Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to the Grandfather of stunt kite makers, Peter Powell


Peter, who has died at the age of 83, will be remembered with affection and nostalgia by mums and dads who were in their 20s and 30s in the 1970s and are now in their 60s and 70s and their children, now in their 40s, as the inventor of a stunt kite which they flew on family outings to field and hill.

Born in 1932, Peter was seven when the Second World War broke out and thirteen when it finished and after completing his national service in the 1950s, settled down to work and whatever it was, it had nothing to do with kites. It was not until he was in his late twenties in the early 1960's that he recalled : "I was trying to help my young cousin fly his new kite, a traditional shaped cloth kite with a string tail. The wind was wrong, either too low or too high and he was so disappointed. From that moment forward I became obsessed with creating a kite that would fly in any wind."

Peter knew nothing of the 'Air-o-bian steerable box kite', designed when he was a boy in the 1930s or the 'Garber Aerial Gunnery Target Kite', a large steerable Diamond kite created in the USA during the War. However, he put his mind to the problem in hand and "soon learnt lots about kiting" to the extent that, by the early 1970s, he had set up a kite manufacturers, 'Peter Powell Kites' in Cheltenham producing kites which were distinguished from rival manufacturers by the fact that they "had to be foldable because I had to walk along a busy main road to get to the King George V Playing Fields where I tested my kites." At this point his kite was "the traditional diamond shape but the added flex to be able to fold it also assisted greatly in high winds."

Peter began to increase the size of his kites and "Two years after I started I patented my first 6ft kite and then went for a world record of highest-flying kite on Salisbury Plain. The lines snapped and I lost the kites." Unperturbed, Peter "decided to go bigger, so made 30ft kites and went for the 'man-carrying record', which was then 3,000ft. I sat 70-year-old Mary Hardy on a swing seat suspended from 7 kites in front of the BBC camera. She became a world famous figure over night and was presented with the 'Charlie Chester Award' for bringing such amusement to the headlines."

It was when Peter was flying one of his 6ft kites that he "noticed a list to one side which I tried to correct by attaching a separate line to the other side. Pulling gently corrected the list, pulling harder caused the kite to loop. Just for fun, I attached a third line and could now loop the kite to right or left, but not much else." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2lsNkoPIGmY&t=3m21s

After this, Peter had his 'Eureka moment' in stunt kite design in 1970, at the age of 38, when lying in he toyed with the "possibility of removing the centre line on the 3-line kite" and asked himself the attendant questions : "When the kite turned into a dive, would the controls be reversed? How easy would it be to fly in this way? if it was too difficult to control, would people buy it? What would happen when the lines became crossed over as the kite looped over and over. Would the line lock and then not be able to used to fly and direct the kite ?" 

Peter later admitted that, in terms of kite design, he was unaware that he "was entering unknown territory" and having constructed his prototype, the day arrived when he attempted to answer his questions "over a large cabbage patch" where to his "greatest relief the kite controls behaved intuitively and not reversed. The lines did not lock together and the kite did indeed carve arcs in the sky. The anxiety was relieved. It flew!" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVNcUkw_VYA

In 1974 Peter used an exhibition at Paignton on the South Devon coast and his flair for showmanship to publicise both the exhibition and his kites where : "To help promote the event I launched one of my 6ft single line kites high into the sky almost out of sight. Then with a pulley located half way up the line, a second line was then connected to a large 'sausage shaped' Aerial Advertising windsock with a knot in the one end. I had painted a message about the exhibition in white paint along the large sock then hoisted it high into the sky. With some small slits down one side, a never seen before message barrel rolled slowly into the sky with no visible means of support."

Sensing that he was on a winner Peter : "Went further along the coast in Torquay and again created this spectacle. The crowds grew and grew and I remained undiscovered for over four hours. Enough time for me to call the local press office and tell them to look out of their windows to see some magic unfolding in the sky. Suffice to say we made the evening news."


Meanwhile : "it took two years of perseverance, hard work, burning the midnight oil and making many prototypes and the 4ft steerable stunt kite was born." It wasn't the first dual control kite. A number had come on to the market, but Peter's diamond kite was relatively cheap, was easy to fly and using that extremely long, inflatable tail, allowed people to 'sign write' with their kite. It originally used aluminium spars and a plastic sail but later models used fibreglass spars and a ripstop nylon sail, for increased durability. Peter had been happy selling 300 kites per week, but sales picked up when he attached the streamer and even more when several kites were linked together for formation flying.

Peter had appeared in 'BBC Points West' : http://ow.ly/WHdWy, but his kite really caught the public's attention and took off when, in 1975, 'BBC Nationwide' broadcast a documentary about Peter and his stunt kites and featured them everyday on the opening credits of the programme. As a result the Nationwide telephone lines were jammed sold for 3 days with enquiries and as a result demand went up to 25,000 per week and he opened two more factories and another three when it reached 75,000 per week 

Thousands of parents now had to learn how to fly one of his kites in order to teach their children and for a while it seemed that few open spaces in town and country were safe, in a reasonable wind, from maniacal fliers of blue kites with yellow tails. Peter was instrumental in changing kite practice and people began to fly them for sport as well as fun. Other kite makers produced newly designed kites that could precision fly, speed, and perform acrobatics and kite competitions with fliers competing to music grew in popularity. Presiding over this was Peter who said : “After I launched my kite, it quickly swept across the whole world. Before then only children had flown kites, but after that everyone had them. I was known as the man who brought kites to grown-ups. Anyone who was anyone had one."

Apparently Peter's kite was bought by American movie stars James Stewart and Henry Fonda as well as Muhammed Ali and one of Peter's favourite memories was when he was in New York and on the national TV's ‘Today’ progamme and he flew his kite "over the Hudson River leaving a trail of falling water behind it as it soared skyward, before commencing a display. The US loved it . It was a very memorable day."

A 'Peter Powell Kite Club' was formed with a logo carrying Peter's smiling face and thick shock of hair and professional accolades followed when he won the 'Silver Diploma' for his kite at the 'Exhibition of New Inventions and Techniques' in Geneva in 1975 and the following year it was chosen 'Toy of the Year' by the British Association of Toy Retailers.

By the late 1990s, with Peter in his late sixties, the popularity of kite flying was on the wane, orders ebbed, company profits started to dwindle and believing his beloved creation was no longer wanted by the British public, Peter set fire to more than half a ton of kite manufacturing equipment. With the advent of the new millennium, however, and unbeknown to him, his sons, Mark and Paul, started to develop their version of his classic model and dubbed it the 'MK III' version and in 2014 Peter was present at the launch of the company's new shop at the Beechwood Centre in Cheltenham : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2lsNkoPIGmY&t=4m10s and in the same year he was interviewed for the BBC 2 Wales progamme, 'I love the 1970s.' 

Peter encapsulated the delights of kite flying when he said :

 "Well it's the freedom isn't it ? On the hill. The winds. You can steer it and just land it : bumph". And it's going again and what it leaves in the sky : it tugs at the heart strings. You'll never forget it."

1 comment:

  1. Nice article! Will add a link to it from my blog on Peter Powell kites at http://peterpowellkitescollection.blogspot.co.uk/

    ReplyDelete