Gonzo Death Traps From the Early Days of Aviation: Man-Lifting Kites

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It's 1918, and wartime aviation is still in its infancy. The airplane is not even two decades old, and dirigibles and hot air balloons are all too easy targets for advancing artillery units. For a brief time on the battlefields of WWI, kites -- the oldest method of aviation -- fill a technological hole in battlefield reconnaissance.  

Compared to the other available modes of aviation, man-lifting kites were lightweight, portable, and quick to the air. Once aloft, the "pilot" could survey the battlefield and signal enemy positions down to the ground. They could be assembled and dissembled quickly, and could be flown at various altitudes.     

The above image depicts an army test flight of a kite system designed by Samuel F. Perkins, a Boston based kite maker and promoter. But even at this time, Perkins was playing catch up with Europe's kite technology. "The American effort was really sporadic," Scott Skinner, founder of the Drachen Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to kite history and education, tells me. "All of the European armies experimented with these systems prior to World War I, and frankly they were a lot more serious about it and a lot more successful at it than the Americans were." The Americans would never use the kites on the battlefield, but the Germans and French had them on the fronts....

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