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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Out In The Field
Delta kite stories of my real-life flying experiences are worth checking out!
Illustrated with photos and videos, of course.
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
Customers rave about the quality and performance of Dan's
Like to know more about Dan Leigh? Check out his informational website.