On March 26, 1927, 12-year-old Samuel F. Perkins, Jr. took the sky above the Dexter Training Grounds of the State Armory in Providence, Rhode Island.
What was so unusual about his flight was that he was neither in an airplane nor a balloon. Instead, young Samuel was lifted by twenty-one kites.
If this were a Hollywood movie, Samuel would have been standing there holding on to all of those kites, a strong gust of wind would suddenly blow in, and he would be taken aloft. But this was no accident. His father Samuel Sr. had planned well in advance for his son’s flight.
The stunt was part of a large kite exhibition being held at the Training Grounds. More than 200 kites in all shapes, colors, and sizes were flown by members of the Junior Achievement League—all boys—what was claimed to be the first kite-flying tournament ever staged in an Eastern United States city. And it was the elder Perkins, an aeronautics pioneer, who instructed the young men in both the making and flying of their kites.
His rationale for having such a contest was his prediction that someday flying would become a safe and natural mode of travel, as safe as driving a car was for his generation. “A flyer must be able to judge the strength and action of wind currents. Nothing is so instructive for that purpose as kite flying.”
Yet one must question his decision to have his son lifted by a bunch of kites into the sky above the Training Grounds.
Let me ask you: Would you risk such a thing?
Well, it turns out that this wasn’t the first time that his son had taken to the sky. He had practiced being lifted by the high-flying kites numerous times before, although this would be the first public demonstration of this daring aerial feat. During test trials, the boy, who sat in a swing seat, would sometimes stay aloft for over a half hour.
An estimated 12,000 spectators looked on as young Samuel took flight. Defying death, he reached an altitude estimated at 30 feet (9.144 m). He then traveled horizontally for about 200 ft (61 m) before landing safely back on the ground.
As for his dad’s prediction that flying would someday become a safe and natural mode of transportation, he was correct. But, as a person who has flown many times in an airplane, I feel little need to know anything about the wind in doing so. I leave that up to those piloting the aircraft.
(This story was originally written and recorded for Retrocast #19, released on August 15, 2023.)