They flew off the shelves. They flew over the water. Now tube-kites, or inflatable flying watercraft, are also flying headlong into controversy, as deaths and injuries mount and the Army Corps of Engineers bans them from federally managed waters.
The innertube invention, which costs $600 and debuted in stores last October, allows users to turn a regular motorboat into a launchpad for real and sustained flight. Since this spring, tube-kiting has become a popular recreational sport on lakes, reservoirs, and rivers nationwide, says the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in Washington.
One user describes its appeal. "[The tube-kite] gives the common man a chance to fly," says Brad Vaught, a commercial pilot in South Carolina who owns a tube-kite. "The problem is that most people don't have the judgment to realize what could happen very quickly given the wrong scenario."
The Wego Kite Tube, a covered innertube with enough "angle of attack" to create lift and take off, was recalled by its developer SportsStuff, Inc., of Omaha, Neb. earlier this month because of safety concerns.
Just two months before, the Wego Kite Tube was named "Sports Product of the Year" in April by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association in Washington. Added cache came after riders promoted it on the website YouTube.com, which allows people to submit their own amateur video.
Tube-kite riders boast that with practice and a careful captain they can skitter wave tops or arc over 30 feet in the air, sustaining flight longer than the Wright brothers' early attempts of 12 seconds.
"Once you lift off the water, it's like in the movies when all the sound shuts out, and all you can hear is your breathing," says Scott McCoy, a 20-year-old in Sacramento, Calif. "It wasn't like anything I'd ever done before, which is probably why I loved it so much."
But flying over water can be more dangerous than it may look. The Wego Kite Tube has been blamed for two deaths – in Texas in April and in Wisconsin in June. Nationwide, 39 injuries have been reported from using tube-kites, according to the CPSC.
Riders agree that wind gusts are the main cause of crash-landings. Others report the raft is difficult to control under most circumstances. Some wonder whether the box-top warning to "only fly as high as you're willing to fall" is sufficient.
"[Riders] catch a gust of wind and [the tube-kite] gains enough lift to get a positive ascent rate, and they go straight up until the cord changes the angle of attack of the tube, causing it to go into a roll or head toward the ground, which it does really, really fast," says Mr. Vaught. "If you drag a door behind a car fast enough, it's going to fly, and it's easy to see how someone can get hurt."
Mr. McCoy reports how he learned this lesson first hand. Over Memorial Day weekend, a gust of wind toppled his raft after he was able to reach 30 feet above the water. McCoy flipped as he fell, hitting the water hard and says he bruised a rib.
The danger of tube-kites prompted the Army Corps of Engineers in North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas, Ohio, and Oklahoma to ban them from large federally controlled lakes this month. So have several state and national parks including Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Utah. Officials at Georgia's Lake Lanier cut off their use Friday after a man says he broke his leg after falling 25 feet.
SportsStuff put out a voluntary recall of 19,000 units July 13. It cited an "abundance of caution" in its decision, and offered customers a non- flying version in exchange.
"This [government] investigation and recall moved very quickly," says Julie Vallese, of the CPSC. "We knew we [had to act when] we were halfway through summer and we saw these incidents escalating each day that there was sunny weather and a boat out on the water."
The government action and SportsStuff's decision to recall the product raises questions about what role the US government should play in restricting behaviors that involve some degree of risk.
One thought is that it's wrong to allow people to subject themselves to certain risks. The second thought says that people should make their own choices on taking risks, says Marshall Shapo, a Northwestern University law professor and author of "Tort Law and Culture."
Some users, though, would support government regulation of tube-kites rather than an all-out ban. "What would be best is if the Federal Aviation Administration licensed users, but they're likely to say, 'We're not getting involved with a water toy,' " says Vaught.