Tuesday, May 06, 2008

I'm With Stupid

Nuking winds all day, 16 or 17 average at Punaluu. My turn to pick the kids up from school. McStalker took a pass. Obviously a good day NOT to fly, you would think. But my mother-in-law made a surprise offer to watch the kids if I got back early enough and I wanted to fly. Hmmm. The day before (another kid pickup day for me), I had jealously watched Czech Pete, Chandler and McStalker fly a sweet late evening XC past my house to Hauula. Maybe I'd get the chance to chase that flight today!

On my way home with the kids, Czech Pete called from Makapuu, and said he had just watched Jetflap launch from Crazys in a tiny wing and park it in a strong headwind - so it must be flyable at Kahana, right? I told him it doesn't work that way - Jetflap could launch Crazys in a hurricane. But I checked, and the Punaluu sensor was finally showing some reasonable speeds, down to an average of 11 or 12. Maybe Czech Pete was onto something!

The winds were only forecast to get stronger over the next few days, and here I was with a rare midweek babysitting offer, an hour of dim daylight left, and a flying buddy ready to go. I suggested we meet at Pounders and leave a car. You know, like, actually plan on flying XC for once, instead of just leaving the retrieve to fate. Pete's response: I like the way you're thinking! We left his car there and hustled back to start the hike.

We got to low launch and I had a feeling we might have missed the window - it was feeling a lot stronger than I expected. But we didn't say a word to each other about it - I just launched as quick as I could, and shot straight up. It was definitely nuking. I checked the sensor from the air and it was showing 14 average. Neither of us had working radios, but I figured we could make our intentions known well enough.

Pete shot straight up from launch and soon joined me in the parking lot above the rhino horn. I was feeling pretty uncomfortable with the windspeed, but seeing someone else rise up to join me gave me a new confidence. After all, we had a plan right? We had to save Pete's car from the nighttime vandals at Pounders!

After levitating straight upwards to around 1800 feet, we drew near enough to exchange hand signals in the fading light. I gave him a tentative thumbs up to gauge his state of mind - he pointed downrange. I was surprised to see that - but if he was willing, I guess I would try too. I pointed downrange in agreement. He seemed unsure of my intentions - he pointed downrange again. So did I! In response, he turned towards Punaluu, and I followed.

As I followed, it really seemed like I was crossing Punaluu Valley faster than I expected, and I turned back well before reaching the ridge, only to find myself in massive lift with a stonking headwind. Pete was rising straight up over the ridge behind my shoulder, and seemed to be slowly drifting back. I held my ground with some speed bar, and quickly rose up to about 1800 feet again.

I finally started to admit that the wind was quite a bit stronger than I had bargained for, and I stomped my speed bar hard to punch out over the water, crabbing with a slight downrange heading. I figured I'd skip the Hauula ridge in this amount of wind, since the ridge there was shorter and deeper, and I'd just see how far I could get taking the shoreline route out front. I cleared the shoreline right above my neighborhood, and started to assess my landing options. Even here out over the water, I barely had any forward speed, so I knew I had to keep pressing the bar and crabbing downrange to find a beach where I could safely back into a landing.

Meanwhile, over my shoulder behind me, Czech Pete had gamely stopped at the Hauula ridge to gain altitude. I wondered if he'd be able to punch out from back there. Maybe I'd land short and he'd be able to punch out and actually make Pounders. That wouldn't be so bad at this point.

I kept my heading and found myself sinking slowly and still needing some speed bar to maintain my position slightly offshore. I passed Hauula Beach Park, feeling low with less than a thousand feet, and started to eye the skinny beaches beyond that. The tide was super high, so none of them really looked all that great. I was still hopeful that I might be able to glide to Pounders as I crabbed into this mighty headwind.

I got down to a few hundred feet at the beach just before Pounders, and I had to make a quick decision - should I land short in front of the mansion here, or shoot across the water low for the goal? Either way I knew I'd be flying backwards as I descended to land. At the last moment I flew through some buoyant air that lifted me enough to make me think I'd make Pounders. I continued my crabbing approach over the water and passed just ten feet over the rock outcropping, looking down to see the bodyboarders at Pounders looking back up at me in surprise.

I kept my glider pointed offshore while I looked back over my shoulder to back into a landing at a spot where the sand was still visible above the high tide. My feet touched down inches from the surf, and I spun around, only to find my wing already brushing against a row of tall ironwood trees. No room to kill the wing, and this wind was ready to pick me back up! I managed to kite my wing laterally a few yards until a narrow gap opened up, and somehow I turned my wing vertically onto its ear and let it drag me through into the park, where I reeled it in and grabbed one corner to hold it down. I think I may have kissed the ground.

I balled my wing up behind some bushes and ran out to check on Pete. He was super high, and making barely perceptible progress in my direction. Finally he descended out over the water at Pounders, and began to make the same backwards approach I had made. Just before he swung over the beach, I obeyed a dark impulse and grabbed my old point-and-shoot camera to capture the landing in video mode. Who was I to disobey dark impulses at this point?

So I watched through the viewfinder as Pete backed in, touched down on a tiny strip of sand, turned, and got half his wing instantly snarled in an ironwood tree. Doh! I pocketed my camera and ran over to help. Pete skillfully kept the free half flying while I helped pluck the snagged half out, just enough for him to collapse the whole thing safely on the ground. Whew!

As we bundled our stuff into his van, Pete said he knew when we got to low launch that we probably shouldn't be flying. He had been surprised to see me launch, but followed me out of a morbid sense of curiosity. Once he got up high he was sure I'd want to cancel the downrange mission, but my hand signals convinced him otherwise and he stuck to the plan like the good sport that he is. We were happy to have got away with it, but we agreed that only a couple of really stupid pilots would not talk each other out of heading downrange on a day like this. But hey - enjoy the video!


JeffMc said...

Great story Alex! For once, I'm glad I wasn't there :)


firedave said...

I am impressed. I have noticed how much the wind can increase when you leave the compression of the mountain behind. Even more impressive on big wings.

It is amazing what a little motivation and lack of communication can do. Sounds like fun!

volfik said...

Nice write-up Alex.

It wasn't as bad as it sounds though, i wasn't even on speed bar full time until i came over Hau'ula, getting parked at times, but definitely still checking i had forward penetration at all times.

Then of course the landing could have been a bit different, hugging the tree with a half of the wing was not a part of the plan ...

Good flying with you, nice to know someone else besides FireDave is up for a fun adventure.


Puka Wai said...

Great story Alex! I like the sound effects in the video. You two aren't turning into adrenaline junkies are you? Might put Firedave's crown as the "King of Bad Ideas" in jeopardy! I'm glad you had an appropriate mix of skill and luck to pull it off.