Sky High Kite Collection
Kite collector Con Engels has a soaring collection of “flying art.”
Photos by Becky Thurner Braddock
“When people collect kites, they collect them to fly, not to hang on the wall. Kites are flying art,” says Conrad Engels, who goes by “Con.” In his Economy Borough home that doubles as his kite shop, Engels houses a collection of several hundred kites, ranging in size from smaller than a thumbnail to a delta-shaped kite that is 14 feet wide.
Engels inherited his love of kites from his late grandfather, Leo Lacher. “My grandpap lived on Troy Hill, and every spring when I was a kid we would go to a five-and-dime and buy a diamond-shaped paper kite, and he’d rip sheets to tie on the tail,” Engels says. “We’d go to a park and fly together, and he really knew what he was doing.” In the 1980s, Engels’ brother and sister, Chris and Cassy Engelsiepen, bought their grandfather a rip-stop nylon kite, and when their grandfather died in 1991, the family agreed Engels should have it. Today it’s the sentimental centerpiece of his collection.
Engels’ colorful array of kites, which began with single-line diamond and delta shapes, now includes challenging single-line kites such as rokaku (six-sided traditional Japanese fighter kites that battle to knock each other out of the sky); cellular kites (including box kites); single, dual or quad-line parafoil kites (ones that are frameless and inflated by the wind); figure kites (kites in the shapes of figures, such as animals or objects, like a guitar); power kites (large kites designed for pulling people on skis or skates); UFOs (“Ultimate Fun Objects,” Engels says, which were invented by Lee Sedgwick, of Erie, Pa.); and sport and stunt kites, including his personal favorites, Skydancers.
Skydancers, Engels explains, are quad-line stunt kites invented by David Davies, who lived in a suburb of London. Engels was such a fan of the kite that he developed a friendship through correspondence with the master kite maker. When Davies died last year at age 82, his family sent Engels templates for all of his kite designs.
The pride of Engels’ collection is a Puff the Magic Dragon Skydancer kite, which beats its wings while in flight. “There are only five of these known to exist in the world, but this was David’s personal kite,” Engels says with obvious affection. “He sent it to me as a gift with a note, and I’ll always treasure it.”
An active member of the Fly Pittsburgh Kite Club, Engels says flying in Pittsburgh can be more challenging than in other areas, such as Ocean City, Md., because Pittsburgh tends to get more gusting and swirling winds, not sustained straight winds. But he suggests a favorite spot. “The best place to fly in Pittsburgh, by far, is the Oval in Schenley Park. It’s flat; there’s plenty of room, and the wind tends to be just right,” he says. “Everyone should try flying kites. It’s hard not to have a smile on your face when you have a kite in the air.”