Lessons Learned

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Kite and KAP Rig Meets Helicopter . . . Helicopter Wins

edited November 2013 in Lessons Learned
Fate showed up Sunday afternoon June 1, 2008 in Philadelphia, PA on the Delaware River waterfront.

It had to happen someday….I hoped to be reading about this type of event as a hypothetical possibility and not writing about a factual real life encounter with a helicopter while flying a kite and KAPing.

Please read carefully and note pictures supporting this story along the way.

The setting:

A beautiful late spring day on the Delaware River Water front. The wind was running about 10-20 mph out of the west. A water safety day was underway on the Delaware River waterfront with just about every boat in the Philadelphia police and fire department were on display. The U. S. Coast Guard had a large presence. The U. S. Navy was present. Over 100 law enforcement officers, water rescue teams, swat teams, un-manned submarines … the works was on display at the Delaware River water front in Philadelphia, PA.

The south end of Penn’s Landing peer that fronts the Delaware River was free of major obstacles. I checked the park rules and local law enforcement for any special restrictions. I did a brief safety review. The wind was blowing out of the west which would place the kite and rig safely over the water with minimal risk to any people in the area. The wind was strong and steady enough to attempt a KAP session with my Premier Kites 78” Rokkaku. I launch the Rokkaku kite to test the wind for about 15 minutes. The kite was stable and flying well at different altitudes 100-300 feet. I attached my auto KAP rig (modified BBKK rig with the AuRiCo controller) ran a preflight check with the Canon A570IS with the large 0.45 Opteka wide angle converter attached. I selected one of my Wind Watcher CHDK KAP scripts and selected 6 still photos and 20 second video clips.

Up in the air with lots of fun KAP subjects to capture including: the U.S.S Olympia (vintage battle ship from 1898 Battle of Manila), the U.S.S. Becuna – guppy-class submarine from WWII (South Pacific), Gazela tall ship, Moshulu tall ship, the Spirit of Philadelphia, the Big-J Battleship New Jersey and the Ben Franklin bridge. Lots of activity in the water with many sailboats, jet skis, police boats, Cost Guard boats and fire boats.

The kite and KAP session was pure enjoyment. The kite and rig was out over the water doing it’s thing – taking pictures from a kite. I had several parents stroll by with their kids. I had several parents and young kids hold the kite line to get a feel of the power of a kite. Total KAP time was about 30 minutes.

Enter the helicopter:

Suddenly a Coast Guard helicopter shows up on the NJ side of the river over a mile away. The helicopter is starts doing mock sea rescues near the Ben Frankly bridge (about 1 mile away from my kite). I begin to assess the unexpected new situation. The helicopter sea rescue demonstrations continued for several minutes near the Ben Franklin bridge with the helicopter hovering over the water under the Ben Franklin Bridge at less the 20 feet off the water. The helicopter sea rescue demonstration continued for about several additional minutes or so and seemed to be restricted to near the Ben Franklin bridge and NJ side of the river where several police and fire boats had gathered. I began to assess my options and to prepare to bring the kite down if the helicopter returned to my immediate area.

The Rokkaku kite was flying at near 200-250 feet with the KAP rig about 100 feet below the kite. The wind was continuing to fluctuate between 10 and 20 mph (with a few gusts).

The helicopter suddenly starts heading straight for my location from a mile away. I immediately try to assess my emergency options to avoid the fast closing helicopter. Options included: A) wind in quickly B) let line out quickly and C) cut the line. I could not move latterly as I was on a dock surrounded by water.

The helicopter closed to my location quickly (in less than 60 seconds). The speed of the approach surprised me. I immediately took evasive action and selected option B) let line out quickly (hoping the KAP rig and camera weight would quickly drop the line into the water (sacrificing the rig and camera to the water) to avoid the helicopter. I let out maybe 75 to 100 feet of line in less than 30 seconds. The altitude of the kite and KPA rig did not change significantly (wind gust was taking out the line). The tension on the kite line was moderate due to the gust.

