Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Face to Face with the Mylar Dragon Kite

In the last few months, we've had a couple of customers review the Mylar Dragon Kite, a kite we've sold ever since Jim and George opened Into The Wind in 1980. In our first black and white kite catalog in 1981 we carried two 45-ft. and two 25-ft. Mylar Dragons. Back then, we also carried three 5-ft. and 6-ft. Mylar Octopus Kites. Many people understandably think that Dragon Kites and Octopus Kites refer to the designs on the kites (and sometimes they do). But to us, a Dragon Kite has a relatively small rounded head and a long, usually tapered, tail trailing behind it. An Octopus Kite is a variation on the dragon with the tail slit into fluttering 'tentacles.' Typically Octopus Kites are 10-ft or shorter in length and Dragon Kites are 25-ft or longer. Back in the day, White Bird Kites made taffeta Dragon Kites that were 100-ft. and 150-ft. in length! The 1981 catalog says this about Dragon Kites,

"A traditional kite in the East, the dragon is now one of the West's most popular kites. The combination of an unstable flat kite for the head with a large, stabilizing tail causes the dragon to dance in the sky. One of the easiest kites to fly, it is a favorite with children. Both Dragon and Octopus kites are rustling, shimmering, kinetic sculpture in the sky."

The dragon design is a derivative of a centuries old Asian kite traditionally made out of rice paper or silk called a Serpent or a Thai Dragon. The rice paper limited the length of the tail on the Dragon to 10-ft. But the "new" Mylar plastic technology took this old design and extended the tail to 45-ft.

Without a doubt, one of the most spectacular qualities of the Mylar Dragon Kites is their low price. In 1981, the 45-ft. Mylar Dragon sold for $8.00. That same kite today is $9.95 with 300-ft. of flying line included. For 30 years they've essentially remained the same price. And for this entire time they've been made by the same company, now conveniently located in Colorado. Neil Rose, founder of Quicksilver Kites, manufacturer of Mylar Dragon and Octopus Kites, has been at the helm since 1975. He started his own company in San Francisco after working for another company manufacturing Mylar kites. Andy Anderson, the owner of the San Francisco based Little People was making the Mylar Dragon out of his home in the early '70's but couldn't fill the demand. He contacted his friend Neil Rose, asking for his help to run the fledging company. It was then that Neil left his career in the banking industry for this "alternative life style" trying to meet the demand for this "hot" product.

As Neil remembers it, "Dinesh Bahadur, one of the earliest kite retailers opened his Come Fly A Kite store in SF on Ghirardelli Square in 1973 and was selling the kites like hotcakes." Dinesh passed away last year but Rakesh, Dinesh's brother, said that other than the Mylar Dragons, the store's kite selection consisted mostly of paper fighter kites, Chinese silk bird kites, and some plastic kites imported from Gunther in Germany. It wasn't until a year or two later that the first fabric kites would be made and sold and those would be cotton cloth kites from the Nantucket Kiteman. White Bird, one of the first companies to use "high tech" materials like taffeta and fiberglass, was started in 1973 and began selling kites in earnest a few years later.

With a limited selection of kites on the market and Dinesh's great marketing skills there was virtually infinite demand for the 45-ft. Mylar Dragon Kite from around 1973 to 1985. Dragons were flying everywhere in San Francisco, from the beaches, to the wharf, to the Marina Green and downtown alongside the cable car routes. Rakesh says he flew kites in and around San Francisco 12 hours a day, every day, "advertising" the kites for his brother's shop. The original Mylar dragons, which were made from aluminized Mylar, meant that the kites could be flown at night creating a shiny spectacle. Given that, it's no surprise that these reflective and highly visible flying wonders sparked the interest of tourists visiting California. Aside from the interest in the 45-ft. Dragon Kite, originally the only product sold, aluminized Mylar itself was probably responsible for some of the buzz and not just because of its flashy properties. Lander struts and footpads of the Apollo 11 spacecraft were wrapped with multiple layers of insulating metalized gold Mylar foil and spacesuits too have reflective coatings of Mylar built into them. Mylar was to the '70's what tie dye was to the '60's. Well, Mylar and gold lame', that is.

If the Mylar used in the dragons was "space age," the rest of the materials used in the kite were more down to earth. Rattan was used for the spars in the early dragons. Because of the irregularity of this spar material there was no product consistency. After the kite was manufactured it was put on a table and the job of one employee (although Neil says they were all "hippies" back then and didn't exactly think of themselves as employees) was to decorate the kite with the felt marker. For this reason, in the early days, no two kites were alike. One of Neil's contributions to the process was to create a template out of chipwood that could be used with a roller and marker ink so that the designs would be more consistent. However, even that was subject to interpretation or more likely, suffered from lack of attention. Neil remembers seeing one of his dragons on display in the front window of a San Francisco store that was selling hundreds of them. This particular kite had been inked so far off-center that the design barely made it on the kite. But despite the imperfect printing, the store still couldn't keep them in stock. George Emmons, owner of Into The Wind, recalls seeing Mylar kites in a San Francisco kite store displayed like a fountain with the heads flowing out of the base comprised of the ripples of Mylar tails.

