Kites have been successfully used for military purposes for thousands of years. In 1942, Lieutenant Commander Paul E. Garber was an officer on the carrier USS Block Island. He was assigned to the US Navy’s Special Devices Division to make aircraft recognition models. Garber had been flying kites since the age of five and had written a kite flying manual for the Boy Scouts in 1931. At the age of nine, he even witnessed one of the early flights of the Wright Brothers.
One day he made a kite and challenged a gun crew to use it as a target. This was more realistic than using clouds as targets as had previously been done. To the crew’s exasperation, they had to fire many rounds before making a direct hit on the kite on the kite. The captain of the ship was so impressed with the demonstration that he ordered Paul to build more target kites.
As the gunners improved their shooting accuracy, Garber modified an Eddy Kite (diamond shaped) that could swing across the sky, loop, dive, climb and do figure eights. The five-foot kite was controlled by a flier with a twin spool reel complete with a control bar and brake. A ventral fin and rudder on the kite provided the directional control. A silhouette of a Japanese Zero or German Focke-Wulf-190 plane silkscreened on a light blue rayon sail.
At a distance of 200 feet, the blue background disappeared, revealing only the kite’s silhouette of an aircraft. Eventually the wooden struts of the target kites were replaced with aluminum so they would sink after being shot down.
The Garber Target Kite was credited with saving an aircraft carrier. One morning the gunners were stationed in their bays for target practice when a lookout sighted a Japanese torpedo plane approaching from a bank of clouds. Had they not been ready, the plane would have seriously damaged the carrier. Instead the gunners were able to down the Japanese plane. Hundreds of thousands of such kites were used in training gunners, at a great savings to the US Government in money and manpower.
Garber also used winged, triangular box kites (signal kites) to pass important papers from ship to aircraft. A cable with the package attached was strung between two kites. A passing aircraft would snare the cable with a hook and deliver the package to its destination.
Paul Garber remained interested and active in flight and kites. After WW II he became the first director of the Smithsonian Institution Air Museum, later renamed the Air and Space Museum. Dr. Garber was instrumental in obtaining the original Wright Flyer, the first aircraft capable of flight carrying a man under its own power, and in collecting an incredible kite collection for the museum.
Garber also lobbied Congress to remove the anti-kiteflying legislation from the books in Washington, DC, and other areas. Now people are able to fly year-round in the District of Columbia. Thanks to Paul Garber, a spectacular kite festival is held each spring since 1967 on the Mall at the Washington Monument, which is currently the home flying field for the local kite club, Wings Over Washington. Formerly the Smithsonian Kite Festival, the Blossom Kite Festival is now presented by the National Cherry Blossom Festival.
Paul Garber truly made an incredible contribution to popularizing kites as educational instruments.