The helicopter few under my kite and above my KAP rig! The kite line was immediately cut by the helicopters blades. The helicopter continued flying down river with no visual impact on flight direction or speed.

The BBKK auto KAP rig with my Canon A570IS camera and wide angle lens converter hit the water with a big splash after a free fall of about 100-150 feet.

The Rokkaku kite was taken by the wind across the Delaware River where it landed just in front of the Big J Battleship NJ and the Tweeter Center in NJ.

I was stunned.

I quickly began cranking in the kite line. The KAP rig with camera attached was now 20-30 feet underwater! I cranked in the kite line for about 5 minutes with a fair number of onlookers who witnessed the entire event. It was like landing a big fish on the dock when I finally pulled my KAP rig out of the water. The kite was just falling to the ground after dropping like a leaf in the wind. I was surprised it stayed up so long and that it reached the NJ side of the Delaware River.

I was stunned at what had transpired in the last 10 minutes. Swinging from an enjoyable KAP event to a few seconds of terror followed by relief that no apparent damage or safety related accident with the helicopter. The risk was real to me of the potential for a more serious outcome. The multiple police and onlookers shrugged it off as bad luck on my part (losing the KAP rig, camera and kite). I considered myself as very fortunate individual to survive with only a material loss.

The rapid turn of events had me rethinking what I could have done differently: a) not fly a kite at all, b) no KAP attempt, c) wind in the kite as soon as the helicopter showed up over a mile away, d) cut the line, e) wind in the line when the helicopter approached, f) better research on helicopters in the area, g) notifications to flyers… I am sure I will add a bunch more ideas…. and I welcome comments and recommendations from fellow KAPers…. I openly share all of this with the hope that it will help fellow KAPers make better decisions than I.

Post analysis:

Nerves : Three days after the KAP encounter with the helicopter I am still assessing my nerves.

Rokkaku Kite (Premier 78”): Lost and I hope in the hands of a new owner. The kite was confirmed to land in NJ near the Big J. I called security at the Big J and they promised to call back if they spotted the kite. Two hours later I received a call. They spotted the kite near the Tweeter Center. I drove to NJ to visit with the Big J and Tweeter Center security….and after a 1 hour search…no kite was found. Two witness confirmed the kite landed but now no kite could be found. I hope someone has a new kite.

Modified KAP Brooks BBKK rig: Wounded but still kicking. The KAP rig was seriously deformed (See picture). All four of the sides (top, bottom, right and left) were bent. The compact Picavet cross was also deformed with all four arms bent up (see picture). The PeKaBe ball bearing blocks showed no evidence of damage. The string on the Picavet cross showed no evidence of damage. The Brooxes hang-ups were stretched and deformed (see pictures). The damaged described above is evidence of serious force on the rig. I attributed the force to three possible factors a) stress on the line from the helicopter blades applying sudden G-force on the kite line and KAP rig (most probable casue), b) force of the rig hitting the water from 150 foot drop (next most possible cause) or c) force during winding in the KAP rig while under water (I discount this cause).

AuRiCo Controller: The AuRiCo controller was full of water after pulling it out of the river. I removed the KAP rig batteries and let the AuRiCo controller and battery case dry out (see pictures).

Pan and tilt servos: There was no visible damage to the pan servo or gears. The tilt servo axis was bent (see pictures).
AuRiCo Controller with servos: After two days of drying out I reloaded the original AAA Energizer batteries and activated the AuRiCo controller and it powered up normally and turned the servos!

Kite line (braided Dacron 200 lbs): The kite line was snapped by the helicopter blades. Prior to the line being cut there was the typical pull of Rokkaku kite then nothing at all. The picture shows the end of the kite line that was attached to my reel. I examined the kite line for any tears, cuts or stretches. The attachment points where the Brooxes hang ups were attached showed stretch marks. The line was cut approximately 10 feet from where the Brooxes hang ups were attached to the line (very close call). My emergency run out of the line may have dropped the KAP rig below the height of the helicopter (hard to tell as the helicopter was rising up at the same time).

