RISK and KAP: Reflections by Craig Wilson
Madison,Wisconsin, USA - February 20, 2003
(The kite was launched in a soccer field several blocks away and flown/ walked to the location of the photo.)
At KAPiCA/02 I had a number of people ask about the risks I take flying in urban environments. The short response I gave to them was that I was careful about studying the site, careful about flying at the site, and that I had paid my insurance premium.
Since KAPiCA I have thought more about Risk Management and KAP. I was cruising on Simon Harbord's website which has a fantastic collection of stories, techniques, and images and I discovered a very well written treatise on the Risk of KAP which I suggest that you read. Be sure that you allot plenty of time, as you will find much to study at Simon's site.
According to Simon, risk falls into 3 categories:
- Risk to your own KAP equipment
- Risk to property
- Risk to people
Risk to people is another issue completely. We usually cannot replace or repair when we cause damage to people. Simon points out, this is an area of risk where no compromises can be made. At no time is it right, fair, or justified for us to make a decision that puts others in peril just so that we can snap a photo. Simon uses an example of shooting close to a moving roller coaster. I completely agree that is a perfect example of where a small failure could turn very tragic and taking that risk is completely out of the question.
"...each and every location has risk, it becomes an issue of how you manage the risk."
So does this mean that anytime people are around, we cannot have our fun? No. This means that anytime people are around we need to slow down and assess the risk to them. It means that we must be willing to say, "No, this isn't a good idea".
KAP, like most any fun activity, has some risk involved. In fact it may be the risk that keeps it exciting and interesting even after 15 years of doing it. When I present my slide show to people, often the comments are, "Wow! I can't believe that you could fly a kite there" or, "I can't believe you would even try to put a kite up in that location". I say, "Does it really add to the risk to fly over a building?" They say, "Well it sure seems risky to me". What they do not usually understand is that the kite was not launched and is not landed amid the trees and buildings at the place where the image was made. It was flown into that location from a more kite friendly location.
OK, lets examine this idea that location contributes to risk. Lets look at a scenario. Someone is flying a large powerful kite, there is a two-pound weight hanging from the line and a couple pounds of line and winder at the bottom. The kite and stuff somehow gets loose and is now bouncing unattended downwind. You are an innocent bystander and in the path of this runaway demon. Would you rather be standing in your bathing trunks on a crowded beach, or in your car, or maybe in a downtown office building looking out the window at the scene unfolding? Of course you would prefer to have the protection of a building or car around you. My point is that it could in fact be more hazardous or risky to others to fly on a beach than in an urban environment because people on a beach are not expecting any danger. Someone walking through a downtown, crossing streets, looking for traffic may be more aware and in fact be looking out for hazards. Yet most people would assume the beach would be the best and safest place for KAP. You see; risk is often simply a perception. We might perceive that one place has less risk than another simply because we have done it there many times before. In fact each and every location has risk, it becomes an issue of how you manage the risk.
The best management tool is preparation. Careful study of the location is critical to know hazards, identify backup landing sites, and to identify passable routes in and out from your launch/land site. I will spend a lot of time walking my photographic target area without any equipment to find all power lines, all the little passage ways between buildings, trees, and light poles, and to understand, with the given wind direction, where I can go with the kite up and where I will not be able to go.
Preparation forces you to understand what you are trying to do before you fly into an area. Preparation means having a plan for the shots you are trying to make. You aren't just lifting the camera to have a look around. You have a specific shot in mind that means getting to specific locations to place your camera at a particular spot in the air for the correct view. You have calculated the best time of day, the best day of the week, the best time of the year for reducing the risk to the minimum.
Student section of
Camp Randall football stadium-
Home of the Wisconsin Badgers Preparation means that you understand that challenging sites call for certain conditions to make them less risky and you should wait for the less risky conditions. A tall building nearby will block the wind or cause turbulence. Waiting for conditions that allow you to stay away from the building will reduce the risk. Preparation means that you know what to expect. For instance, a parade or start of a running event might trap you from crossing the street and getting out of an area. A crowd might gather before a show and prevent safe passage. A train might come over the bridge. Gates in the fence might be closed at a certain time preventing re-entry to your launch and land site making it necessary to land at a more hazardous location.
