PARENTING : Go Fly a Kite : Enthusiasts of the open-air pastime say it's a lofty form of meditation. Nowadays, the skies host inflatable planes, fish, even limbs.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; John Morell is a regular contributor to Valley Life

"We're fascinated with things that fly, because we can't," Howard White said as he looked up to the sky and rubbed an imaginary string between his fingers. "Kites make us feel like we're flying, and the string provides the link between it and us."

On a sunny day at nearly any park, you can find at least one kite in the air. Although the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks doesn't keep tabs on kite fliers, it is aware of them. "Once I came to work and saw this huge pink elephant flying overhead," said an employee at Balboa Park in Encino, who admitted that it took him a while to realize it was a kite.

"A lot of kite fliers are grown-up children," said Silvana, the kite manager at Lake Balboa Skates & Kites in Van Nuys, who goes by first name only. "They find that it's great meditation."

Tim Swoon, 37, of Encino and his 8-year-old son, Chris, were in Balboa Park recently flying an old-fashioned red-and-blue box and a plastic bat-shaped kite. "When you get out in the park with a kite, you're able to take a look around at nature because you feel like you're part of it," said Swoon, adding that he and his son find kite flying relaxing.

White, who owns a Panorama City kite store, spends "about 300 days a year" flying kites in parks, his back yard and even in the alley behind his store as he tries to generate interest in a pastime that is believed to have originated in China 3,000 years ago.

"Kites can be flown just about anywhere at any time. I'd like people to know that they don't have to fly kites just in March, when it's really windy. I've flown them when the wind is just 1 or 2 miles per hour," he said.

White, 41, has been fascinated with kites since childhood and estimates that he's flown several thousand different types since he was 4. His store, Windworks, is squeezed so full of multicolored plastic and paper kites hanging from the walls and ceiling that he can barely see the door from his desk.

Since 1986, White has been selling kites. He's noticed that business tends to rise and fall on the whims of the economy and the news. "When things aren't going so well economically, are you going to buy a toaster or a kite? On the other hand, a lot of people have found that kite flying is a fun, inexpensive way to spend an afternoon.

"When something focuses attention on flights, I've noticed an increase in business. When the air war started with Iraq last year, there was a surge of interest in kites, because people could pretend they're up there flying. When the ground war began, they forgot that I was alive."

Besides the traditional paper or plastic diamond-shaped kites, there are several newer styles. "Stunt kites are very big sellers. They present more of a challenge than the old-fashioned paper kite," Silvana said. "In windy conditions, you really have to work to keep them going. It gives you a great cardiovascular workout."

"One of the hottest things in the air right now are the four-line stunt kites, which allow you to control the kite's pitch and yaw," said White, referring to a kit's tendency to rise and fall, known as pitch, and to swing from side to side, called its yaw. "It gives you more action, like you were flying an airplane."

David Ramos, 28, of Van Nuys was working his four-liner with the skill of a fighter pilot at Balboa Park. "You've got to practice with it to make it do stunts, but I love doing it," he said. "It's a lot cheaper than flying lessons."

"The best part of flying stunt kites is the control," said Jon Small, owner of the Kite Ranch store in Quartz Hill. "With practice, you can point the nose down, race it toward the ground, then stop it an inch before crashing and make it hover."

With its consistently windy conditions, the Antelope Valley would appear to be a kite lover's dream. However, Small points out that lots of wind isn't always ideal. "It gets to be too much, and kites are damaged because the winds are so strong. But we usually get an afternoon breeze of about 15 to 30 miles per hour, which can make a kite really sail."

Ultralight kites are designed to fly in a mild breeze that would drop other kites to the ground. While you can buy a simple, airworthy diamond kite and string for around $3, a genuine Martin Lester can cost up to $200. Made in Great Britain, the Lesters are inflatable and made to look like geese, planes, fish, even limbs. One of the most popular is a pair of legs.

While some kites can be complicated to assemble, many "stickless" kites require no preparation other than tying them to a ball of string.

To get a single-line kite airborne, hold the line in one hand and the kite in the other. With the wind blowing against the kite, toss it up and play out the line while it ascends. "I'm against running," said White. "My mother used to tell me to run with kites just to tire me out. You don't need to run to get a kite flying." White, who has supplied kites and technical advice for television shows, grimaces when thinking about the usual screen portrayal of kite flying. "It always makes a great shot showing somebody running with a kite, but it's not the way it should be done. However, it's their production and if they want that, they'll do it. If they want my advice, I'll give it."

Where to Go

What: Friends of Windworks kite store will fly kites together beginning at noon Sunday at Lake Balboa Park, corner of Burbank and Balboa boulevards, Encino.

Call: Windworks, (818) 892-6474.

What: First Quartz Hill Kite Festival from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at Quartz Hill High School, 6040 W. Ave. L.

Call: The Kite Ranch, (805) 943-6860.

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