Friday, April 25, 2008

West Maui Thermaling (Paraexploring Maui Part II)

On Thursday April 24th, four Maui pilots (Zack, Brian, Abhay, and myself), hiked all the way from the Lahainaluna school to go fly the L. Since we were 4WD challenged that afternoon, we hiked the entire distance on foot: we started out on the dusty old canehaul roads, then onto a reasonable switchback trail, and next a pigtrail, until we were so overcome with summit fever--or rather, just plain having lost the trail-- that we blazed straight up through the scratchy green hell!

So after an hour and a half of slogging it out and leaving a trail of blood, (Are you sure this is any faster, Zack?), we finally summited the fabled L! And thankfully we were greeted by decent thermic cycles, although slightly more northerly than a typical good L day.

Now I had heard the warnings from veteran Lahaina pilots before: don't fly the L on a light and variable day, only light tradewind days! But the cloud deck looked high and inviting, and we were determined after the mad scramble uphill: primed and ready for battle!
Dexter (King of the Hill) had mentioned to me previously that on light and variable days, the cycles tend to have a northerly component, which is what I've observed at Ukumehame, another West Maui flying site I've been pioneering (more on that below). So he wasn't too keen on taking part in the hike up and what could easily turn into a hike back down in twilight...

On a true light tradewind day, with Kahului reporting a solid NE flow no stronger than 18 mph, the L sits in a thermic bubble, with the tradewind shearline visible out on the water of the Pailolo channel near Ka'anapali. On those days the thermic cycles will usually come perfectly straight in.
Anyway, there we were, and it was 3pm and the sky looked like it was only going to get darker and shut us down. So I hastily called the Kapalua airport. They've heard a bunch from me in the past months, so I knew the drill:
Hello, Kapalua Tower, this is JT.

Uh, yeah, hello this is Aaron [again], I'm a paragliding pilot [crazy bagger], and I'm with 3 other paragliding pilots [oh jeez], and we're gonna be flying at the L and possibly all the way down to Olowalu and Ukumehame ridges [thinking very positively there] ... launching in about 10 minutes or so and flying all afternoon [yeah right] ... so if you could please alert all the helicopter tours that we'll be up there [don't rotor them please!] that would be much appreciated.

OK. Will do. Good luck.
I set up first and kited my wing in a decent cycle, then got popped as I spun around, and I crabbed out to the frontside in buoyant lift. I turned right and spent the next few minutes scratching along the north face overlooking a deep gulch. Eventually I was high enough to start making 360s as I rode the elevator up and behind launch.

Back in the saddle again! I must say the thermals over the L are nice and organized once you're high enough. I was hitting 400-600'/min up with ample space to turn compared to the nebulous thermals of Polipoli!

As I was ascending I watched Zack take off and then Abhay, and finally Brian (who was an L virgin!) But once at cloudbase, about 4000' that afternoon, I wasn't sticking around for the mini-gaggle. I had a mission! You see, I secretly wanted the general flow to be out of the north, and I hadn't let on much to my companions about the general warning about flying the L on l+v days. I was hoping it was a soft and malleable rule, not a hard set-in-stone one. And as luck would have it that afternoon I found myself high above Lahaina heading south on an XC attempt.

Now it would probably benefit to check out a general map of the flight.
The previous day, April 23rd--the beginning of the most recent light and variable winds on Maui--I had flown the Ukumehame ridge. I've been hiking up and pioneering a launch there for a few months now, and so far have not had any bomb-out flights.

The ridge faces the incoming-but-slightly-northerly winds that we get on the l+v days and it had delivered multiple hour+ flights for me! But I had one small problem: XC options from there are not very good. Heading north, you would need to cross the Ukumehame valley which seems to be anywhere from a half to a full mile wide depending on how you measure it. With a stiff headwind and a generally lower cloudbase at this ridge, and with sinking air in the valley, I have not been successful in striking out to the north.

Heading south from Ukumehame ridge, you run out of island! Heading southeast toward Ma'alaea town might be doable, but I'll need to study the aeronautical sectional charts a little closer to make sure I'm not violating Kahului (OGG) Class C airspace.
So my XC goal was to make it back to my truck, parked at the Ukumehame wayside park just off the highway and easily reachable on glide...from Ukumehame ridge launch! If I wanted to reach my truck from the L, I'd need to find lift along the way...

