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Flying kites and contemplating physics

April 19th, 2010 · 1 Comment · Personal

This past weekend I had the chance to meet Dr. Michio Kaku, acclaimed theoretical physicist and author of several great books on physics and the future of our world. I’ve been a fan of his since I was a kid and read his book Visions, which I think I snatched off my grandfather’s shelf visiting the house when I was about 12 or so. Anyways, Dr. Kaku does a great job of delving into the complex world of physics and making it all understandable to normal human beings. In fact, I hope one day to see him guest appear on an episode of The Big Bang Theory. Michio is quite the radio and TV personality so I can totally see it happening. Fingers crossed!

I met several other kite flyers at Liberty State Park on Sunday morning, which luckily turned out to be a rather beautiful day for filming. I was worried during the week that we would be rained out, but the weather cleared up into partly sunny skies with a high of 58F – it was a bit chilly when the sun was hiding behind clouds but the cool air kept the sky clear and the NYC skyline and Lady Liberty were in full view. The film crew arrived on schedule and began grabbing establishing shots of the area and several kiters up flying. We had single like kites in the air, a few people with delta stunt kites “falling” out of the sky, and a team of Revolution kiters doing some formation flying as the camera moved around the area grabbing shots of the kites and the people.

The program being shot was for The Science Channel as part of a series called “Sci-Fi Science” and the segment the film crew was capturing this day was about solar energy – the kites were used to demonstrate the effect solar energy has on planets, in this case the creation of winds. We weren’t just a backdrop, however, the crew wanted Michio to fly one of the kites while he narrated. Knowing this, I had packed along a small 1.5m two-line stunt foil that could take endless beating and be easy to fly. The only problem was that the winds were very uncooperative that day (versus the previous day when the forecast had them pinned at around 20mph) and for such a small foil you need at least a steady 10mph breeze to keep it aloft. We had to deal with variable winds from 5-15mph. Sometimes the wind was there, sometimes it wasn’t.

While there were some two-line delta stunters other people had packed that would have fit the bill to replace the foil I had brought, my 4-line Revolution kite had apparently captivated the eyes of the director, and he proclaimed that that would be the kite Michio would fly on camera. Uhhh… yea I tried to explain to him how it looked easier than it really was, but Michio was a good sport and said he was game to give it a try. Also on hand to help me coach Michio was Charles Stewart from the local Liberty High Spirits kite group that frequented the park. Again, we were dealing with variable winds that came and went as often as every few seconds, so even after several attempts at keeping the kite in the air, there was never a strong enough breeze to help Michio out in the lift department. Maintaining lift on a 4-line kite is difficult due to the ability to change the kite’s angle of attack, and it’s not something a lot of newcomers pick up quickly. With a strong breeze, however, this need can be almost completely diminished.

Finally the director, still unable to give up on his vision of Michio flying this kite, announced we were going to give it the Hollywood treatment as he carted over some crates of film equipment. No stranger to movie effects, I instantly caught on to his idea, which was to stand on the boxes and hold up the lines as Michio held the handles and delivered his narration to the camera (which he did with the gift of a true orator). Charles and I then turned into kite consultants, reminding Michio to move his wrists as if he were controlling the kite and telling the director to make sure he kept the top lines taut. It won’t fool a real kiter, but the majority of viewers won’t know any better.

While Michio rehearsed his next set of lines, they had me throw up the kite to hover it near the sun so they could get a nice long shot if it hanging still in the air to cut to from Michio’s narration. I wonder if I get credit for being Michio Kaku’s stunt kite stunt double ;)

It all ended on a high note, however, as a rare steady roughly 15mph breeze picked up just as I handed the controls over to Michio in one of our final attempts at getting a shot of him flying the kite. The breeze helped keep the kite at the proper angle of attack for steady lift, and Michio had by now enough flight experience to apply the proper corrections and keep the kite upright enough for a good 6-8 seconds. It was an excellent flight! That’s a wrap!

Not only did I get to have my own kite featured on footage and work directly with Dr. Michio Kaku, but I also brought along that old copy of Visions, yellowed pages and all, and got it signed.

“Sci-Fi Science” will be airing on The Science Channel, and this particular episode should go live sometime this fall. I’ll be receiving word from the production company when the final dates are locked in. Again being no stranger to film, I’m hoping not too much of it is cut from the final edit.

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