Back then, there was virtually no quality control except for being careful of the tails. Neil said that in those days, sending out imperfect kites seemed like a good tradeoff for getting a couple hundred more out the door. The unfettered demand inspired duplication and during this time about 20 or so companies sprung up to fill the requests of the San Francisco tourists who saw the kites flying all over the city. The limited vending licenses available in the SF tourist areas inspired cut throat business practices as all these companies tried to make a buck from the "fad." Some of the smaller fly-by-night companies used scissors instead of hot knives to cut the Mylar and those kites were short lived. According to Neil, "The trend was unrivaled with the sense of unlimited potential for this rudimentary product."

Speaking of quality, that brings me back to the original focus of this blog, the two recent reviews on our website for the 45-ft. Mylar Dragon: kitey72 writes, "This Kite is Horrible, no wonder it's 10 dollars!!! It started tearing within minutes of me opening it, and it was only 6mph winds. DO NOT BUY THIS!!!!!!!!!" Without a doubt, that is the downside to this inexpensive kite. With just a small cut in the edge of the film, the tear will extend at lightning speed to the other edge of the tail, severing it, much like plastic wrap. However, if this initial cut can be avoided, usefulbard's unsolicited reply is more typical of the experience flyers have with the Mylar kites,

"With all due respect to kitey72, I beg to differ. This kite is magnificent. It instantly becomes the center of attention once you get it up in the air, which isn't very hard to do. If you can get a steady wind of 5-10 mph, it'll lift itself right off the ground. It's also surprisingly [sic] stable and very easy to fly. That said, there are a few things to bear in mind. First, make sure you have plenty of open space to fly it in. It does, after all, have a 45-foot tail. Second, beware of inconsistant [sic ] or dying winds. If you suddenly lose your breeze while this kite is in the air, the result is not going to be pretty. Third, and most important of all, mylar is not ripstop nylon. You have to be gentle with this kite when you're taking it out, storing it, or transporting it. It doesn't take kindly to being manhandled. The good news is that if you do get a tear, a bit of clear scotch tape is all you need to patch it up. So, in summation, this kite is a bit more high maintenance than others, but it looks beautiful and is a joy to fly. On a more personal note, my father owns a 45' Quicksilver dragon kite (with the dragon print) which he purchased in San Francisco in the 1970's. It was always one of my favorites. When I recently went shopping for a new kite of my own, I was pleasantly surprised to find a similar design (or so I thought at the time) being sold on this website. The meager pricetag [sic] was equally pleasant, so I decided to order one. When it arrived, it turned out that it was, in fact, identical to my father's kite, right down to the Quicksilver monogram. He and I both thought that was pretty cool."

Besides quality control, the other element Quicksilver lacked in the '70's was a business plan. With brisk sales, there was little need for a marketing strategy so market expansion and new product innovation happened on the fly. (Pun intended.) "Hey, maybe we should make a $5 Mylar Dragon!?!" With that, the genesis of the Mylar Octopus happened and later, the 25-ft. Dragon also became part of the product line. Even if a business plan had been a necessity it still may have been impossible since none of the Quicksilver employees, Neil included, knew anything about business. Nevertheless, the outside success of the company led buyers at larger retail stores to believe that Quicksilver had it together. Neil remembers instances when "real" companies would call to place orders and he would put his hand over the receiver and yell to the rest of the staff, hippies that were working there, "Anybody know what Net 30 means?" And nobody did.

For the first six or seven years the dragons were produced with aluminized Mylar and although the kites included the regular cautions about kiteflying (avoid thunderstorms, power lines, trees, etc.) it wasn't until a couple of accidents happened that PG&E realized the danger these kites could cause, arcing between power lines causing voltage conductors to break, and the extent of the liability was known. In early 1979, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the manufacture, distribution and sale of aluminized polyester film kites. The ban applied to any kite containing 10 inches or more of this type of metalized material, including dragon, box and fighter kites. When the hullabaloo about aluminized Mylar happened Quicksilver tried different ways to get around it but eventually eliminated it from the kites entirely.

Working with the plain Mylar involved figuring out a way to incorporate the design onto this new material. It didn't take long to figure out that the printing industry had the capability to print on the non-aluminized Mylar. Between 1975 and 1980 this evolution to printing on plain Mylar left two primary players in the market, Spectra Star and Quicksilver. All of the Mylar Dragon and Mylar Octopus kites we carry today are manufactured by Quicksilver.

Since 1952, when DuPont announced the development of Mylar and Francis Rogallo, one of the earliest kitemakers, immediately saw how superior it would be for his kite, the five-dollar toy Flexikite which became one of the first products to use the plastic material, to the '70's Dragon Kite craze, to 1993, over 40 years later, when biologists used large black and white Mylar kites to coax condors farther into a nesting sanctuary in Fillmore, California, Mylar kites have been part of the evolution of kiting. Through it all, the inspiration for Neil Rose to continue making Mylar Dragon Kites has been the metamorphosis that happens when 100-lb boxes come in the back door filled with raw materials to be transformed into lightweight flowing kites that are sold out the front door. Many times he's been aware that staying in this business may not be the best financial decision but "making" a product has an unmitigated magnetic appeal. For the last 20-25 years, the products, and Quicksilver itself, have remained unchanged but 2010 will revolutionize all that with the introduction of a new but still inexpensive Mylar kite. And this one comes in nine different colors! Stay tuned...

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