This interview with Dan Leigh was conducted on the 23rd. Mar., 2010.
1. One of your first kiting experiences was towing up a shower-curtain Delta in very light conditions. Was that delightful flight the main reason you went on to become a Delta specialist, or were there other influences that made you want to focus specifically on Deltas?
That flight (and it was memorable and it was an eye-opener) was my initiation into the group at the Round Pond, as my kite was the only one there that managed a flight that day. At the time I was interested in all kinds of kites, and Sleds in particular. I could get plastic sheeting and thin dowels locally. I didn't have to sew the sails, though I soon had an old hand-crank antique Stoewer with a reverse lever.
At first I just liked Deltas because of their shape, reminiscent of the first hang gliders in the 'early '60s. I didn't discover the Delta's problems until later. But in time I came to like the way Deltas were drawn out full-sized, cut, and put together. It guaranteed symmetry if one was careful enough. The shower curtain Deltas (there were three) awakened me to the potential for light wind flying. Steep flying angles in very light winds. London was the ideal place for it, too, so I did concentrate intensively on just light wind Deltas for a time.
The first "flash" of inspiration in solving a problem came when I realised that Deltas would always fly to one side if the two dowels used for wing spars did not match in flexibility. I test flew every kite so I could swap the spar ends around to fine-tune the flying.
I also realised that Deltas were ideal for experimenting, because you could change one thing at a time leaving everything else constant. If you changed two or more things at once, you might not learn anything constructive.
In the early days of kite making we became involved with other kite makers, and few of them kept their standards high once they began making kites to sell. We still make ours to fly.
2. Kite fliers like to fly high. Civil aviation authorities have rules about things flying above just 60 meters (200 feet), in the UK. In general terms, can you describe the high-flying kite scene in the UK? (For example, do some people routinely fly over 1000 feet in parts of the country? Are there any 'understandings' between kite fliers and the authorities?)
Serious altitude attempts require CAA clearance. The trouble is that 200 feet is still in ground winds; over 200 feet cannot possibly be considered high. Don't fly where there's any kind of aircraft activity. In remote parts of Scotland military aircraft often fly so low you can see the faces of the aircrew. Near airports would be off-limits to anyone with an ounce of sense. Elsewhere it's not cut-and-dried.
At the Round Pond one of the high flyers was an airline pilot, who said you don't have to worry there - the Round is the last IP on the approach to Heathrow and they are at 3,500 feet there. Nobody wants to cause an accident, and in most areas in the UK low altitude air traffic is virtually nil, and not allowed below 1,000ft for most types of aircraft. Hand gliders and microlights are slow enough to spot a kite well in advance, and I prefer to make kites that are visible in the distance if at all possible.
The CAA usually issue temporary 1,500ft height restrictions to kite festival organisers. Sometimes 2,000ft, and higher for record attempts. I've not come across a lone kite flyer who ever applied for a lifting of restrictions. A local hawking centre within a mile and a half or so of Cardiff Airport had no permissions, and had a few visits from the airport police acting on behalf of air traffic controllers with confusing radar blips. I do not recommend that anyone ever flies kites anywhere near an airport, major or otherwise.
3. What is the most useful or notable thing that you have personally contributed to the sport of falconry, involving kites of course?
That's easy: kites that fly near vertically overhead in light wind. Before, falconers had to use surplus weather balloons, which were fine if there was zero wind, but got blown down in quite light winds. They are also awkward to transport and store, and they are expensive to keep inflated. Balloons lose gas by diffusion.
Before balloons, it was pot luck if a bird decided to venture into the wild blue yonder. That was before captive breeding, too, so birds caught in the wild would have already been trained by their parents. Here I should also point out that such birds remain wild, and can be released back into the wild at any time. They are not constantly looking to escape, either.
Falconry is about hunting, and the bond of trust between man and bird. A falconer may temporarily lose a bird after it is attacked by a wild bird, usually a bigger bird like a seagull or kite, or perhaps a territorial falcon.
4. Could you tell us a little about how your passion for Delta kites as a hobby became a business? When did the very first Dan Leigh Delta get sold?
Well, it never actually became a proper business. Our earnings are too low to justify our methods business-wise.
People used to watch the kite fliers in Kensington Gardens (and Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath, Clapham Common and Greenwich in South London), where mostly elderly experienced kite makers flew their kites. At the Round Pond a few individuals had developed unique kite designs and construction methods, and small groups of fliers made their own kites and flew them to prodigeous heights. We lived only minutes away and so did nearly all our testing there.
One of the Round Pond regulars, Alec Pearson, was an experimenter who made quite a few kites and would sell them to anybody who asked, Also, every weekend a Greek-Cypriot named Gabriel sold his deep-sky reels there complete with 80lb twisted nylon line. If you needed a kite, he made wonderful Hexagons based on the traditional kites of his childhood, but using durable materials. So, people already knew that it was a place where custom-made fabric kites could be had for reasonable prices. £4 for a Roller and £8 for a plywood reel with ball-bearing hub sounds cheap today, but in those days a week's wage for Bev was £17.