Leaving the L, everything was going well! My GPS showed a range of 25-35 mph, so I had a good tailwind and I was still getting plenty of lift as I headed across the gulches enroute to my first waypoint behind Laniuopoko. I was hoping to find some lift there.

As you can see from the general map, there are quite a few ridges and valleys along the route. The glide in between ridges was generally smooth, but punctuated by areas of sink and turbulence. Luckily my flight plan was working, since the next big thermal I found and turned in was coming off the ridges behind Laniuopoko. The core was a decent 800'/min+ up and was the biggest I had hit so far.

I turned hard and kept myself winging around the core until I was back up to cloudbase. It didn't take long. Then back on glide. I was hitting some decent sink as I approached the ridges behind Olowalu, my next waypoint, just before the Ukumehame valley. I was again hoping to find something buoyant to take me back up to the cloud deck before I was forced to flee toward the coast and land short of goal.

Then, all of a sudden, my wing got yanked hard as my vario went almost instantly from sink alarm to the most urgent beeping I have ever heard while flying on Maui! It was, after verifying when I was safely on the ground, almost 1200'/min up!

I was gripped by a ragged turbulent thermal with a very hard core, and I turned to play with it, taking it back up to the clouds, concentrating solely on staying nicely underneath my wing! I was just playing my part as the marionette on a string while the churning atmosphere lead the chaotic dance...

I kept getting boxed around for quite a distance after leaving this rowdy thermal. Finally, when I was back on glide high over Ukumehame valley with my goal in site, and familiar terrain beneath me, I let myself relax. And of course this is when I got whacked: I took a little asymmetric collapse in some random turbulence half way across the valley. But I just leaned to the good side and it popped out just fine, thank you DHV 1-2! I lingered for a bit in the lift along Ukumehame ridge, before realizing how tired I was and that I should probably quit while I was ahead!

My landing in the big field alongside the highway where my truck was parked was, thankfully, uneventful, except for the barrage of car horns as I helped do my part to stall the afternoon traffic!

Now that I was safely on the ground, just a spitting distance from my truck, I checked my phone to see that Abhay had called me. I called back to find him hiking out of the gulch on the North side of the L. He had an adventure of his own, thermalling above the L, but then reporting problems with his vario (possibly your cell phone too close?) and finding himself scratching low and then lower until the good options ran out. He was hiking out after putting in at a very tight sandy streambed wash. OK, you're all good? No keawe tree nightmare aborts? No giant pigs snarling at you? Good! Now to call Zack...

Zack had done some XC himself and had made it to the beach at Olowalu and then hitched a ride back to the regular Lahaina LZ. And Brian, no longer an L virgin, was still boating around at cloudbase above the L waiting for the fat lady to sing or something, outflying all the veterans that day!

All in all, it was an epic day of thermaling and XC over here! And, in summary, light and variable days at the L are reasonably do-able. And they could be made even easier with a bit of launchsite maintenance; like, say, having someone lug up a chainsaw to clear weed trees on the north side!



NOTES: the picture(s) were not taken on the day in question, sorry for the false advertising! However they depict a previous aborted XC attempt from awhile back and give a good view of what the flight is like. Check here for some crappy quality video of my recent Ukumehame flights!


Alex said...

Aaron, what a great story! We always fly our west side in L&V, rarely in light trades. I don't think our range there is quite tall enough to create the same kind of thermal bubble that sets up for you guys. Anyway, nice job on the XC! I would love to see a tracklog if you have one. No one flew the L&V here on Thursday, although it looked quite epic, according to Doug who was stuck at work, cloud streets to the moon. I flew our west side on Friday and found it to be incredibly strong and punchy (around 2 pm) - I chickened out after half an hour of that rough stuff. I look forward to checking out the Maui west side with you guys one day! Thanks again for sharing your adventures with us.

AaronCanFly said...

I'll look into the tracklogs option. I'm not sure my vario or GPS has a computer interface. But it's something I'd like to get sooner or later.

Pu'u Kukui is almost 6000', so the West Maui mountains will block the light trades.

I think some of you O'ahu pilots should plan to come over here on short notice next winter. Haleakala is good on l+v days, and after the 35 minute sledder to the beach, we can go thermal the west side!