He is a bird. He also is a plane. He can soar over lakes and leap tall ski resorts in a single bound. Far below him, stirred by his fearful flapping, earth-bound skiers and boaters gasp when he passes overhead. He shouts down at them—Kiteman shouts a lot when he flies—and the wind snatches the words from his mouth and scatters the sound behind him. Altogether, he creates a pretty weird effect, a pterodactyl suddenly flying in out of the past. It is both awesome and exciting, so exciting that naturally, whenever he comes down, he is still high.
Kiteman turns out to be 20 years old, quite a statistic all by itself, considering the dangerous things he does. He is layered with muscles, and over them is a tan, dappled here and there with a few scars. His hair is blond and tousled, his face toothy but handsome, and when he talks on the ground it is loudly—as if he still expected the wind to snatch away the words. His name is Jeff Jobe, and Jeff Jobe is the foremost practitioner of his sport in the entire world. Lest that sound a bit overweening, one must remember that only a handful of people so far have mastered his particular game, which is free flying in a monster gull-wing kite.
Jobe can glide, dart, circle, do 360s and esses; he can stall, dive, climb, coast. He can do almost everything but fly into a strong head wind, which is guaranteed to leave him in a considerable mess.
Kiteman does all this sitting on a trapeze seat hanging beneath a giant red, white and blue triangular nylon sail that advertises O'BRIEN SKIS in black letters. The kite spreads like a webfoot over three aluminum tubes. The thing is awfully basic: two 14-foot tubes on each side and another in the center, all meeting in a V at the front, with a fourth cross tube to hold everything together. Coming down from the center of the kite is a control bar and, behind that, suspended by cables, is the little seat. In flight the entire package looks like a monster, sex-crazed bat carrying someone away to the valley. It works like this. When Jobe pushes against the bar, he moves the seat—and his weight—backward, and the kite climbs. When he pulls the bar toward his chest, he is moving his weight forward, and zing! the kite dives. He shifts his weight toward one end of the bar and the kite makes a turn, and if he keeps leaning to one side it starts circling down in a corkscrew pattern. If Jobe wriggles from one side to the other, the kite flaps about in great excitement.
October 17, 1971
Kiteman is also a plane: his takeoff and landing gear is a pair of skis. In the winter he folds the kite like an umbrella and carries it to the peaks of ski resorts on the chair lifts, puts on skis and schusses down toward ridges that end in steep cliffs, lifting off when he pushes the bar. His kite will fly in just about any kind of wind, short of 25-mph velocity, but he prefers calm air for taking off. Accelerating with a tail wind and slowing when he turns into it, he circles trees, hovers over crevasses, darts after surprised skiers and finally glides down to land gently on the beginners' slopes—shaking up the whole lift line in the process.
Flying in the summer takes a few extras: a lake, a rope and a speedy boat. Jobe lifts off from a dock like a water skier, wearing stunt-model water skis. Clipped to the rope that runs from the boat to his control bar, he needs a full-speed dash by his brother Mark, the boat driver. When the rope comes up taut at a 45-degree angle, Jobe releases it and starts his freewheeling stunts.
At his home port, Sammamish Lake near Seattle, where the summer days tend to be more gray than sunny, he can climb up to 900 feet on a 1,200-foot rope and sometimes, soaring above the low-hanging clouds, see a beautiful sunset that remains hidden from the people on the ground. When he swoops in for a landing, he aims precisely for a certain spot. It may be the end of the rope floating on the lake, so that he can take off on another flight, or he may select the lake-front lawn at the Jobes' summer house. He likes to wear stunt water skis because they are shorter and wider than the others and glide better on grass. Or on concrete. On cold days Kiteman prefers a shore landing, because he flies bundled in ski parka, long pants and woolen cap, and he does not like to get wet. Soaring toward the shore, he heads straight for a certain crash into a neighbor's boathouse, then makes a neat right turn just in front of it and softly glides onto the grass.
"That really jazzes me!" he shouts after each flight—which is about 20 times a day. And he wants it jazzier. All through the past summer he kept dividing his days between flying and working on his kite. He wanted to create a bigger kite that would stay airborne even if it were not launched with a great amount of speed. Eventually he finished a new monster with 18-foot tubes and a wingspan of 24 feet. He took it to the top of 4,000-foot Mount Si near his home and just ran with the kite on his back, its tail brushing the ground, toward a cliff—and jumped off. Now he can be seen dropping off Mount Si regularly, flying down to a field or a nearby golf course and landing with his feet trotting on the ground. It is as if mankind were trying to invent flying all over again.
