NIKF Update – The Homan Walsh Challenge

Bob White of the Niagara Windriders sent this excellent report on the 2005 Homan Walsh challenge . Thanks Bob!

Monday, October 10, 2005

The Homan Walsh Challenge – Attempting a Kite Crossing
of the Niagara Gorge at the Niagara International
Kite Festival – Friday, October 7, 2005

Anyone who has visited Niagara Falls can attest to the majesty, grandeur and sheer awe that is inspired by the Niagara River’s gorge and the water that plunges over the cataract in two main falls: the Horseshoe and the American Falls. On average, every second 2,800 cubic metres (100,000 cubic feet) of water drops over the 176 foot precipice. It is a truly awesome display of the force of water and gravity as the outflow from Lake Erie rushes toward Lake Ontario, dropping an astounding total of 99 meters (326 feet).

Niagara River’s gorge is a total of 24 km (15 miles) long. Over the past 10,000+ years the force of this water has moved the falls upstream and created a deep river canyon. The river rushes with dangerous currents, eddies and whirlpools so fierce that bridging the mighty river was a task that slowed development of the Niagara Region until 1850. Charles Ellet Jr., an American engineer, constructed a suspension bridge to span the gorge and link the two cities of Niagara Falls Ontario and New York for commerce.

The story of young Homan Walsh, an American lad, who flew a kite across the gorge in 1848 is well researched and documented in an historical article by good friends Meg and Bill Albers of Buffalo, NY. It is a story worth reading and sets a historical context for the recently concluded “Homan Walsh Re-enactment Challenge” which was held on Friday, October 7,2005.

Ten teams comprised of a total of eighty-one kite enthusiasts registered to compete in the challenge. The goal: to fly a kite across the Niagara River gorge and land it successfully on the opposite side, as Homan Walsh had done 157 years ago.

I was privileged to be a part of the Niagara Windriders Kitefliers Association team taking part in the challenge. What follows is my perspective on the event as witnessed from the U.S. side of the river at a location known as Terrapin Point at the eastern brink of the Horsehoe Falls.

The View from Terrapin Point:

Friday, October 7th dawned cold, grey and laden with drizzling rain. A massive cold front comprised of a mid-North American high meeting the remnants of a tropical storm sweeping up the eastern seaboard of the United States was the dominant weather force for the day.

To start the event, Bill Albers, who along with his wife Meg, organized the event as part of the Niagara Falls International Kite Festival convened a pilots meeting of representatives of all the competing teams. Everyone clustered around Bill’s laptop to get a final briefing on weather, wind direction and speed, and the issues of traversing the US-Canada border to carry out the flights. Teams were free to fly from either side, but it was necessary to have team members on each side of the border. A flight squad and a receiving squad were essential to success. Thus, teams had personnel on both sides of the international border. As well as outlining regulations and safety concerns, Bill advised us that the time frame for flying was from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

When the meeting concluded teams dispersed, each with their own strategies, kites, lines and other plans. All were ready to take on the Niagara gorge and be the first to match the feat of Homan Walsh.

The Niagara Windriders had pre-positioned two squads: one on the US side and other on the Canadian side. Our designated kite pilot was Vaino Raun, a very experienced kite flyer in our club. Our team had selected a large silver mylar fighter kite and traditional light cotton fighter line (thread) for the flying line. It was our intention to send the pilot to the most appropriate side depending on wind conditions.

Wind direction reports showed the air flow out of the north, moving directly down the gorge from the Lake Ontario end toward the Horseshoe Falls. This was clearly the least desirable wind condition imaginable. We speculated that a flight from Canada to the US side had the greatest chance for success. Only one other team concluded the same thing. All others chose to try to bridge the gorge from USA to Canada.

So Vaino moved to the Canadian side to meet the NWKA support squad assembled at Table Rock House near the Horseshoe Falls. Our Canadian contingent located in Queen Victoria Park consisted of Bob Luft, Terri Stayzer, Tyrone Hobbs and Carlos Simoes.

On the US side, the NWKA squad consisted of Bob White, Mary Kort (with Michael and Kristen), and Fred and Lisa Taylor. As the receiving squad, our task was to provide a communication link, spot the kite as it moved toward the US side, and retrieve it once over Terrapin Point.

