Thursday, February 19, 2009

Virtual Valor

The day dawned quite northerly, strong and gusty, with an incredibly unstable atmosphere. At least the unusually high inversion, at 14 grand, seemed to be keeping the sky an unreal clear blue, with no clouds at all despite the high lapse rate. I had tons of work to do, but when a day like this calls, you have to play hooky and just go for it. And I don't normally like to fly alone, but I just couldn't get hold of anyone, and I wasn't going to wait around and watch the window close on me.

Alaska Jack had left his Gin Boomerang in my care for safekeeping between his frequent layovers. He said I could try it anytime - and somehow I knew this would be the perfect opportunity. I ran up the hill and launched the Boomer from north launch, and barely made it around the rhino horn into the lift. Speaking of boomers, as soon as I turned the corner I hooked the stiffest thermal I've ever encountered, a pure wave of lift, lifting me at a sustained 1,500 fpm, and since it was so windy, all I had to do was park myself into the wind with a tiny bit of brake on, and I climbed that thermal like an elevator - I never made a single turn! I wonder if that was some kind of convergence effect, like we often see on these north days.

I hope you're sitting down for this next part. I still can't believe it myself - I stayed in that thermal for like 10 minutes, and topped out at 14 grand. We all remember the time Doug got to 10 grand at Nanakuli, albeit soaking wet inside a cumulus castellanus. I've never been higher than about 4 grand on this island! From 14 grand, Kahana's mile-wide bay looks very small indeed, a mere puddle on the shoreline. I'm normally too much of a chicken to climb that high above the comfort of terra firma, but this thermal just felt so smooth and silky, I couldn't resist topping it out. It seemed that I had suddenly grown balls of steel out of the blue. Maybe it was the spirit of Jack inhabiting his comp wing. Whatever would I do with this newfound courage?

When I hit the inversion and stopped climbing, the mission became clear. I felt like I had just slipped on a nice pair of seven league boots! From that altitude, in that strong north wind, I surely had Makapuu made in the shade - if I could just keep from being blown over the back of the Koolaus on the way. This was my big chance - so would I finally take it? You bet I would! I pointed my borrowed comp wing towards Makapuu and just cruised high over Kaaawa, crabbing towards the main range and slowing down a bit in the occasional thermal, but never actually turning in them since I was plenty high all the way.

A short hour later I found myself over Makapuu. A straight line from Kahana! That was amazing enough, but even more incredible to me was that I was still 8 grand over the landing zone. Is there controlled airspace up there? I know we often see big jets flying over Makapuu at that altitude, but today the sky seemed completely deserted - lucky me. So now what? Spiral down for half an hour? Then I had a really hare-brained thought: the strong northerly breeze had carried me here so easily - I wondered if I could keep up the southeasterly tack and just sail across the Kaiwi channel. We've all joked about interisland flying - maybe it wasn't such a joke after all. I knew I would never have a chance like this again - I could see Molokai just glittering like a shiny jewel across the channel, beckoning me to risk everything in this one ridiculous moment. So I gave those steel balls a squeeze for luck and pointed straight across the channel, stomping my speed bar in determination. Come on, Boomerang, don't let me down now!

Of course I knew it would take a while - we're talking about 20 miles of open ocean. I settled in for a long crossing and tried to relax the posture of my legs on the speed bar. What I didn't realize was that the hypoxia in the tropics kicks in a bit lower than on the mainland. I must have passed out briefly from all that time I had spent so high up in the thin air. When I regained my wits, I saw that I was below 3,000 feet and sinking fast, far from land, not even halfway across. Where's that chase boat when you need it? Just as I was about to broadcast a mayday call, I was dumbfounded to find myself rising fast in what must have been a massive ocean thermal. I've heard of those mythical beasts, but I was never so glad to see a spurious theory proven true. Once again I just parked myself into the wind and shot straight up, never turning, up to about 10 grand, and then in relief turned towards Molokai once more.

After another 30 minutes or so heading towards Molokai, watching it grow reassuringly larger, I made another disturbing observation. The island seemed to be slowly moving to the left of my current heading, even though I swear I had been heading right for it. Too late, I realized I'd made a grave error. On a strong day like this, the crosswind component from the north made it almost impossible to judge my easterly heading by just looking where I was facing. I should have watched the actual heading on my GPS to figure out where I was really going. Because I hadn't crabbed into the wind enough, I had drifted too far downwind, ending up south of Molokai, and on top of that I was feeling low again, practically parked into a strong direct north headwind. Miraculously, I blundered into one last thermal, another corker, tanking up to 10 grand again without turning, hoping that would be enough to squeak back upwind to the island. By this time my legs were so tired I had to tie my speed lines off in their fully engaged position. Watching the shoreline inch closer as I descended fast, my stomach was also tied in knots. Could I really have come this far only to be blown slightly off course at the end of the flight? Was I destined for an ignominious splashdown? I knew I was too tired to do much swimming or shark fighting. This had to work.

To my intense relief, after nearly three hours in the strongest and nuttiest conditions I've ever flown, under the hottest ship I'll ever have the pleasure to fly, I finally motored through that headwind at a snail's pace and made it over the southwest tip of Molokai, with a few hundred feet to spare. Those beautiful sandy beaches were a sight for my sore wind-blasted eyes. I did some happy wingovers in a sudden burst of joy. Whoops! Now I was offshore again. You fool! Don't blow it now, get back over land, come on, come on, here comes the beach now, but suddenly I'm sinking like a stone, am I gonna make it, you can do it, yes! On the ground, safe and sound! I kissed the sand, rolled on my back and kicked my legs in the air.

The GPS tracklog of this flight can be viewed here.

Whew! Finally, I could get up and take a break from the simulator. Why didn't the genius who programmed this thing include a way to pause the flight? I guess when you're shooting for realism in a paragliding simulator, a pause button just detracts from the verisimilitude. Let this story stand as a warning to anyone who reads it - the paragliding simulator at is super fun and insidiously compelling, and you are highly likely to waste a lot of precious rainy-day time that could otherwise be spent in a productive pursuit, like earning money, or cooking dinner or something. Please, if you have any willpower to resist, I urge you to avoid the simulator. Don't download the plugins, don't go to the website, don't give in to the temptation. Just say no. You have been warned.


Anonymous said...

you seriously had me there Alex. Hanging on every word. I was going to buy your steel boys a warmer for their hard work and heroism.

DaveZ said...

You're goofy. :)

Brazilian Ray said...

Is it April fool's day already??
Alex, you could sell ice cream to penguins in Antarctica! Nevertheless, you're a great writer and keeps us entertained even if there is no "real" flying happening. thank you!
this is almost a paragliding "6th sense" movie that only gets revealed at the very end (and had us grasping for air and burying our fingers in the chair every step of the way!)

Brazilian Ray