Canon A570IS camera with large 0.45 Opteka wide angle converter: The camera sank to a depth of 20-30 feet in the Delaware river (Philadelphia is a sea port with direct access to the Atlantic ocean. The water is a mixture of fresh and salt water….. After pulling the KAP rig and camera out of the water with a bit of help from nearby spectators I removed the batteries, SD Card and poured out the water from the camera (see pictures). The Opteka wide angle converter was full of water but no apparent other damage (see pictures). After setting the A570IS in the sun (dashboard of car) to dry out for a whole day. I was able to get the camera to power up, but no sensor response in camera mode. I placed the camera for a 2nd day in the sun and was able to get it to power up and take pictures! Amazing. My spirits are beginning to improve!

SD Card: The SD card was wet when removed from the A570IS camera. I popped the SD card into my pocket and let it dry out for a day. I got up enough courage to pop the SD card into my PC slot to see if I could salvage any pictures from this eventful KAP experience. To my surprise I was able to recover all pictures from the KAP session from the start to the moment the helicopter blades cut the kite line. See link in flickr set below for additional shots.

KAP Pictures: multiple pictures and video clips were captured during the KAP session. Assorted mixtures of interesting KAP pictures were captured. Several shots of the helicopter in the immediate area and beginning it’s approach to the KAP rig were captured (see pictures).

KAV Video: Multiple KAV video clips were captured during the KAP session. The video was rolling taking pictures looking south down the Delaware River when the helicopter approached from the North and cut the kite line. No video pictures of the helicopter were captured during the encounter. The last frame of the video shows a sudden blur as the kite line was cut. The audio on the video clip is most informative (and scary) as you can clearly hear the helicopter approaching and getting loud. See video here.

I consider myself very fortunate that there was no accident or apparent damage to the helicopter. The risks were sudden and beyond my control after the kite and KAP rig was in the air and the helicopter suddenly approached. Safety should continue and must be a first priority for all KAP sessions. Material losses (lost kite, damaged KAP rig and components) on my end are insignificant to the potential risks. I hope this detailed write up helps guide my fellow KAPers to make wise decisions when they encounter similar events. I appreciate thoughtful feedback from all.


  • edited November 2013
    Ran out of room on the post above. More pictures posted here.
  • Holy crap!
  • Thank you for the detailed write up. I'm sorry it happened to you.

    A few years ago, I became very interested in Ham Radio. For a various reasons, I didn't pursue getting the lisence at the time. After one close call with a helicopter a few months ago, I wonder if having a handheld radio to make immediate contact would have been helpful.

    So, you used Brooxes hangups and didn't lose the rig with a loose line after losing the kite?
  • edited June 2008
    Very glad no one was injured.

    My two bits:

    For the risk averse I think any sighting of a helicopter at low elevation is reason to haul the rig in. Those darn things don't stay in one place.

    Other ideas: 1) NOTAMs (sp?), 2) mylar line laundry, 3) knowing flight paths so you know where to avoid KAP, when you need to call authorities, and how best to react when you see them coming. I think the greatest risks in urban areas are anywhere near a hospital (or other helipad), along shorelines and over rivers, along freeways, others?? I've seen hospital helicopters do extensive exercises over urban sites before. Playing fields and parks are sometimes marked as emergency landing sites for large helicopters. The police generally get there first but if you see a hovering helicopter . . .

    Yes, that's a pretty good advertisement for hangups. Let us know what else survives and if/when they ban KAP in Philidelphia :)
  • This was advice from the pilots themselves:
    "Keep the number of aviation authorities in your cellphone and when in any doubt, call them".
    They have of course means to communicate with the helicopter.
  • I'm really shattered. You are very lucky no damage to others and helicopter.

    Marked line with mylar pieces would be solution and as Timo suggested - number of authorities in cellphone. But if you had only 60 sec time - its not enough to call...

