Monday, April 06, 2009

Get well soon, Joey!

Ten desperate souls from Oahu enjoyed the gracious hospitality of the Big Island pilots at Kealakekua this weekend. The weather was less than ideal: we struggled to stay up in Saturday's weak overcast conditions, and on Sunday we were completely skunked by an extremely cross northerly flow that brought us even more clouds and drizzle.

The weekend's frivolity was dampened even further when Joey hurt himself on Saturday fifteen minutes into his first flight, and had to return to Tripler for treatment. We wish him a speedy and full recovery! Let's respect his privacy and allow him to describe the details of the incident for himself when and if he chooses. In the meantime, I'll share my perspective on some of the more uplifting highlights of our weekend adventures.

Our group included Big Island first-time flyers Nick, Marc, Berndt, Scrappy and Jeff, in addition to veterans Jim, Joey, Reaper, Sharky and myself. We were lucky to have familiar Big Island pilots Don and John supporting our Oahu group with rides and good company. And we were fortunate to share airtime, conversation and cold beverages with several other Big Island pilots over the weekend, including Charlie, Gene, Neil, Sam, Moku, Laurel, Bill, and Greg.

We knew the forecast wasn't looking too sunny for the weekend, but of course we were still hopeful, and we also knew the trades would still be blowing hard back at home. We got some great airfares, as low as $28 each way. Jeff got the best fare, and was clever enough to come over for just the day on Saturday, resisting our optimistic predictions for sunshine on Sunday. Just because it's cloudy over there doesn't mean it won't be soarable: we were told that some of their best soaring flights have been made on cloudy days, and some of the sunniest days have not been soarable at all. But those situations are the exceptions - generally, as you would expect, sunny days are most likely to produce soarable thermals.

The LZ situation at Kealakekua is complicated, as always. The brown spot, the largest and closest bomb-out zone and the only one suitable for low-airtime pilots, is no longer a recommended landing area. It is off limits when the workers are there, which is most days, and if we do end up landing there, we need to scurry away to fold up in the yard of the friendly ultralight pilot whose property adjoins the south end.

The best spot to land right now is a field adjoining the church out by the bay, which is a few thermals away on most days, when we have to combat the typical onshore convective headwind to get out there. The church is off-limits on Sundays. Alternate landing fields within a reasonable glide include the bee farm, as well as a field at the bottom of the old subdivision. A more ambitious option on weekends and holidays is the school a few miles to the south of launch.

All of those landing areas were utilized this weekend, with varying degrees of success. Most of us set our sights on making it to the church, and we saw our pilots make a lot of great landings there. On a good soarable day, one of the very best spots to land is right back on launch, but no one made that happen this weekend. Next time!

The lower airtime pilots opted not to fly, which was a good conservative decision considering all the factors this time around. Most of those who did fly took the chance to make multiple flights. I flew three times, and each flight was memorable for different reasons. On the first one I followed local top gun Bill pretty closely at first, and I tried to stay with him as he worked some decent thermals over the highway. But I soon lost him as he made his way up and back to cloudbase, eventually working his way south to land at the school. I switched gears and tried to follow Berndt's line towards the church LZ. I saw that John had landed at the bee farm, but I was really hoping to get all the way to the church. But hope is not a good part of the plan in a situation like that. The headwind from the shoreline was pretty strong at this time of day, and I soon found myself very low at a point between the bee farm and the church.

Stupidly, I had let myself get too low to make it to either spot, with nothing but houses, roads, trees and power lines below me all around. I still forged blindly ahead, hoping for a lucky thermic boost, as I desperately scanned my surroundings for any spot where I might possibly set up a safe landing. At the last minute, as the church field disappeared below the last tree line, I decided to divert my course towards the large bare expanse of black lava to the south of me - it seemed to be slightly downhill, and with luck I might just be able to reach it, even though it would be a truly horrible place to try and land. At that moment I was lifted hard by a strong and swirling air current, which miraculously brought the church field back into view, and I blazed straight over there to just barely clear the trees and make the spot. I was happy to have made it, but I knew I had really got away with some stupid decisions. Several other pilots soon joined me and Berndt at the field there, including Scrappy, Don, and Nick, among others. Thanks to hang glider pilot Frank for the ride back up.