As an observer, I can tell you it is one mean challenge to get a kite successfully across the Gorge and land it in a specific land area. To the west of Terrapin Point thunders the mighty Horseshoe Falls; to the east of the point is a cliff face covered with large trees and then the American Falls. The target area is limited and the land area no more than 100 meters wide.

Once both groups were in place radio communication was established. The flight crew on the Canadian side confirmed that the wind was blowing directly up the gorge from north east to south west – right toward the Horseshoe Falls.

Vaino Raun’s strategy was to get downwind enough to ride the wind up the gorge and use the steerable characteristics of the fighter kite to maneuver toward the US shore at Terrapin Point. From my vantage point I was not encouraged with our prospects for completing the challenge. The visibility was poor, mist from the falls was heavy, and the rainfall was now best described as a very soaking drizzle. The wind was gusty and bumpy. I estimated it to be in the 25 kph range, although we did not have a wind meter with us.

From conversations with Vaino, Carlos and the crew on the radios and cell phones it was clear that the flight was not easy. The initial long launch took the kite up but some swirling wind currents buffeted it as turbulence from the edge of the gorge created some very tricky moments early in the flight. There was some struggling to gain sufficient altitude to leave the cliff side turbulence behind , get out over the river and up into somewhat cleaner air.

Vaino, and Carlos who handled the spool, said it took quite a while to clear this zone. Then, suddenly the kite took line “…like crazy…”. The flyers could barely keep up with the feed while keeping the nose of the kite periodically pointed to the US side so as not to get too far up stream and hit the Horseshoe Falls.

Those of us on the US side watched for the kite to appear and were communicating by radio to try to spot it. Silver mylar in gray mist and constant drizzling rain does not exactly make for a compelling visual target!

The efforts of some other teams:

In the meantime, there was plenty of launch action by other teams on the US side. The Bison Beer team of Richard Dutton, Peter Dutton from Australia, and Ted Shaw ran out a sled with a weighting device only to have it devoured by the Horseshoe Falls. They conferred, drew technical conclusions and launched an African Fishing Kite with similar line weighting. This attempt was designed to reach the Canadian side by going right over the Horseshoe Falls! This effort got some good initial altitude. However, as the line accumulated weight from its own mass and the mist from the falls, the line dipped and snagged a rock on the edge of the Falls. The line broke but the kite flew for a full forty minutes right in the midst of the Horseshoe plunge.

The TKF-Ottawa-Quebec Team employed a totally different approach with a stack of five Dyna-Kites and dual lines on spools. The lines were Kevlar cored and had considerable strength. The spools were massive. Don Brownridge was busy with the spools while Karl Bigras played out line. Jean Lamoureux flew the kites using gloves. The considerable force of the stack required him to wrap the lines around his gloves periodically to keep the stack pointed in a proper direction and not plunge into the falls. Some considerable distance over the falls was reached when suddenly a “Horseshoe” down draft pulled the stack into the thundering chasm and the kites were lost. Much later this team tried again. After a valiant effort and much greater distance, the second stack of five Dyna kites also plunged into the river and rode over the brink of the falls.

Fred and Lisa Taylor of NWKA, worried that we could not see our silver mylar fighter, put out a large delta over the falls. Good height and considerable distance was achieved, but alas, there was not enough line to remotely bridge the wide part of the river above the Horseshoe Falls.

Some other deltas were launched by other teams but the essential effect of the delta kites was to gain altitude in the strong winds and be unmanageable. They just hung there.

Meanwhile . . . back to the NWKA mylar fighter:

As all of this went on, the NWKA mylar fighter was steadily being guided upriver and toward Terrapin Point. Once spotted by the NWKA squad on the Point, all attention from flyers on the US side focused on Vaino’s attempt. Everything came to a standstill as the fighter grew from a speck to a large visual object in about thirty seconds.

Tourists viewing the falls all started to cheer and the other kite teams held their breathe. Even some calls of congratulations were shouted to us as the kite came high over Terrapin Point, just out of reach.

Radio communication was sent back to Canada to land the kite. However, the long lag time in steering due to the length and sag of the line kept the kite on its course (due to line weight). The kite moved slowly away from Terrapin Point and out about twenty feet above the raging water heading for the brink of the Horseshoe Falls. Clearly the kite had made it from the Canadian side of the gorge to the US side, but landing proved illusive.

