A familiar figure to Londoners and tourists for many years, flying his shimmering holographic UFO SAM kites from Westminster Bridge or over the Round Pond, Kenneth Sams invented and patented the rotating kite. He was a tourist attraction in his own right, often to be seen directing a steady stream of would-be purchasers to Hamley’s or the Kite Store,. When he flew up close to the Millenium Wheel the flashbulbs would begin to pop furiously. A ‘UFO sighting’ in 1992 arose directly from his flights from Primrose Hill and received TV and press coverage.
He was born on February 9 1922 in Bridgeville Pennsylvania, one of a family of 10 children of Syrian immigrants.
When he was 7 his father died and his mother took up peddling, selling notions to the coal towns around Pittsburgh in competition with the overpriced company stores immortalised in the song ‘Sixteen Tons.’ He would meet his mother Shafiqa with a wagon at the Bridgeville railway station and help her carry her bags home.
She was a powerful matriarch, but Ken always had a longing for his missing father.
He joined the US Marines in 1940 and, as a radio operator, saw active service in Kwajalein, Iwo Jima and Saipan, where he was wounded. He narrowly escaped an early death when he heard an incoming Japanese shell, dived into a foxhole he’d dug earlier – two of his buddies dived in on top of him and were killed, Ken suffered a piece of shrapned in his leg that he carried with him throughout his life.
After the war, he obtained a Master’s degree in English at UCLA and became a familiar figure in Westwood and Venice Beach, flying balsawood ‘Rolloplanes’ and selling them in kit form. He suffered a terrible illness in 1948 that none of medicine’s armoury could cure. He lost 40 pounds in weight and then went to see a Dr. Nakadadi, a Japanese doctor based in Hollywood, who put him on a dairy-free, sugar-free white flour-free diet that restored his health. Our mother continued to cook with wholefoods and growing up with an understanding of the connection between diet and health led to both Ken’s sons being involved in the wholefood business when it was just at its beginnings.
In 1951, as a 7th Air Division historian, he moved to London and recorded the development of NATO from the US Air Force perspective. In 1954 he studied Arabic before embarking on a visit to Syria in 1955 and began to write for the BBC World Service, a series of radio plays translated for broadcast to the Middle East. The plays wove modern themes into traditionally plotted dramas, bringing an awareness of the outside world and technology to Arabic speaking listeners. When he visited Syria it was as if his father had come back to life – he found his patrimony in those hills among the unrestrained love of his cousins and clansmen. My graduation present from high school in 1961 was a trip to Syria – and an experience that gave me the same sense of my roots and heritage.In 1963, When a small group of ‘advisors’ were the only American presence in Vietnam, Kenneth Sams was allocated a shed at Tan Son Nhut airbase where he began to produce a unique air history of the escalating war. Despite the widespread awareness on the ground that deeper involvement was futile, he watched as the military-industrial interests of which Eisenhower had warned a few years earlier maneuvered the nation into large scale military action. He founded Project CHECO (Contemporary Historical Examination of Current Operations), the historical office of the 2nd Air Division. From this vantage point he watched the development of what he described as ‘the real war in Vietnam’ – between the USAF, US Navy and US Army for Congressional funding’. His report Escalation of the War, mapped out the events that led to the Tonkin Gulf incident and the subsequent increase in US involvement in Vietnam, showing that it was based on ‘phantom’ attacks by North Vietnam. Under his leadership, CHECO pioneered a new form of military history; he and his team actually flew out to the scenes of battles to see things firsthand, introducing an investigative journalistic element into a profession that had traditionally stayed behind the lines, compiling data from other peoples’ reports. By 1967, perhaps as a reaction to the machinations of the military-industrial complex he began to publish “Grunt Free Press,” a fortnightly tabloid styled after the Berkeley Barb and other underground papers in the US. With a circulation of more than 50,000, it provided an alternative voice for GIs (or ‘grunts’) to the military daily Stars and Stripes. GIs wrote much of the copy, ranging from whimsical stories about growing pot on an airbase flower bed, to poetry, to hard hitting critiques of war policy and management. In 1969 the Air Force bombed the Ho Chi Minh Trail for 3 months to show that bombing could stop 90% of the flow of supplies to the Viet Cong. Kenneth refused to sign off the report claiming success because, as he stated, the flow of supplies always fell by 90% during the monsoon season, when the trail was too muddy to move any heavy amounts of materiel. This refusal led to his being demoted from chief of CHECO to deputy chief and being retired on pension a month later. For the next decade scholars from Colorado State and the Air Force Academy visited him in London to interview him for the real story of what had happened in that period, as the historical record had been ’coordinated’ to a point where it was devoid of relevance. A year later General Ginsberg flew over specifically to visit him in London to present him with the Exceptional Civilian Service award, America’s highest civilian decoration. Nonetheless, he regarded the CHECO project as a failure, frustrated by the fact that the insightful analysis it produced failed to influence military policy.
Portrait of Kenneth Sams in 1970, painted by Margaret Sams
In 1971, in London, he founded Seed, The Journal of Organic Living, the seminal monthly magazine of the alternative and complementary health movement, which covered subjects as diverse as macrobiotics, pollution, globalization, self-sufficiency, organic farming, wholefood cookery and ‘New Age’ therapy – often covered in print for the first time.
He also redesigned the Rolloplane, using modern materials and the patented result, the UFO SAM, was the first truly new development in the world of kites. The unique feature of this breakthrough was that he realized that a curved wing was not necessary and that a flat wing gave better lift and stability.
The explanation, to do with ‘vortices’ at the end of the wing, has intrigued aeronautical engineers, including the design team at Boeing, who still can’t agree on what exact principle makes it work, despite several attempts to win the $5000 reward Ken offered to any scientist who could explain it. In 2001 Flying Toys – How to Make and Fly Your Own UFOs was published, a book in which Ken shared all the design secrets of the basic rotary kite as well as more sophisticated variations such as the Deuce ex Machine. More about UFO SAM at Ultimate Flying Object
Kenneth was survived by his wife Margaret, and sons Craig and Gregory.
Kenneth Sams, military historian, publisher, inventor (CS)
The name ‘Sams’ was originally ‘Sam’ and was the name US immigration gave to Ken’s father. The family name was Hajjal, of the Salama clan, Ghassanids.
The Sams history is here