"I don't want to give anybody the idea that I invented kite flying," Jobe says in a moment of modesty. "I didn't, just as the Wright Brothers didn't invent airplanes. People have been experimenting with kites for years. I merely perfected what others have done."
The first kite flyer known to man is said to have been a Japanese thief who lowered himself over a castle tower to steal some golden ornamental fishes. Later, at the end of the 19th century, military men used kites for reconnaissance missions. More recently a couple of World War II Nazi submarines were reportedly equipped with tow kites that could hoist observers aloft to spot Allied ships. Since then kite flying has largely been the hobby of a few daredevils but, as far as is known, nobody ever dropped the rope and tried free flying until about 15 years ago. The kite used for towed flights is usually a pentagonal "flat wing," bordered on all sides by a metal frame and stiff as a plank. It is not maneuverable and without a rope it would simply tumble down. Free flying requires a more flexible open-end "delta-wing" kite.
Kiteman Jobe started out with a flat wing five years ago and did not like it. "You are tossed about with every gust," he says, "and you hate to be under tow all the time." Then one day he watched some flyers experiment with a triangular kite designed for free flying. Jobe saw a great many crashes and abortive take-offs, but they did not dissuade him. "I know this thing can fly," he figured, and he proceeded to seek out anybody he could find who had ever fiddled with or thought about a glider kite, including two engineers at Boeing who were able to solve some of his technical problems.
Two summers ago he bought his first free-flying kite, and he took off over the lake on the same day. "It was blowing 25 mph," Jobe recalls, "and that is forbidden. You don't fly a kite on a windy day like that, but I couldn't wait. Before I knew it I had caught a wing tip and was going down on my ear. The whole kite doubled over and dived straight into the water. I found myself, strapped into the seat, 10 feet below the surface. Well, I was learning." (One thing he learned was to pour foam into the aluminum tubes. The foam sets and keeps out water that would drag the kite to the bottom of the lake.)
By last May, Jobe had become such an expert at aeronautics that he made his own kite. He has built 30 since, at a cost of about $350, and sold them all for prices ranging up to $500. He claims that his kites are aerodynamically sounder than any ever built before, but few of his buyers have come close to performing like Kiteman.
"I don't know what it is," says Jobe, "but I keep getting these phone calls from people who tell me, 'Your kite doesn't fly.' It takes time. It's like learning to snow ski. Often they make the mistake of taking off with a downwind. Usually, when a guy buys a kite from me, he thinks if I can do it, he can do it. He doesn't even want to listen."
Jobe probably inherited the flying craze from his father. Joe Jobe is a commercial pilot for Air West and during World War II he flew combat missions in the Pacific. "He received many honors for what he did in the war," says Jobe, "but he never talks about it. That's where he and I are different."
The senior Jobe is a hearty outdoors-man and he brought his four children up to share his interests. Before the Jobes moved to their home in Redmond, Wash, and bought the summer house, they lived on a beach at Puget Sound. They spent their summers water skiing and cruising to remote islands, and in the winter they skied in the Cascade Range. They did everything together, though Kiteman himself was at first reluctant to get into the act.
When Jeff was about five, it was of some, concern to his father that he could not get the boy to water ski on the sound. The water was too cold. "One day it was Jeffrey's turn to sweep the patio," he recalls. "It was a chore that he hated. So I promised that I would sweep it myself if he tried water skiing. He was not tempted. I had to bribe him with a quarter before he took me up on it."
Unlike his older brother and sister, Jeff does not much care for school. At one point father Jobe had to resort to bribery again, warning Jeff that he would not have any snow-skiing lessons unless his grades improved. Jeff made enough of an effort to earn four lessons, but that was the end of it. It mattered little because four lessons were all he needed to become a parallel skier. He went on to earn money as a ski instructor at 16.
"When I do sports," says Jobe, "I like to do them as hard as I can. I'm often asked why I didn't become a ski racer. The reason is that I didn't want to break a leg. It's too dangerous."
The first sport to which Jobe really applied himself was water skiing. As soon as the Jobes moved to Sammamish Lake, where the water temperature was more to Jeff's fancy, he started on tricks. At the age of 15 he was an accomplished water skier. It was at this time he met a neighbor, Herb O'Brien, then one of the best skiers in the area. O'Brien started his own water-ski factory and Jobe worked for him for a while; his skis are the ones Jobe now advertises on his kite.
"He was just a little kid," recalls O'Brien, "but he was always asking me and my friends how we did this trick and that. At the end of the first summer he was telling us how. He started competing the next year and won the state championship. He could do 4,000 points in 40 seconds anytime, and that takes every tournament around here."