    Anyway thanks again of warning us!
  • Great story, thank you for sharing it in so detailed way! You (and we all) have learned a really good lesson, paying a very low price. You were really lucky!

    One of the most surprising things for me is that you could recover the rig winding it in. It seems to me that getting tangled underwater would have been the most probable result.
  • Thanks for sharing your experience. My guess is the picavet got bent winding in from under water, the weight of the full camera, plus the pressure of the water you are pulling through would probably be enough I think.

    Various experiments with camera memory cards have shown they will withstand a considerable amount of bad treatment (including being blown up!) Though at the extreme end you usually need expert assistance in recovering the contents, but it is still doable.

    I think the most salutory lesson is that when helicopters are about - don't fly unless they know you are there, and you know they know. It strikes me that when they first appeared on the scene was the time to take action "just in case", either by making contact with their ground controller, or by removing your kite and camera from the sky. We can all argue about shared responsibilities, etc. but ultimately it is a call each individual has to make. Helicpters are by their very nature very maneouverable, so I'd be tempted to give them lots of room.
  • Hearing a helicopter in the distance is always enough to get me hauling line down fast, arm over arm, onto the ground.

    That said - the circumstances you were faced with were quite different and unexpected. It seemed as though the aircraft was doing mock rescues some way away.

    Happy for you it ended up ok for all.
  • Great (if unnerving) story Jim, and good pictures too!

    Too late for you to do anything about it now, but ever since one of my kites blew away (many years ago, and I recovered it anyway) I've made a point of marking them with my name and phone number with a laundry pen. No guarantee that it won't be stolen, but it increases the chances of getting it back.
  • Thanks for sharing. I believe that the KAP community really benefits from hearing about experiences such as yours. One comment and a question.

    You mentioned "winding" the kite in as an option. Perhaps it just the wording but I can bring in a kite very quickly by just bringing the line in and letting if fall to the ground. Probably upwards of 10ft/second, though the rate is largely dependent on the pull on the line. Though it has it's cons, this is actually the way I normally deal with my line and then I'll wind it back on the spool after the kite is down. If your winds were 20mph at that moment then you would have had a very strong pull and this would have been difficult.

    I wonder if the helicopter pilot knows he hit your line? If so, they would have to file an incident report. It would be interesting reading. You could also file an incident report. I know in Canada, and I believe in the US, preliminary incident reports are available online within days of the occurrence.
  • Wow, what a scary story. Thanks for sharing it with everyone, though. I do think we all benefit from it.

    I, too, was wondering if there would be an incident report filed by the pilot.
  • edited June 2008
    I guess it's good to check those accident/incident reports every once and a while. This was recent fatal incident off Long Island I hadn't heard of before. Apparently the evasive maneuver and not the kite line itself was the cause of the accident.

    From the few incidents I've heard described it sounds like a slack line (i.e. a released kite) can result in propeller wrapping and a taught line is more likely to be severed. If the time is short hold tight and make sure the string is not wrapped around your hand/leg/body.
  • I'm glad everybody's OK.

    If I have less than 500 feet of line out, the last thing I would expect would be being hit by an aircraft.

    Over populated areas, and unless it's an emergency, aren't aircraft required to stay at least 1,000' up?
  • Whew! Thanks for the cautionary tale...yikes!

    I'm so glad both you and the pilot are fine. After hearing your story I think we'll start adopting Simon's practice of hauling in line the minute we hear a helicopter... probably more unlikely in our rural area, but nonetheless...
  • For some years I've had a great relationship with the air traffic people. I fax a plan of my proposed activities, location, time, height, description of the kite and they spread the word. BUT - helicopters still pose the biggest threat as they don't follow fixed flight paths and don't abide by minimum altitude regs. I've instead taken to contacting the companies themselves to get information on where they plan to be. Of course it helps when there are only two helicopter operators in the country. I would be doing a lot more KAP if it wasn't for these ***** things.

