- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 30, 2005

“A good day, and a good kite will look like it’s pasted on the sky,” muses Jon Burkhardt, chief judge for the Smithsonian’s 39th annual kite festival, aptly tagged “A Sky Fantasy.”

“That’s open to interpretation,” says Brigitte Blachere, festival coordinator for the Smithsonian, with a smile. “After all, the sky’s the limit.”

Saturday’s event will have the sky filled with kites above the Mall between 14th and 10th streets NW and between the National Museum of American History and the Agriculture Department. It should draw more than 100 competitors and about 10,000 spectators.

This Saturday’s annual kite festival begins “the kickoff of kite festivals around the world,” Ms. Blachere says. “It is the granddaddy of all the festivals.”

That may be so, but the festival, usually held on the last weekend of March, depends on the weather and other imponderables. Last year it was delayed for two hours. This year, because an early Easter might have preoccupied the many volunteers it requires and the large crowds it hopes to draw, organizers put it off for a week.

The cross-generational and cross-cultural fun is presented by the Smithsonian Associates and the National Air and Space Museum — and sponsored by the National Cherry Blossom Festival, Metro and the shops at 2000 Penn.

“There’s a whole lot of ways to enjoy kites,” Mr. Burkhardt says, noting that there are more than 40 awards among the youth, kite-maker and master-kite-maker categories. And while the crowd-pleasing contests may involve the most enthusiastic kite-fliers, it’s much more play than competition.

“It’s a lot of creative people sharing the joy of kite-flying,” he says.

• • •

The festival requires that homemade kites be flown by those who made them and that they get 100 feet off the ground for five minutes. Five factors go into the selection of a winning kite: a smooth flight, stability in the air, visual appeal, good design and craftsmanship.

“It should not be too close to the horizon,” Mr. Burkhardt says. Uniqueness counts — and so does crowd appeal for some awards.

Yes, there is a People’s Choice Award, along with kite-making and kite-flying demonstrations.

The first-ever Hot Trick Competition will be held at the festival. Pairs of competitors, using four- or two-line kites, will do tricks with their kites to music for a little more than three minutes a shot.

The Rokkaku Challenge — involving six-sided and taller-than-wider fighting kites — has fliers trying to knock each other out of the sky. These kites are very traditional and Japanese.

So is “takokichi,” one of Mr. Burkhardt’s e-mail names, which means “kite-crazy.” That’s exactly how his family saw him in his younger days.

“I bought a kite once that my family thought was outrageously expensive,” Mr. Burkhardt recalls. “It was about $50. I learned how to build kites from an 89-year-old in Indiana. This guy could run circles around us younger guys then. He made 20 kites a day. He was a real inspiration. I thought the guy had found the fountain of youth.”

Today, modern kites are well-made and easy to fly — and cost $15 to $1,500, Mr. Burkhardt says.

Now that he’s older, he is the inspiration for his fellow kite-fliers. This is the guy who taught Martha Stewart how to make a kite (as seen on TV) and, he says, was greeted at a kite festival in India “like a rock star.”

• • •

Kites probably made their debut in human history around 1000 B.C. in India or China — the research is a little up in the air. Some writers even mark Indonesia or Micronesia as the starting point.

Nevertheless, kites remain part of the magic of everyday life, especially in Asia. That point has been brought home most recently by the novel “The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini, a tale of two boys in Afghanistan.

Now, the kites of Kabul, once banned by the Taliban, fly again — symbols of liberation as much as youthful competition, with boys gluing bits of glass on a kite string to slice through the opponent’s kite string.

For most Americans, the kites also conjure up history and technology. Indeed, the most famous kite of all may well have been Benjamin Franklin’s — used to prove that lightning was, in fact, electricity.

In 1849, engineers wanted to span the Niagara River with a bridge. One of them offered a prize if someone could fly a kite over the site — making a line connection, however small. Ten-year-old Homan Walsh won the money. His string began the wire of a bridge between the United States and Canada.

Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the wireless telegraph, used a kite over Newfoundland to lift an antenna and send the first signal across the Atlantic in 1901.