I don't recall who first asked for one of our kites or when, but it had to be either 1975 or 1976. By 1977 Bev had switched from full-time to working two days a week to help make kites. For a time she made her own design of easy-to-fly square kites with long, colorful tails. Incidentally, dropping out (so to speak) to make kites wouldn't have worked had it not been for Bev's skills at accounting and budgeting. Every penny is accounted for in our books and bank statements, and the money for every bill is saved in advance, even if it means going without.
In the '80s Bev baked all our bread because she'd calculated how much it would cost in gas, and found that she could save 8 pence a loaf by doing it herself. She made Mexican flour tortillas on a cast iron griddle and masa harina corn tortillas with a Mexican tortilla press, because neither were available in shops (they're great with homemade refried beans and salsa). Now we can buy both kinds of tortillas in our new supermarket, but Bev still makes all our tamales using masa harina and corn husks brought back from Arizona.
5. Do you still have an interest in the realm of setting kite altitude records? What would it take to gain such a record these days?
Altitude records are so high that the ground equipment is beyond me, and the kites need to be huge. It isn't my kind of human-scale fun kite flying. See the Countryside Kite Fliers site for photos of motor-driven winding equipment and large kites intended for record-breaking.
When discussing kite altitude records, I would be interested only in single kite records. Trains of kites have set the highest record altitudes, but kite trains do not interest me very much. Sorry to all those who love good kite trains, but they are a nuisance wherever I'd encountered them. And a single kite is something one can control. How high it can fly, and to how steep an angle, are what interest me. This was true of most of the Round Pond dads, too.
How fancy a kite looked on the ground didn't matter one hoot. It was how it looked above a thousand feet that mattered. Fancy kites rarely flew well; good kites spoke for themselves. The simplest geometries still make the best kites, and the simplest blocks of colour are still the most visible in the far distance.
6. People just love the sheer quality and performance of Dan Leigh Deltas. Which one is the most commercially successful design so far? Which is your personal favourite?
I can't comment on commercial success (even if I knew), partly because I don't think it's a good indicator. It misleads people into thinking that's the best kite, which it probably isn't.
My personal favourite is usually the kite I'm currently testing, and the answer would also depend on the wind. A custom LC345, made from Icarex and with a very light frame, does spring to mind, though. It's the nicest flyer I ever made, and was made from leftover material (now gone) and used a spreader (Exel Pro 6) that's no longer manufactured, or at least no longer available. The Wildcard is so well-balanced I love flying it, and the R5, R6 and R7 are all so stable they have become favourites as I get older and less interested purely in light wind hot-rodding.
7. Please expand a bit on which of your technical innovations or other kite features has given you the most satisfaction. Or perhaps, which has given you the most positive feedback from kite-fliers!
I don't think I've done any technical innovating. My kites are made pretty much the same as the AKA 10th Anniversary Delta. There are a few little detail "improvements" here and there, but they aren't absolutely necessary, and it could be argued that anything extra that doesn't do anything is just dead weight. Most of the things that I do that really count are invisible, and therefore never elicit feedback from kite fliers.
My skill set started developing while helping my dad as a kid. I helped measure, layout and cut building materials, think through stock sizes, eyeball lengths of timber for warping. Mechanical drawing in school, followed by architectural drafting (once in my life) and, after university, full-scale aircraft drawing.
Every Delta kite can be described mathematically, which helps for scaling and experimental kites, but you can't start from scratch and design a Delta entirely on paper without first setting the scale, which has to be based on the flex characteristics of the wing spars. It is easy to make light wind Deltas with floppy structures, but more tricky to zero in on a configuration that flies without going too floppy, yet doesn't rely on flapping fabric for stability either.
The thing that has given me the most satisfaction isn't a technical innovation; it's the mathematical solution to defining towing points for complex wing shapes. The innovators in this case are Harold Alexander and John Loy. I just worked out the method and a few equations.
A customer in Minnesota gave me an ancient piece of software, Mathcad 4, and I still use it for towing points. I pop in certain measurements from a list made while laying out a new kite, and can choose a non-default towing point position appropriate to the ethos of the design if I want. I can look at different towing points (in relation to wing parameters) by changing a single entry on the Mathcad page. It can do designs with one or two scallops, flaps, or straight trailing edges. It also lets me do a quick analysis of a kite made by someone else brought to me for repair or designs in books and magazines.
8. In the early days, your interest in kites was fed by a number of kite books and newsletters. What are your current favourite kite resources, and why?
It would still be a few old kite magazines plus a stack of letters from my mentor, Harold Alexander. But I never use either. I'm afraid it's all just my own drawings and formulae.
9. Have mass-produced Deltas got any better since the year 2000?
I have seen one that flew very well. It was probably made in China and certainly was very cheap to buy.
Dan Leigh has been designing light wind kites since 1974, and specializes in the Delta configuration. Deltas enable serious kite fliers to achieve high altitudes and steep flying angles in light winds and thermals.
Customers rave about the quality and performance of Dan's
Like to know more about Dan Leigh? Check out his informational website.