Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Kahana Flush

Sunday morning started out in the usual way... After the obligatory intake of caffeine, I sat down to read the morning news. And by "news", I mean: Wind Lines, iWindsurf, NOAA, NWS, etc. You know – the news I actually care about. I was really itching to fly again, having just had my first post-fatherhood flight a couple days before, which got the ol’ juices flowing.

Kahana was looking good according to the wind sensors, but the radar showed a more easterly flow than the days prior. Sure enough, the forecast discussion and the winds aloft forecast indicated that the wind was expected to turn east to southeast later that day.

I had some work to do and some Daddy-duties to attend to for the next few hours, so I hoped the trade wind direction would hold for just a little while longer. I announced my intentions to those lurking in the Chatter Box that I intended to be at Kahana around 11:30am. Well, one diaper led to another, and before I knew it, it was 11:40 and I hadn’t even left the house. Scot and Ginny had both called about that time for site reports, but I was unable to oblige. They were heading there anyways, so I told both of them I’d see them soon.

I didn’t get going until over an hour later, but oh well - better late than never. On my way there, I used my phone to check iWindsurf – the Punaluu sensor now read EAST (84*)! I then fortuitously commented on the Chatter Box that it was already turning east, frowny-face emoticon and all.

So I called Scot to see if he'd actually headed out. He had and, in fact, was already on launch with Ginny. He said Airborne Ken was "skying out" and that he was about to launch himself. He said it looked "pretty East", but light enough that he didn't think the rotor would affect landing. I also adhere to that philosophy, when the wind is only 6-10 mph - but on this day, it was more like 10-16. The fact that Scot reported it being "light" despite all the sensor readings and forecasts was the first of many bad signs. I took this to mean that our launch ridge was almost completely in the lee of the ridge on the Crouching Lion side of the bay.

When I arrived, I was surprised to see Airborne folding his wing at Kahana. He often lands in Punaluu just for the sport of it, so I figured he’d have definitely chosen to do so on such an east day as this. He said the air was a little bumpy at certain altitudes, but was otherwise fine. In fact, he had just flown for 2 ½ hours! He did mention two things that piqued my interest... 1) While flying at the back of the ridge, he saw a single puffy cloud coming at him from out of Boogaland (that’s from the Southeast, folks!) and 2) Despite having no issues to speak of while landing, he said that it felt like there was "no wind" on the LZ when he touched down.

Scot was already in the air saying that it was still "pretty east", but OK – it was just a little "light" on launch and I’d definitely have to hike to high launch. Ginny launched from high launch but sunk out after a few minutes of scratching. She overshot the LZ a little bit, but nothing crazy and certainly nothing that we all haven’t done before. She didn’t report anything unusual, probably attributing the overshooting to her own flying rather than any weird air.

And here is my mistake, distilled into a single moment and decision... I stopped at the trailhead and made the following observations: The wind at ground level was almost still, but the trees halfway up the ridge were blowing good, but only sporadically. The surface of the water had gone smoother than when I had first arrived. The clouds were moving quite east now; some layers even appearing to be moving ESE. Scot and now Chandler (who had hiked up and launched from the North launch) were both in the air climbing and boating around as normal. I radioed one more time my concern about the direction, but damn it – it sure looked like fun up there. Besides, I had flown on other easterly days that weren’t "too bad", so why would today be any different? So, it might be a little bumpy on the way in – big deal! I then made one last minute check of iWindsurf, and it was back to reading ENE (70*). Well, that was enough for me - I’m hiking!

By the time I was setting up to launch, Scot had just landed and said he had some "weird air" but landed safely only a little short of our typical landing spot. Several minutes later, Chandler was on his way to the LZ. Hooked in and waiting for a good cycle, I heard Chandler submit a couple of garbled radio transmissions. I couldn’t understand a thing except for "[garble]...Jeff...[garble]". When I asked to repeat, he could not, but Scot said that Chandler got his wing a "little wet" but he was OK. I was literally kiting my wing above my head when I received that transmission. I got in the air where I found it quite "squirrelly", but I was actually handling it pretty well - using active piloting to keep the wing pressurized and above my head. It was weird air, but I wasn't worried yet. I was even climbing up OK. But shortly thereafter, I put "two and two together" and figured out that I probably shouldn’t have launched. I had the feeling that Chandler’s garbled transmissions must have been something to the effect of "Jeff, don't launch!" (he later confirmed exactly this).

So, I went about trying to set up a top landing so as to avoid Chandler’s fate. As I passed over the North launch, I saw the streamer blowing softly up from the valley between the launch ridges and towards the Rhino Horn! The air felt dead and weird as I screamed past the ridge on my approach. I then buzzed back over to our normal launch ridge. I was just below the normal low launch, but again going way too fast for a top landing. I decided to forgo a tree landing, which I briefly considered, and headed for the beach. Sure, I was a little lower than low launch, but definitely no lower than I’d normally head to the beach in a light wind bomb-out. But this wasn't just light wind - it was scarily silent and very sinky.

