April is National Kite Month and this is not lost on Con Engels. The Baden resident, a carpenter and a professional disc jockey, runs Windstar Kites of Greater Pittsburgh North (www.windstarkites.com) and is the vice president of the 15-year-old Fly Pittsburgh Kite Club. Engels is avidly into "power kiting," which means he can now indulge in a beloved childhood activity in ways more befitting of an adult ... that is, more dangerously and expensively.
Power kites are sort of like small parachutes. We use them to pull ourselves around on buggies and, in the winter, on skis. We go to Moraine State Park or Lake Erie and ski on the ice using "shotgun skis," that are cut down and have sharp edges. Some of our members have GPS's on their kites and in a 10- to 15-mile-per-hour wind, you can go almost 40 miles per hour! It's like land-sailing. The adrenaline in power kiting, I've never experienced anything like it!
What if you lose control of your kite?
Most of us have a release system, in case you get into trouble. If you don't have a release system and have to let go, you lose your kite, which is expensive -- a couple hundred dollars at least -- or the handles could kill someone as they're flying loose. And if that kite ends up in power lines, then it's another issue.
Have you ever mangled yourself?
I've never broken any bones [knocks on wood] but a few years ago in Hampton Township, I was using a buggy on pavement in a parking lot about two soccer fields large. I was having a blast until I hit a gust. I turned before the kite and was ripped out of the buggy sideways and backwards, pulled into the air about 10 to 15 feet and dropped. I didn't release the kite because ... well, your stupid ego tells you that you can control the kite, which you can't. I was bloody and bruised down my whole arm and side, from my hip down to my knee. Since then, I have avoided pavement.
How'd you get into kites?
My grandfather, Leo Lacher, was an avid kite flyer who flew kites off his back porch in Troy Hill. His house was at the top of Ravine Street and it looked over the [Allegheny] river. In the spring, he'd buy a paper diamond kite and a few balls of string. He'd let the string out and out and he'd end up with the kite out so far that it was probably flying over Lawrenceville somewhere. I wouldn't recommend doing this!
Because you're flying over traffic and over power lines. If it's wet or damp outside and the kite touches an uninsulated line, it can short out the power, burst into flames, maybe catch things on fire.
What's the most unique kite situation you've experienced?
Probably being on the flying field in Tulsa in 1985 with the world's largest kite, built by New Zealander Peter Lynn. It weighed about 800 pounds and was shaped like a trilobite. It had a single line kite that was attached to a tractor-trailer, because you can't hand-fly anything that big.
Where's a good spot in Pittsburgh for kite flying?
The best place to fly is in Oakland, at the Schenley Oval. Point State Park is a not-so-great place to fly a kite. Because it's down on the river, the only good wind direction is out of the west off the Ohio River. If it's coming from any other direction, the wind does crazy things. Depending on where you're flying, the obstacles and terrain around you affect the wind. When you're talking about Western Pennsylvania, it's all hills, so it's not the best for kites. Go find a soccer field or a ball field, any kind of flat area. If you become an avid kite flyer, you're willing to travel.
What does kite flying inspire in people?
The feeling that you get out there in the wind, in the elements ... the feeling of the kite tugging on the line, you're feeling something that you cannot see! The power of the wind is extreme. On the news every day you see what tornados and hurricanes do. When you fly a kite, you're feeling what Mother Nature is and what she can do. Where I came from, flying with my grandfather, it's also being connected to a memory.