    I've thought about this scenario often but still can't imagine the stress of this experience. It is just so incredibly fortunate that the line was cut.
  • Cnsidering some of the comments above I would suggest the following procedure:

    1. Pull the kite down if you judge this to be possible.
    2. If option 1. is not possible tie the line down securely to maintain a tight line and get away from it.
    3. If 1. and 2. are not possible I would stand on the reel facing the kite and maintain a tight line, hoping I could release it without injury if required.

    Aditional points:
    a. Don't use a stronger line than you need.
    b. Always wear a pair of strong leather gloves or better to help with 1. and 2. (I sometimes just wear one glove)

    Option 2. is by far the safest for the kite flyer.
    Option 1 involves the risk of pulling the kite into the path of a low flying helicopter if you misjudge the situation. It also involves a high risk of getting arms and legs tangled - yours or those of others.
    A few other variables are helicopter speed and height, wind speed, wind direction relative to helecopter, kite type and height and line material.
    Just how much time do you have in flat country from first hearing an average helicopter to it being on top of you I wonder?
  • @Jim:

    Glad you & the helicopter turned out okay! Frightening story nonetheless.


    While hanging out and not flying kites at one point this week, I was able to hear a low-altitude helicopter more than 6 miles away. Conservatively, a helicopter can go 60mph, so that would give you 6 minutes.

    That is, if you knew it was coming towards you. At the Alameda NAS I've been socked between 60' buildings, could hear a helicopter coming (fairly low) but couldn't see it until it was 1/4 mile away. I waved and pointed at the kite and made sure I was in no way firmly attached to the line. The helicopter was a lot above me, but I wasn't able to tell until it got close.
  • Another thing we have to learn from Jim's story is part of the your preparation for a KAP-outing. Carefully study the events programme. If the Coast Guard is a participant you might expect helicopters. Maybe it is even fair to say it is very likely to have low flying helicopters, see this .
    So in such events, which are great KAP-subjects of course, don't KAP or fly kites. Or contact the organizers and/or the Coast Guard.

    Thank you Jim for this lesson learned.
  • In my area the coast guard often flies low (50 feet or so) along the water's edge and they seem to faster than the typical 500' helicopter traffic. They move so fast that there really isn't much time to take down the kite. I like the tip about letting out line ASAP in lighter winds to get the kite down. At one point I was flying a kite on a long pier with the wind blowing perpendicular to the pier. I saw a low flying helicopter approaching and walked the kite closer to shore to help keep it out of his path.

    I think NOTAMs make sense and I note the call letters of the local heliports when I file them. I'm not sure if the coast guard's helipads have call letters and would guess that their helipads are on boats anyway. Has anyone contacted the coast guard about kite flying before? Before it seemed like overkill, but after hearing this story and seeing the multiple low flights in my area, it is starting to make sense.
  • I got the same initial reaction a blueskykites, HOLY CRAP! We recently saw the Australian Coast Guard helicopter, and I had to make a decision. Carla asked me what did I think, I said, he's higher. Also, he was traveling more along the coast and our kite was going more over land. Still, the way they can change directions, we were alarmed.

    I'm glad to hear the incident had no injuries. You lost some equipment, but that is easily replaced. The same gamble we all take every time we KAP. I think the problem I have is, things can happen so fast, you don't even have the opportunity to react. I also fly model aircraft at a field that can't be more than 5 miles from a pretty good size general aircraft airport. They know we're there, but for some reason like to fly right over. They can't be more than 500ft. altitude. I always like to dive when I hear something, get low and wait for them to pass. Not all my co-flyers do. Not that easy to do with a kite.

    So thanks for sharing and I'm glad nothing more happened. Let's all be careful.
  • Here is another idea. I generally tie my kite off once I get it up. I also loop a couple carribeaners on my jeans to tie off with or to bring the kite down. I can get my kite down in about 60 seconds usually if it's tied down by throwing the carribeaner over the line and walking it down quickly. Even if you don't get it all the way down.. going down a couple hundred feet may take it far enough down to avoid conflict. In your case the water would prevent walking forwards with it, but maybe you could have gone sideways? The carribeaner walk down method really seems to work well for me to quickly get the kite down.

