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fifteen years of kite work

Frank T. Cole

Mr. Kallquist’s article in the November BREEZE, “Not Many Years Ago,” brought back many memories of the kite stations. The most pleasant of these are the associations with congenial and interested young men. In the number who came and went there were only three that did not fit in. They did not last long, for the other members of the force made it plain that they did not belong. Most of the kite station men entered the Weather Bureau at the kite stations and left there prepared to take up any phase of Weather Bureau work elsewhere. The kite stations were also responsible for interesting young men in their vicinity in Weather Bureau work, even though they did not always get positions on the neighboring kite station.

My personal experience covered three kite stations, of which Due West was outstanding. They were all located near small towns, and all the men experienced – and most of them enjoyed – the quiet small town life of 15 to 25 years ago. Due West is a small college town, with all the native southern hospitality, and with a strong religious and cultural background. None who stayed any length of time on the Due West station escaped the effects of this environment.

man with early kites
Hargrave-Martin box kites as used at Mount Weather Observatory. In: "Yearbook of the United States Department of Agriculture. 1906." 1907, p. 122.

Some of the Due West men covered a lot of territory after they left Due West. Mr. Kallquist spent a winter or two on Greenland; Harrison went to the South Pole with Byrd; Andrus, to Europe in free balloon racing; W.P. Long, to Brazil to establish kite stations there. The others are scattered all over the country. Harrison handled pilot balloons and kites from temperatures of 105 above to 60 below, and Kallquist’s range was about the same. Andrus went high enough in a balloon to see both ends of Lake Erie at one time, and then fell 5000 feet when the balloon burst. All this before high-flying aeroplanes!

Mr. Kallquist modestly refrained from telling in his article of some of his exploits. In a section where the men were predominantly brunette, Kall, with his light hair and military carriage, always stood out. After he joined us, there were always girls along the edge of the Woman’s College campus to see him go by. However, he and Andrus ignored the under-graduates and concentrated on the faculty. Kall was lightning on the getaway. His World War I experience in the Navy had taught him the value of starting as soon as, or sooner than, anyone else. When the steering gear of the station car locked, and the car went down a 10-foot embankment and crashed on the rocks below, he was out of the car before it hit bottom, and waiting for the rest of us on the roadway when we crawled out of the wreck. The only casualty was Stevenson. He had a bruised face where Kall stepped on it getting out. He had a keen sense of humor. When he lifted a watermelon, he always picked a green one. To keep out of such trouble we planted a small patch of melons in a corner of the kite field, and then the local farmers got even with us. When Kall found he could not get rich in Due West he left us for Savannah. He must have liked us, for he sent enough red snapper and shrimp for a big feed for all of us. Shrimp were a revelation to most of us, for we had never eaten them before.

Life was never slow on a kite station. In addition to the work there were always other duties, such as painting of buildings, repairing of mechanical equipment including the station car, rebuilding of terraces on the field, and always the repairing and construction of kites. Pilot balloon work, both single and 2-theodolite, and captive and sounding balloon work were other features of the upper air research. The computations of the 2-theodolite runs were a pain in the neck for everyone, and we made many of those runs.

Wet weather always made trouble, for the kites could not stand rain and high winds. Thunderstorm experiences were sometimes frightening and dangerous. Static, ranging from 1000 to ore than 50,000 volts, made the handling of kites difficult even with heavy lineman’s gloves. Many of the men were severely shocked while landing kites during thunderstorms. Stevenson and Andrus once, when the kites were caught in a thunderstorm, watched a ball of fire roll down the kite wire to the reel-house, roll in over the reel and the motor, and burst under Steve’s feet when he jumped in the air to avoid being struck by the ball. Several of the men carried small scars for years where the molten kite wire struck them when lightning destroyed the wire. Twenty-four to 36-hour kite flights, and occasionally 48- to 72- hour runs left the entire force worn out when the weather turned bad.

Fifteen years of my Weather Bureau life were taken up with kite work. When I began the work, I could run as fast or faster than anyone on the station, and running was necessary lots of time. I have in my personal file a record of all the kite flights I was interested in from 1919 to 1932, and every once in a while I get that record out and look it over. No matter what that record says I had a good time, and I am sure that, with few exceptions, and in spite of my shortcomings, the men who worked with me did also.

In: “The BREEZE”, Vol. 4, No. 11, December 10, 1945. Pp. 3-4.

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