Vaino made two more attempts to land, bringing the kite close to the railing but not close enough to be gathered in.

Fred Taylor tried to maneuver the NWKA delta’s line to see if he could snag the fighter line but it could not be done. Based on radio directions, Vaino tried to gain altitude again and move the kite toward land on Terrapin Point from a higher angle.

That, however, was not to be. As the kite soared up from it’s close but precarious position above the rushing river, it caught a huge gust and was drawn toward the centre of the Horsehoe Falls.

From Vaino’s distance of over 1500 or more diagonal feet away, and in tremendously difficult visual conditions due to heavy mist from the falls and the steady rain, it just was not possible to determine what should be done with the kite.

Slowly it moved to a point in the sky above the Horseshoe Falls’ brink and went down out of site. The crowd actually groaned. As we communicated by radio that the kite was down and out, it suddenly rose from the heavy mist and tried to climb. It did this two more times and then succumbed to mighty Niagara.

Close . . . . oh, so close!

Not to give up, NWKA launched another small single line kite from the Canadian side. Like most kite flyers that day, Bob Luft of NWKA, pilot of this attempt, found it difficult to see his kite in the mist and to judge its position. The NWKA spotters on the US side were never able to pick this kite out of the heavy drizzle and give him any supportive information over the radios. This valiant attempt was not successful either.

An Intrepid Team from the University of Buffalo Engineering School:

In addition to flying his own attempts as part of the Bison Beer team, Richard Dutton acted as a mento to the UP Engineering students’ team. Flying a modified Conyne Delta with an elaborate second line landing apparatus attached, this group attempted to fly from the Canadian side near the NWKA team. They experienced tremendous difficulty with turbulence near the brink of the gorge on the Canadian side and decided to move to the US side to see if they could bridge the river from there.

After crossing the border, this team flew right up until the four o’clock, two hours past the closing time of the competition. In cold, wet and nasty conditions they worked for six hours to try to bridge the gorge. It was all to no avail.

When asked in the evening how the event went, one of the the UB students summed it up for all of us by saying:

“I was soaked to the skin,
chilled to the bone,
wind burned on my face,
line cuts on my hand,
and . . . .
I never had more fun in my life!”

Well spoken!

Thanks to the Organizers of the Homan Walsh Challenge!

Thank you to Meg and Bill Albers for the enormous work in getting clearance from the myriad government branches, agencies, and regulators for all of us to take part in this event. I think it was likely as hard to “fly through the red tape” as it was to try to fly across the gorge (and likely not as much fun)! However, they persevered and permissions were granted.

For the Niagara Windriders’ team, it was a wonderful opportunity that will always be a great memory!

Some Additional Notes:

Vaino Raun estimated that he had well over 760 metres (approx. 2500 feet) of line out. He determined this calculation by observing the amount of line left on his 3000 foot spool and verifying it later by scaling distance on a Google map of the area. As well he factored in a line sag estimate. The linear distance between the launch site and the Terrapin Point landing site is 640 metres (2100 feet). All in all, it was one awesome flying feat!

Things were happening so fast and the weather conditions were so challenging that I may have missed giving proper credit to some of the teams that flew. Indeed, there was so much action that you would have needed a documentary crew with multiple cameras to make sense of it all.

Many tourists were astounded by the event and stayed around Terrapin Point much longer than weather conditions for viewing the falls from up close warranted. One family from Indiana stayed for a full three hours and cheered loud and long for our near miss. They left the event exchanging email addresses with us and saying that the kite flights were a highlight of their vacation!

At 2:00 p.m. the Japanese Kite team launched a kite arch across the gorge and the International border by walking the kites across the Rainbow Bridge. This was done one time before in 1992.

Since my camera died, I have no pictures to add to the postings at this time. I am hoping for some contributions from others in our group as days go by.

I wand to share with everyone reading this that the event was well planned and well run with some fine kites, kiters and a very good crowd of amazed spectators. The work of Meg and Bill Albers, Richard and Laurie Dutton, Ted Shaw, Kate Scaglione (Niagara Tourism Board) and the sponsors: Wegmans Supermarkets and New York State.Niagara Power made this inaugural event a real kite happening!

Thank you folks – well done!

Bob White
NWKA Newsletter Editor