    Getting the local air traffic folks number into your cell phone might not be a bad idea either. I'm a wireless communications technician and I'm not sure I'd advise trying to contact the helicopter via a ham setup. The helicopter likely will not be monitoring many channels other than aircraft traffic and possibly a few others. Hoping onto their bands would likely get them very upset with you if it was not a life or death emergency. *They wouldn't have much trouble spotting you since you would be the one holding the kite line either!*.

    Another thing I have been thinking about is a floatation device strapped to the rig or near it on the kite line for use over water. Yeah your camera is likely gonna be worthless, but saving the frame and anything else you can pull out would at least prevent a total disaster. I haven't tried over water yet, I'm still scared of losing my equipment.
  • I'm still having the same initial reaction as blueskykites: HOLY CRAP!

    I've had two not even remotely close calls now, one time with a helicopter clearly below the 1000' floor. But in both instances the helicopters never got within a mile of me. I'm going to find the local ATC numbers and add them to my phone TODAY.

    Glad everyone go out relatively unscathed. I also like the idea of writing my name and number on my kites. I've got it on my rig, but not on the kites themselves. Adding that today as well.


  • WOW! What an amazing series of events! I was in Philadelphia that afternoon--probably within walking distance from where you were.

    I'm amazed that your camera continues to work.

    I wonder if the helicopter pilot saw the kite before cutting the line.

    Thank goodness no one got hurt!

    And a big thank you for the reminders about the risks involved with our hobby!
  • I tried to use reflective tapes attached to kite line on last KAP session and it worked very well under sunlight. Tapes always "blinked". This gave me good feeling during session.
  • edited January 2014
    All, thank you for the many thoughtful comments and ideas.

    A few thoughts after digesting the experience and comments above by my fellow KAPers.

    Safety Firsts:

    - How to avoid a repeat: a) better research, b) NOTAMs (notifications to flyers), c) mylar streamers from kite line… d) pull down kite when helicopter first showed up, …

    Speed of the encounter:

    - The helicopter closed to my position from over a mile away in less than 30 seconds while flying under 50 to 200 feet. I replayed the 20 second video clip (to listen to the audio). The sound of the helicopter is only apparent from the last 10-15 seconds of the clip. No time to a) pull down the kite, b) make a cell phone call (trying to picture this while holding onto the kite line :-) , c) take evasive action.

    Equipment recovery:

    Resurrected camera, KAP gear (modified BBKK rig, servos, AuRiCo controllers) are all working 100%.

    These pictures were taken with the same Canon A570IS camera that spent ~ five minutes underwater in the Delaware River after a brief encounter with a helicopter! I am trying to detect any residual defects in the image. No major defects so far.

    Camera - dried out and taking pictures using CHDK KAP Scripts

    Modified BBKK rig - re-bent to approximately the original shape.

    Picavet cross - re-bent to approximately the original shape.

    Brooxes hang ups - bent back to approximate original shape.

    Pan and tilt servos dried out and working.

    AuRiCo controller - dried out, new batteries and working fine.

    Kite….well that's another story!


    Kite Aerial Photography (KAP) contains inherent risks that need to be appropriately assessed and actively managed to not create a hazard to persons, property, or other aircraft.

    Every time you put a kite in the air (with or without KAP) these risks need to be assessed.

    During the past week I have reviewed my past KAP experiences. Risks were always present. A few, like this encounter with the helicopter, contained elements of risks that were beyond my full control and were pushing the envelope in several areas.

    Recognition that you do not have full control during a KAP session has helped me to recalibrate my personal “risk” meter and to expand the options to mitigate these risks.

    Again - thanks to all who contributed comments to this message thread. I hope all KAPers can benefit from this important lesson learned on my part.
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