Tall buildings can seem threatening. Yes, they divert the wind, block your view, and act as a fence to impede your passage. But at what height do they really become a menace and when are they just a bit of a hurdle. My experience says that buildings more than about 10 floors tall make me uncomfortable. A ten-story building is just something around 100 feet tall. To a 20-foot delta that is just 5 wingspans high. My Delta launches up 100 feet and it seems that it is just off the ground. So it really isn't that big a deal to get up and over a 100-foot high object. Now add another couple hundred feet to be well up away from any wind eddies and strange circulation and I am at ease. Not all that different than flying near a line of tall trees. There is however a difference from flying near one building standing alone in a field and flying amid dozens scattered or packed into an urban environment. This is where studying a site before you go to KAP is helpful and critical to do. You should identify preferred wind directions, launch sites and passage routes.
Here is my list of rules that should not be broken when flying in the urban setting.
1. Never launch into unknown winds. I fly first in a safe, open area so that I know the true wind condition at the heights I will have my kite. The scariest thing would be to have too much kite for the wind up over buildings and traffic.
2. Never be without all your hardware for recovery, tie down, and line handling. Keep all you need with you. Don't leave it in the car. Don't leave it with a friend to hold. Don't leave it on the park bench where you launched thinking you won't need it till you get back.
3. Never launch or land a kite in an area crowded with people. Launch away from the crowd and walk the kite to the people if that is the shot you want.
4. Never fly into an urban environment during times of day when thermals are most active. For me Photographically I prefer early and late light anyway, which are times of day when the sun is not producing a lot of nasty thermals. In the Urban Environ strong sun on blacktop parking lots, roofs, and streets, tends to boil up some active thermals that are difficult to control the kite in. Selecting cooler days and moderate wind speeds, along with early morning or late afternoon sun will minimize the problem of thermals.
1. Take time to preflight all your equipment, double-check all kite and rig connections. Have a routine just like an airline pilot goes through before a flight and never neglect or minimize its importance. You must be willing to abort your KAP attempt if anything is out of order. An equipment failure can be very dangerous to someone no matter where it happens.
2. Launch your kite in a safe, comfortable area that is accessible to your intended target. Let the kite fly for at least 5-10 minutes before connecting the camera rig to be sure that the wind is steady and reliable. Make sure that your kite is up to a height well above buildings in the area that may cause wind turbulence. With the camera on the line but at your hand you can walk into the target site.
3. I recommend planning the route of this journey so that you are walking down wind. Walking downwind keeps the kite out ahead of you and everything you need to worry about is in front of you and easy to see. If the wind drops or you find turbulence and become uncomfortable you can simply turn around and go back up wind to the safety of your launch site. Be very careful walking upwind with your kite to a target. If the wind begins to lessen you may be unable to walk back downwind to your launch site and you may be left with no choice but to land your kite where you are.
I am in no way advocating that you get your kites and head to the city to try flying in the heart of downtown. I am only saying that it can be done. The risks can be managed and minimized so that it is not all that different than flying in other locations. The most important aspect of KAP in the urban environ is the flying skill and focus of the operator. That skill combined with preparation and planning can mean that you can work your way into what seems to be kite unfriendly locations. The key to your success and safety will fall squarely on your ability to keep an unbroken focus on the task of KAP. If you are so nervous that you are uncomfortable or shaking, if you are unable to deal with all the aspects of the kite, camera, and interested onlookers, then it is not an environment to mess with. It is critical to be able to be in control, relaxed, and maintain mental focus.
I parachuted out of an airplane once and I have no memory of the going out the door part. I only remember hanging under the orange and white canopy drifting down. There seems to be about 5 seconds missing from my life and memory banks. It was like my mind couldn't quite handle all of the crazy input as I approached and leaned out the open door of the aircraft and so it partially shut down for a moment. When we expose our minds to what we perceive as great risk; running a red light, bungee jumping, standing before a charging rhino, KAPing in an urban environment, we need to train our mind to stay focused or bad things can happen and we can become helpless to stop them. Practice and repetition is how we become comfortable with all the inputs that KAP offers. We can progress from easy sites to KAP to more challenging ones, and we are able then to stay relaxed, focused, and comfortable performing at a high level in areas that might seem to add to the risk.
- Craig Wilson