilized. There were dirigibles, various types of aircraft, and hot air balloons used as observation posts, just as they were in the 1860’s during the American Civil War. For a brief time in 1918, the kite was also used as a component in multifaceted plans for battlefield reconnaissance.

Samuel F. Perkins, a kite enthusiast from Boston, Massachusetts had an idea to perfect the man-lifting kites in use by the German and French armies. His designs were a definite improvement over European models but the concept and Perkins plans were never battle tested by the American army even though the Germans and allies continued to perfect the kites use for battlefield reconnaissance. As odd as they were, the man carrying kites were actually a brilliant concept that offered a number of advantages. In addition to being lightweight and portable, under the right atmospheric conditions they could be launched with speed. The observer was awarded views of enemy artillery or troop positions that were crucial. With signals sent to gun batteries, they become much more effective and could often turn the tide of battle.   

First a lead kite was launched by the kite squad to evaluate wind directions and conditions. Then stringer kits were added until there was adequate lift for raising the observer and equipment to the desired elevation. The ground crew used a winch to control height as well as distance. Obviously there was tremendous risk for the observer, aside from him being a target or enemy troops. Stability was an insurmountable problem that was affected by changing wind speed and conditions as well as the angle of tether line.

The use of a man lifting kite in battle was a short lived chapter. From its inception it was an antiquated and outmoded concept made obsolete by rapidly evolving aeronautical technology. Today the story of the battle kites of WWI is largely a forgotten chapter in the history of the war and of kites.

You may never want to use kites to lift people for aerial photography but you might want to discover the simple, relaxing pleasures of whiling away an afternoon spent having a kite dance on the wind. Stop by Tumbleweeds and Tarantulas today, and discover the timeless pleasure of kite flying.

Written by Jim Hinckley of Jim Hinckley’s America