TRIED & TESTED; COME FLY WITH ME

Our panellists breeze through a selection of kites from the professiona l's favourite to the beginner's choice

KITES ARE not just for kids. In Guat-emala, they are flown on All Saints' Day, to symbolise the ascent of the ancestors to the heavens. In Japan and India, fighting kites tear each other to shreds in the hands of deadly serious competitors. Yet the joyful pointlessness of kite flying was what attracted most of our panel members to assessing kites for family outings or grown-up beginners. "You don't stop playing when you get old, you get old when you stop playing," said Sarah Kent, a kite pilot of international standing and author of the newly published The Creative Book of Kites (CLB, pounds 6.95).

In separate trials, Andrew and Siob-han Purvis, their children Laurence (nine) and Rosie (six) and friend Emily Hutton (three) were enthusiastic novices. Thirty something Katie Webb and Julian Latour were more experienced pilots.

Contrary to memories of kite-flying, modern kites are suited to a steady breeze. A flat, open space is ideal. Hills create turbulence and strong winds destroy them. Ironically, all testers' outings were plagued by howling winds and rain. But with only one kite casualty and reports of "fantastic fun - even though we were freezing" (Julian Latour), the experiment proved what good entertainment kites can be.

**THE MICKEY MOUSE POCKET KITE

pounds 4.99

Soft "sled" kites have no frame and are designed to be kept in a pocket. Like all pocket kites, this one cannot be broken and weighs nothing, but despite the popularity of Mickey Mouse and the concept, this kite was universally disliked. The "horrible, cheap materials" (PVC) caused Siobhan Purvis to liken it to a "carrier bag on a string" and Rosie dismissed it as "ugly". Sarah Kent said the pocket kite "offers instant gratification", but that even very small children are quickly bored. In its favour, Julian Latour noted that it sat more heavily on the wind than the Octopus and was easier to control. Andrew Purvis conceded that, "It does fit into your pocket - but it goes in as a kite and comes out as a ball of knitting."

***STAR WARS SUPER STUNT KITE

pounds 8.99

Produced to coincide with the release of the new version of the Star Wars movie this week, this two-line, stunt kite features a picture of Darth Vader on one side and has a long red tail which scribbles on the sky. Sarah Kent didn't much like the forbidding graphics, but thought it good for practising with a two-line kite. "It could build your confidence," she said. While Julian Latour reported that the Star Wars kite "can loop, swoop, climb, dive and do figures of eight", the Purvises saw theirs complete "a few tight spins before nose- diving into the mud". They thought the instruction leaflet was "ideal for teen-age anoraks", but disagreed with the maker's claim that the twin strings can be easily mastered by a six-year-old.

*****FLEXIFOIL

6ft Stacker, pounds 71; Super-10, pounds 169

Flexifoils, which look like flying airbeds and contain only one continuous spar of carbon fibre in the leading edge, are the fastest kites ever made - even though their (encouragingly British) design has hardly been altered in two decades. The adult kite pilots voted these two examples - essentially the same, except for size - the winners in our survey, because they are so exhilarating to fly. As Sarah Kent remarked, "They're the best workout on wings." In addition the Flexifoil is incredibly easy to set up and launch for a beginner. And they last forever according to a kite store which reports that Flexifoils come in for "minor repairs after 20 years' flying".

**IKEA DELTA KITE

pounds 6.90

This handsome looking, tricolour kite seemed promising, but served ultimately as a warning about traditional materials, since a single nose-dive broke one of its wooden spars only minutes after Sarah Kent had launched it. Katie Webb stated candidly that it was "Okay to reel out, but almost impossible to reel in". The Purvises quickly realised the disadvantage of nylon taffeta: "It looks professional," said Andrew Purvis, "but because of its relative heaviness it just sits there on the wind."

****WINDY KITES' KITTEN KITE

pounds 16.95 and kestrel kite, pounds 9.95

These charming animal kites made by a small British firm, were the childrens' favourites. The kestrel looks like a bird in flight, but Rosie and Laurence complained that it was "very small". Only three-year-old Emily was taken with it. The kitten version was a big hit, however. It sounds expensive, but is extremely durable; as Sarah Kent said, "This one could become a family heirloom." Its long, serrated tail makes a peculiarly feline dance on the wind. The drawbacks of its fine string were quickly forgiven and the final verdict from Rosie was unambiguous - as it floated down, she leapt in the air, clutched and kissed it and said "I love you," and "It was the only one I liked."

****WORLD APART MISTRAL 180CX SPORT KITE

pounds 54.95

Sold "for the more advanced flyer", this colourful, classy sports kite has a super light (and expensive) carbon-fibre frame, supposed to produce fast, accurate flight in a variety of winds. And so it did, but only in the hands of Sarah Kent and Julian Latour, who commended many of the kite's features. He added, "It sounds like an angry hornet in flight." Katie Webb barely managed to launch it in very windy conditions: "It was frustrating - especially when the packaging states 'for over 14s'." The Purvises didn't dare take this 1.8 metre kite out of its packaging after the "Darth Vader fiasco", but Sarah Kent said, "For a kite lover, the Mistral is excellent. A younger, experienced child could handle this - there's no pull to speak of."

****QUICKSILVER KITES' 6FT MYLAR OCTOPUS KITE

pounds 5.95

An inexpensive, single-string kite with a pretty, octopus-parody of a face and long streamers in rainbow colours, it looked fragile, but as Sarah Kent observed, "It recovers well when hit by turbulence, and can be easily repaired with sticky tape." All the adults admired it - not least because it comes out of the pack ready assembled and has thick twine. It makes a characteristic rustling noise in flight, which Katie thought would "fascinate a one-year-old". For the Purvises, it was effortless. "We took it out of the packet and it was 6ft up in the air with Emily holding it, slightly surprised to be flying it," they reported. Laurence dubbed it "too easy", but Emily adored it, clutching it for the rest of the afternoon.

***KITE STORE 4 WING BOX KITE

pounds 11.50; plus yo-yo reel with nylon twist, pounds 3.95

This four-wing box kite, made specially for The Kite Store in Covent Garden, was chosen as an example of a three dimensions kite. The yo-yo reel, a large circular handle, is available to be used with this kite and makes it easier for children to hold than the standard handles. Laurence and Rosie Purvis said it was "well worth the extra pounds 3.95". The kite, however, was not a great success. "It's a flying sculpture," said Sarah Kent. "It's stable and can be launched by jogging backwards, but it's not very interesting," said Julian Latour. Box kites work well at height, however, so they are "good for altitude freaks," he added.

STOCKISTS

Quicksilver Octopus, Box Kite (and many others) by mail order from The Kite Store (0171 836 1666); Mickey Mouse, Star Wars and Mistral from Worlds Apart (0171 622 0171 for local stockists); Flexifoil (01353 723131); Windy Kites (01727 868914). !

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