Kite flying is no longer limited to small children and mature adults seeking the calming charms of delicately dancing aerial dragons.
"Stunt kites" have unleashed rip-roaring activity on the flying fields as they dart and flutter at the fliers' command. Indeed, some of the more powerful models "command" the flier, requiring the strength and determination of a varsity wrestler.
Sunday, the skies over LaSalle Park will be filled with swooping stunters, vying for a $1,000 cash purse. That's the largest purse so far put up for such an exhibition, according to Tom O'Connor of the Great Lakes Kitefliers, who are running the contest in conjunction with the Young Professional Businessman's Council as part of their Celebration Buffalo weekend.
Registration begins at 9 a.m. at the park band shell. Demonstrations and competition will start about 10 a.m.
There will be classes for novices and advanced stunters and even an "aerial ballet" division, where kites are flown to music.
In addition, Lee Sedgwick and Sue Taft of Erie, Pa., the current national stunt-flying champs, will demonstrate their top-flight stunting.
"Most stunters choose an easy kite at first -- something like a diamond-shaped Trilby," O'Connor said. "Then they graduate to two- and three-kite 'trains,' or to a 'power kite' like the Flexifoil, which has been clocked at speeds of up to 80 mph and can exert enough pull to drag a grown man right across the lawn."
Stunt kiting is not exactly new.
Indian and Japanese fighting kites have been around for centuries. In Brazil, the famous beaches of Rio de Janeiro boast a bird-shaped kite equipped with little hooks, used by fliers to snatch bikini tops from sunbathers.
"But the new stunters that hit the flying scene about 10 years ago are different," O'Connor said.
Instead of being unbalanced kites that are allowed to turn on a slack line, then dart off in a new direction when the kite flier tightens up, the new stunters have two to four control lines.
"You pull the handles to make them turn and swoop. It's a lot like flying a model airplane off a control line."
For prices ranging from $10 to $300 or more, a stunt flier gets a tough nylon or Dacron sail, fiberglass rods, control handles and 150 feet of line -- plus some basic flying instructions. The kites will fly in a steady breeze as low as five to 10 mph, but things start to get hairy at wind speeds of about 25 mph.
"Get a kite going in a good breeze and you'll have a pretty good workout," said Jon Harvey, who often flies trains of three, five or eight kites near Crawdaddy's after work.
"I use a special body harness to keep from getting airborne," Harvey said. "They can be a handful.
"I've been interested in kites for about five years. I own the largest flow-form kite in the free world, 27 by 35 feet."
Harvey, a Buffalo businessman, "got interested in stunt kites about three years ago. I think I was one of the first people to bring them to Buffalo."
The June 4 contest is not just a fly-by-night stunt, the kite fanatics say.
Erie County plans a kite festival on June 24 at Wendt Beach, where all kinds of kites will be welcome.
Then, there will be a kite show, and kite-making demonstration and workshop July 1 at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.