Alexander Graham Bell experimented with huge man-lifting kites in Nova Scotia. And one George Lawrence, using a giant kite, took a giant-sized picture of the devastation of the San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906.

• • •

To a novice, what can come as the greatest surprise is that kites are intimately bound up with the story of human flight.

Just ask the Smithsonian’s Tom Crouch. Mr. Crouch, a permanent member of the festival’s advisory committee, is senior curator of the Division of Aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum.

Author of many books on flight, including the best selling biography of Orville and Wilbur Wright, “The Bishop’s Boys,” Mr. Crouch has contributed to many TV programs on flight and has competed in the kite festival with fellow kite master Bevan Brown.

“The Wright brothers first flew their models as kites to test them,” Mr. Crouch says as he stands near the 1903 Wright Flier in the Air and Space Museum. “They were meticulous. These were two guys who calculated everything, and it all started with a kite in 1899.”

Mr. Crouch was on hand Dec. 17, 2003, when a re-enactment of the Wright brothers’ first flight failed to got off the ground, thus showing how wind and weather control any takeoff.

“It’s hard to imagine how we could have invented the airplane without kites,” he says.

“People think of kites now as children’s toys,” Mr. Crouch says as he points up to an experimental kite in the museum. “A century ago, it was the top technology.”

• • •

The Smithsonian Kite Festival itself began in 1966 with Paul Garber, who as a young naval officer in World War II used kites with different airplanes printed on them to train shooting teams in target practice.

Mr. Garber, who died in 1992, had been taught how to string a kite by Alexander Graham Bell. As a youngster in Washington, he even got to see Orville Wright fly at Fort Myer.

Working for the Smithsonian beginning in 1920, Mr. Garber went on to collect aircraft and was a major force in the creation of the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall and its first curator when it opened in 1976.

A collection facility in Suitland, which held the overflow of historic aircraft, was named in his honor. Most of the collection at Suitland’s Paul Garber facility was moved to the 2-year-old Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Air and Space Museum at Washington Dulles International Airport.

For Margo Brown, the kite festival always brings back memories of Mr. Garber. A past president of the American Kitefliers Association and a perennial kite festival volunteer, Mrs. Brown has been involved with the festival since its first year, as has her husband, Bevan (also a past president of the AKA).

“Paul Garber would have loved it,” she says of the way the festival has grown.

The Browns have aeronautics in their blood. Mr. Brown used to be a fighter pilot, though he would rather talk or write about kites. Mrs. Brown grew up in California, where her mother flew airplanes, and she was enthralled by stories about flying told by her mother’s flight instructor, pioneering aviator Wiley Post.

“I thought everyone’s mother flew an airplane,” she says, laughing, as she observes an indoor kite demonstration at the Air and Space Museum by Wings Over Washington (WOW), a kite club from Germantown.

Mrs. Brown smiles at the children amazed by the skilled kite flier.

“See, he’s flying the kite to the music and creating his own wind in here,” she says. One of the first rules for flying a kite, she says, is to “respect the wind.”

Yet the kite festival was unexpectedly dissed in 1970, when Mrs. Brown and her fellow kite-fliers were told by the Department of the Interior that kite-flying in the District of Columbia was illegal. That was one year the festival was not held on the Mall, but rather in Prince George’s County.

It took some local outrage, also expressed on District newspapers’ editorial pages, some lobbying by Margo Brown and other kite lovers and, of course, an act of Congress, to get the law changed and return the festival to its rightful place on the Mall, where it has been ever since.

“The festival is purely feel-good,” Mrs. Brown says, standing next to the Apollo 11 command module at the Air and Space Museum.

“Kite-fliers look up; we don’t look down.”

WHAT: The 39th annual Smithsonian Kite Festival

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 2 (rain date April 3)

WHERE: The Mall between 10th and 14th streets NW

TICKETS: Free

METRO: Federal Triangle or Smithsonian (Blue and Orange lines)

INFORMATION: 202/357-3030 or see kitefestival.org.

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