January 3, 2000
Flying into the Millennium
in downtown London!

When Chris Matheson called us from England and invited us to fly big kites off London's bridges as part of the millennium celebration, Susie's reaction was immediate and succinct. "Are you crazy??" she asked.

Susie figured that London would be dark, cold, and wet. She figured that flying off the bridges would be difficult. She worried about finding last-minute air tickets. And her head reeled at the thought of dumping a huge Peter Lynn into the river.

Me? I just thought it would be fun! "Imagine the stories we'd come home with." I told her.

Eventually, the lure of counting down the end of 1999 in the shadow of Big Ben began to appeal to Suz. Otis Oregon didn't offer too many appealing alternatives. We found a flight, packed 200 pounds of gear, and told Chris yes.

Which is how we finally found ourselves on Westminister Bridge at midnight last Friday night.

 Big Ben at Midnight
Click on any image for a larger view.

When plans for the huge millennium celebration were being formulated in London, Chris was invited to present a kite flying component. The plan was to bring kiting to an enormous local audience and television viewers around the world. Bridges were being closed in the center of town and we would simply fly there.

Anne and Chris Harris would inflate her dinosaurs at the river's edge. Dave Brittain and Brian Vanderslice would wander among the crowd as flying "minstrels", while Martin Lester, Marco Calbroni, and the Gombergs would launch larger kites. Members of the Kite Society of Great Brittain and White Horse Kiters would fill in with a variety of other kite shapes and styles.

The theory behind bridge flying is pretty simple. The wind goes over and under the bridge, flowing parallel to the water. If you have a stunt kite, you can just lower it over the edge and catch the updraft. The British "BARF" folks (bridge and roof fliers) have been doing it for years. Unfortunately, it is against the law in most locations. And no one had tried it yet using large single-liners. Now we were going to "give it a go" with full admiistrative support and official looking badges.

We arrived, bleary eyed, in London on the 30th and gathered early on the 31st to shuttle to the bridges. By then, police and millennium organizers had determined that bridge flying would be limited to just two of the original eight planned sites. We loaded our gear into vans for the trip downtown, while Andy Wardly and Simon Dann stood around looking important with their cell phones.

Kite Gear Kite Gear Phone Guys

As soon as we arrived on Westminister Bridge, we went to work. The "minstrels" popped up four liners while the rest of us struggled to launch mid sized inflatables in the light breezes.

Martins Legs and Marco's mermaid lofted into the light breeze but only flew for moments. Click here for a closer view (parental discretion advised)

Vanderslice Mermaid

As I mentioned before, we carried over 200 pounds of gear to London, including Crowns, SkyFoils and Snake Tails, Baskets, and the biggest, ugliest Peter Lynn Slug you ever saw. But as we examined our flying site, problems immediately became apparent. The bridge was 60 feet wide and crowded with people. Winds were under 3 mph. There was no room to back up, no room to maneuver, and no margin for error as the Thames swirled just a few feet below us. We reached in to our bag for the lightest performance kite we had with us -- our Sutton 252 Flowform.

I have flown in difficult conditions before, but Westminster Bridge was the ultimate challenge.

Facing into the wind, the kite and bridle stretched more then half way across the pavement. Spectators crowded around, blocking any groundwind. We couldn't move back to generate lift and didn't have enough room to launch with longer lines and pull in to gain altitude. And every time we tried, someone would grab the drogue in an effort to help, and dump the big kite into the crowd.

Flowform Launch
Finally, I did the unthinkable. I launched the kite upwind of where I was flying.

We swung the big kite around with its back end facing into the wind. The concept made no sense at all and Susie said right out loud that she thought I was nuts. But at least we could spread out along the length of the bridge. I removed the drogue and found someone to help Susie hold the kite open. The we walked the kite downwind with just enough speed to inflate it. I popped the sail into the air and it pivoted around in a huge arc, just over the head of 1000 onlookers. Then slowly, as it caught the faint breeze, the Sutton lifted into the air. A loud cheer erupted from our audience.

Of course, the best part was that I had impressed my wife...

Bridge Flying Bridge Flying

With our backs to the edge of the bridge, we flew the Flowform for about an hour. Always I was careful to keep my line shorter then the width of Westminster. Anything more would risk sending the kite in for a swim.

The sun went down at 4 pm and we flew on into the darkness. I didn't fly everything I'd brought, or even most of it. But I did fly the biggest kite in London that day. And even Susie seemed to be having fun. BTW - that's the enormous "Millennium Eye" Ferris Wheel back there. It's the fourth tallest structure in London. And of course, it wasn't working in time for the celebration.

Big Smile Millennium Eye

So as dusk falls over Parliament at the edge of the water, we carried our packed gear off through the crowds to a pick-up point a quarter mile away. That was fun!A set of barricades had been erected along one side of the bridge for us and throughout the day, we had stored our bags in this ten foot wide protected area. But now some of the fliers decided to leave. There were only a few of us left and 200 feet of prime space. We decide to close off one small area, 25 feet wide, and leave the rest open. The crowd came pouring in like water flooding the Titanic.

Parlamant at Dusk

Plans had been announced to turn the Thames into a "River of Fire". Over the course of two miles, fireworks barges were anchored that designed to fire a synchronized pyrotechnic display that running back and fourth. We were positioned near the center point.

It's six PM and we have the best seat in the place. We are at the center of the bridge in a ten by twenty-five foot open security zone, surrounded by 4 million people who have been packed in like a Tokyo subway car at rush hour. The only problem is that there are no toilets in site and we have six hours to go. Someone arrives with a case of beer but it sits unopened...

Impatient Crowd

I pass time making conversation with the people surrounding us. I figure being friendly will keep them from resenting our comfort too much. The diversity on the crowd is surprising. Lined up along the rail are a couple from Belgium, a woman from Germany, a pair from Japan, an Italian camera crew, and two girls from Israel. Eventually I find someone from England too, although it isn't easy.

Everyone prepares in their own way. Gill and Tara Bloom mug for the cameras. Ron and Marla Miller adjust their headgear, Simon Dann sleeps.

Gill and Tara Ron and Marla Sleeping Simon

The time passes quickly -- except for one poor fellow who I saw pee off the bridge and into the water...

As the minutes wind down, you can feel the energy rise in the crowd. Singing is heard along one river bank, cheering on the other. Big Ben chimes out the quarter hours but is drowned out by the anticipation of four million voices.

Midnight strikes and the river erupts! You can see the explosions travel toward you, followed by an avalanche of rockets and whistles that goes on for fifteen minutes. Here's a great shot taken from above, down onto Westminster bridge. That's Susie and me, right there in the center on the right-hand-side...

Overview Panorama

OK - so it wasn't a great kite show. I mean, sure we could have done better with more wind and space. So what! We had fun, showed folks a thing or two, and got to be a small part of an amazing experience. And while we didn't quite meet our kite potential, we still performed for the largest audience any of us had ever worked in. The organizers who payed our way had no complaints.

A really big thank you to Chris Matheson who conceived and manged this great project.

Ask me sometime I'll tell you the story about how we got off that bridge and back to our hotel...

Have a great new year!

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