I cleared the power lines with ease and was over the water. I had the boat ramp on glide easily, but not so sure about the beach. I tried to slow the glider, briefly thinking about landing in the boat ramp parking lot, but remembered a couple of stories about pilots being dropped down hard there. So, I went back to "hands up" to see how far I could make it. I just cleared the boat ramp's far rock wall and made it to about 15 feet from shore, touching down in about 2 feet of water. About 70% of my wing fell onto the boat ramp’s concrete, with the remainder going into the water. I, on the other hand, repeatedly tripped over the submerged rocks and coral as I tried to exit, and got totally dunked each time. Ginny was on the scene immediately, and helped me pull the dunked portion of my wing out of the water.

My electronics were toast, of course. But I was on the ground and I wasn’t hurt. The "kicking myself in the ass" stage had already started setting in since somewhere over the boat ramp. How could I have ignored all those signs? Strike that... The word "signs" implies these were subtle clues that I failed to interpret. That’s not what happened here. I knew better than to fly in those conditions, but let myself go up anyway. It was, in that moment at the trailhead, irresistible to see others up there successfully and not join them.

So, my own post-mortem of the situation (luckily, that’s just a figure of speech in this case):

A) I shouldn't even have hiked up. I truly knew it was too East, but I let other pilots’ opinions and experiences in the rapidly changing conditions cloud my judgment. I was also "itching to fly" which didn't help – my over-enthusiasm got the better of me. I also made a snap judgment based on a couple of flukey iWindsurf readings that helped rationalize and reinforce my poor decision.

B) I should have waited to launch when it wasn't clear to me what happened to Chandler. I knew he was "OK", but had no other details. Sixty more seconds and a full report from him personally would have definitely had me hiking down.

C) Once I was in the air, and realized that top landing would be difficult... believe it or not... I should have climbed higher to buy myself some time and to probably land in Punaluu. It felt counter-intuitive to do so, since all I was thinking was "get on the ground now!" But, in hindsight, the air was manageable and I was going up quite easily, actually. I have no doubt I could have climbed to ridge height and went around the corner to Punaluu.

"C" is just 20/20 hindsight, armchair quarterbacking - a genuine "what if" scenario that's all too easy to entertain after the fact, yet difficult to put into practice when it all hits the fan and you feel like you've got only precious seconds to act. It may prove useful to me one day, but it's certainly not a reason to push my luck in similar conditions again.

"B" provided me a valuable lesson, regardless of the situation. It’s selfish and dangerous to launch not knowing your fellow pilots are OK and without getting some kind of briefing as to what happened.

In my case, I definitely should have stopped at "A", had a beer, and gone home.


Raimar said...

Good report, McDaddy! we all can learn from it. sorry for your electronics, but I am glad to hear you're ok ;)

I'd rather land on trees than water (I've been on both). I think it is safer. when it hits the fan, make a plan and stick to it (in your case chose one: land at the boat ramp OR go as far as possible to the beach. personally, I would choose to land on a tree)

Don't let this put you down. Pick nice day and have a enjoyable flight as soon as you can.


Brazilian Ray

Alex said...

Thanks for posting such a detailed account, Jeff. I have been rotored into the water at the shoreline twice (once very recently!) and I know what it feels like to get slammed by a strong downdraft when you're almost at the beach, but not quite. I guess we all need to be reminded periodically about why we worry about how east it is over there. Personally, I like the Punaluu beach landing options, or Kahana top landing or tree landing options a lot better than the beach dash and the risk of a splashdown, if there's time to consider those options. And sometimes on those easterly days it's like Russian roulette landing in those conditions, with some people magically landing in nice happy onshore breezes while you get chomped on by invisible monsters. Thanks again for the great writeup.

christine said...

Jeff, thanks for sharing. Good to get reminded sometimes that Kahana is not always sweet. Conditions can change also while you are flying.... A good reminder to let launchitis not to cloud over your guts feeling and judgement. I know you are usually careful and conservative in judgement. Glad you are ok.

Berndt said...

McDiver, I think it was you that told me there are only two kinds of Kahana pilots: Those that have landed in the water, and those that will land in the water. Welcome to the other half! I'm glad that the only damage you sustained was to the electronics, they cam be replaced, and well maybe a few scrapes on the old ego, but everybody's ego needs a small dose of humility every now and then. I still have an extra vario from my Kahana swim that I brought back to life after buying a replacement. You are welcome to borrow it for a while.

Suicide said...

McSwimmer . . . I feel your pain.

I am, also, part of the "been in the water" club.

I lost: Cell phone, Radio, Vario, fabric, lines, self respect, etc.

In fact . . . I still have a parachute that I need to re-pack, because I had to remove it, rinse the salt out of it & dry it out.

Sounds like we need to get a "Parachute Re-pack Party" scheduled right away.

My tandem and my "other" solo parachutes could use a good re-pack as well.

Glad you are OK.


ginny said...


I am glad that I was on hand to help you. To actually see "it" go east and then to watch pilots come out of the air was a good lesson for me. I agree about my overshoot, but I was definitely not feeling comfortable in the air at all.

firedave said...

Good story Jeff. When you lose, don't lose the lesson.

By the way I have been in a fair bit of ocean around the island. 1) Lanikai, as a newbie I landed during a squall and dunked myself. 2) Kahana, OK this one was an intentional death spiral to raft landing at the fly-in, didn't work. 3) Makapuu, I tore the G-Force exiting a stall and splashed in under parachute. All fun except for #1.

Diamond Head, I keep trying to get wet there, but often scratch in to the beach with inches to spare. I am resigned to keep on trying.

Tip: Go light, less electronics.