In the spring of 1970, just before Jobe took up flying seriously, he entered the annual water-ski race on the Sammamish River. One has to be something of a madman to try this race because the shallow slough that runs between Sammamish Lake and Lake Washington is a wild slalom with lots of tricky, 90-degree turns and such narrow spots that, at times, only one boat can pass through. O'Brien drove the boat for Jobe and remembers the race as a nerve-racking experience. "I knew Jeff had not been water skiing since the previous summer," he says, "and I was scared. But he made me go full bore at 60 mph through all those hairy turns and bottlenecks and damned if he didn't win. It is a pity he quit competing."
"Competition just didn't jazz me anymore," says Jobe. "So what if you get more points than another guy. It only makes people jealous. I'm told that I'm an absolute waste as a water skier. I think if you continue to compete in one sport for years and years, that is a waste. It limits you to one way of life, and I want to be free to try new things."
Jobe's next new thing became flying, and he tackled it with the same verve that he had put into water skiing. The first summer was full of smashups, and whenever father Jobe came to the lake house he was alarmed by the sight of broken tubes and bent bars strewn all over the lawn. "The flying began to concern me," says Joe Jobe, "but what can you tell a kid when he gets to his age? It is certainly better than having him on pot."
"Who needs pot?" says Jeff. Certainly not Kiteman, who can see Seattle's Space Needle from his lofty seat above the lake, who can fly from the top of Sun Valley's Baldy Mountain to the base lodge at Warm Springs in four exhilarating minutes. Jobe does not drink, not even beer. He thinks dancing is a dumb thing to do and he keeps dropping out of college—as did Charles Lindbergh—because of his flying. He has no eye for girls, either, unless they are both very pretty and very tough. When an attractive trampoline gymnast wandered into his bedroom at the summer house one recent night in an apparent expression of hero worship, Jobe sat up shocked on his water bed. Then, well, long as she was there anyway, he took the opportunity to ask her whether he could borrow her trampoline. "A trampoline is a useful thing," he says, "because it helps me to learn the flip."
Like a mad missionary, Jobe tries to convince people to join him in his daring feats. He has little regard for his older brother Tim's preference for philosophy, because thinking, in Jeff's opinion, is a waste of time. As soon as Tim arrived at Sammamish Lake this year on summer vacation from college in Santa Barbara, Calif., Jeff strapped him to a kite because he needed a companion up there in the clouds. "I can't figure out why I'm doing this," Tim said after one long session. "What an inane way to spend day after day. All through last winter I read books, and the most athletic thing I did was running on the beach. Now he has me sitting up there—800 feet above the lake—and he is acting like a clown, zooming around me and yelling into my ear."
At the end of one flight, Jeff came in for a shore landing and Tim, following closely, found himself in the slipstream behind Jeff's kite. With no air to hold him up, he dropped onto the shore like a rock, badly scraping his leg. "I fell out of the sky," said Tim. "How foolish," said Jeff, "but isn't it fun?"
Whatever it is, Kiteman seems to have a superhuman knack for it, even in disaster. He can drop out of the sky and walk away unscraped. One day last winter, flying at Whistler Mountain in British Columbia, Kiteman took a helicopter to the summit so that he could enjoy a longer trip than from the top of the ski lift. There was a strong crosswind when he skied down a ridge and took off. "I flew about 600 feet over a bunch of rocks," he says, "and that was real neat. Then I hit this head wind—well, it was more like a storm—and it just stopped me. I was coming down. There were tall firs under me and I turned downwind, trying to avoid them, but now I was probably doing 50 mph. Well, it finally got down to two trees. One had a branch sticking out, and that knocked me against the other tree and in the end I was stuck up there in the branches between the two. It really jazzed me—except that I broke my ski boots and every bar on the kite and the sail was ripped to pieces. I just had a few scratches, but I sure minded losing the kite."
To Kiteman, the future is an exciting game, as unpredictable as the sky. He can make $500 a day just flying over ski areas (it is cheaper to fly Kiteman than the Goodyear blimp) and admits that he would welcome a snow-ski sponsor but he does not worry about what he will do when he grows up. When he thinks about this at all, only fun things come to his mind. He might want to manufacture a monoski—a single snow ski equipped with a platform to accommodate both feet. Or take up golf some distant day, though not like ordinary golfers. "I'd buy one of those adjustable drivers," he says. "Wouldn't that be a jazz? Everybody else would be lugging all these irons and woods around, and then they'd see me. Wouldn't they just go berserk watching me with my one funstick?"
Whatever happens to Kiteman, it does not seem possible he could come upon hard times. After all, there is an old English proverb that promises: FLY AND YOU WILL CATCH THE SWALLOW.