Serious kite-fliers discover and rediscover the basics of flight each time they launch heavier-than-air crafts that depend on the wind to help them overcome gravity and fly. What they may not know is that the kite was the original species in the evolutionary history of the airplane, influencing the Wright Brothers' historic takeoff at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903.
In fact, in the Wright brothers' original patent application, it is the kite rather than the glider or the airplane that is used to demonstrate the principles of flight.
The story of how kites led to flight is told in the main gallery of the College Park Aviation Museum with "From Kites to Kitty Hawk," a traveling exhibit on loan throughout the month from Seattle's Drachen Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization devoted entirely to kites. The College Park Aviation Museum is the first to exhibit the foundation's traveling show, developed to honor the centennial of the Wright brothers' flight.
"The Wright Brothers were really ingenious. In the late 1890s, they put their 'wing-warping kite' to the test, and in a few short years they went from kites to controlled, powered flight," said Jane Welsh, the museum's curator of education.
Besides the Wright brothers, Ben Franklin, Alexander Graham Bell, and biplane glider inventors Octave Chanute and Otto Lilienthal are among the 12 kite experimenters whose kites are the focus of "From Kites to Kitty Hawk."
The first flying machines were flown as kites and look little like today's colorful, recreational kites that are generally made of space-age plastics or synthetic fabric. Defined as unmanned objects powered only by wind, early kites were composed of plant leaves or wooden frames covered by silk and paper. For this reason, they were not built to last past the invention process and thus had to be re-created for the exhibit, said Anne Smallman, curator of collections for the museum.
Fashioned with wood, wire, string and bamboo and white or beige cloth, the aircrafts that currently hang from the College Park Aviation Museum ceiling are a mixture of kites and their progeny, parasails and gliders that were first flown as kites before they tested their capacity to hold a person while airborne.
Each of the inventors experimented with different shapes, sizes and styles in order to investigate wing design, structural forms and aeronautical control systems without risking their lives in gliding flight. The flying entities on display are scaled down but still measure as big as 10 feet wide and are all uniquely designed.
"All the kites look very different from each other because the inventors all had different ideas about how man could fly and how those kites informed powered aircrafts. The exhibit explains how the Wright brothers' kite informed the development of the glider and how the glider informed the development of the powered airplane," Smallman said.
They are various forms of flat kites, which are similar to commonly flown modern kites, using tails for balance and stability; bowed kites, which look like flat kites but have curvy frame sticks that function like the wings of a bird to maintain balance; and box kites, three-dimensional objects that combine circular, triangular or rectangular cells to provide lift and stability.
Accompanying the varied kites are text panels that describe, with the help of designs, sketches and photos, how the kite experiments of prominent inventors, scientists and engineers spawned the airplane, hang glider and parasail.
Beginning with Ben Franklin's famous electrical kite experiment in 1752, the panels tell the story of how kites were used in meteorology, military missions, aerial advertising, photography and recreation before the Wright brothers achieved 12 seconds and 120 feet of powered flight 100 years ago.
"From Kites to Kitty Hawk" runs through Jan. 31 at the College Park Aviation Museum, 1985 Cpl. Frank Scott Dr., College Park. The exhibition is free with regular museum admission: adults, $4; seniors and groups, $3; students and children, $2. 301-864-6029.