My second flight was much better. I found some nice workable lift over the highway right away, and managed to circle a few times to get above launch for a while, hoping to connect the air currents and get high enough to come back in for my first toplanding. But I couldn't quite make it work, so I finally gave up and headed out towards the church to see if I could find lift that way. I followed the line along the ridge to the north, the way I'd seen Don and others do it earlier, and I found myself staying nice and high all the way over there, followed closely by a local pilot who I erroneously assumed was Moku.

In fact, we were high enough to continue out over the bay, pretty far along the pali that encircles the water, towards the Captain Cook monument. The air was lifting off the pali in smooth generous cycles, but it was flowing along the cliff 90 degrees cross, so it definitely was not ridge lift, and there were some turbulent rotory cycles mixed into the lift. I exclaimed to my airborne companion over the radio: "Moku, this is amazing! I've never made it out this far. What's the best plan out here?" I repeated the question several times, but I guess his radio wasn't working, and eventually we turned back and headed in to land at the church. It turned out I was flying with Sam, not Moku. Sam had heard me just fine, and he said he was wondering how come Moku wasn't responding!

At the end of the day I went for a third flight, as the wind on launch was petering out to almost nothing. Moku and the beer-soaked peanut gallery assembled on the porch goaded me into attempting a rare forward launch, and I somehow pulled it off and sailed out under the thickening clouds and fading daylight. I tried to milk any buoyant air I could find to extend the flight along the way. The headwind had died down to almost nothing, and it turned out to be an easy glide all the way to the water's edge, after which I turned back to land at the church once more. Scrappy and Jeff followed me there as well, and I think Berndt and John joined us too.

Kealakekua offers Oahu pilots the opportunity to work on many skills that we rarely get to practice at home: forward launching, turning in thermals of all strengths and sizes, thermic cross country flights over limited landing field options, and landing approaches at restricted downslope fields in turbulent conditions. In addition to those skills, this weekend we also had many chances to show off our most practiced skill, the quick and efficient consumption of frosty drinks.

Thanks to Joey for instigating this trip, and also for leaving us his fine Cuban cigars which we enjoyed Saturday night as he was headed back to Tripler. Heal fast, Joey! Thanks to Reaper for being in charge of the accommodations at the B&B, as well as for procuring the food and drinks. Thanks to Scrappy for his excellent work as BBQ chef. Thanks to Sharky, Joey and Marc for sharing their rental vehicles with everyone - please let us know if we can help defray those expenses. Thanks to Nick for the multiple rounds of bloody marys at Huggos, and to Marc for the pupus. Thanks to Don and John for the rides in their vehicles as well, it was a huge help. Thanks to Charlie and Moku for all their sage advice, and to all the Big Island pilots for putting up with the onslaught of ten air-hungry visiting pilots at once.

Thanks to Scrappy for putting his pictures online so fast - I've linked them into this story along with my own. If anyone else gets a chance to post some pictures, let me know and I'll be happy to link them in here as well, or feel free to link them into an exciting story of your own.


Anonymous said...

Great story, Now not so sad that I did not get to go.
Joey the good news is it may not be fliable here for sometime, strong winds until the weekend at least.
Maile & Kalei send there aloha on a speedy recovery as well.


JeffMc said...

I got two sledders on Saturday, the first of which was prolonged a bit by a couple thermals along the way. The second was an early evening bee-line to the church behind Alex and Scrappy. Despite the fact I didn't get a single beep along the way, I still made it with altitude to spare. I guess the air was still fairly buoyant, but I'd like to think my Vega 2 had something to do with it too :)

Moku was a big help at the LZ on my first flight, giving me pointers on my approach. Jim and I picked his brain all the way back to launch, hoping to utilize some of that knowledge for our next flight. But then the rain (and beer) arrived.

I have a bit of video footage from my first flight that I might post if there's anything worth sharing. At the very least, it was a great change of scenery.

For a couple of sledders, I had a blast. Moku estimated that they get 300+ flyable days a year there. Of course, some of those days are like Saturday - but hey, beats the heck out of moping around Oahu or, ugh... kitesurfing!! (just kidding guys)

I'm going to start considering the BI more often when the Oahu weather isn't agreeing. The site and the locals have a lot to teach an Oahu-bound pilot like myself.

So, Mahalo to the BI locals - Charlie, Moku, Neil, John, Sam, etc, etc. Had a great time! And big thanks to John for the ride back the airport!

...and, get well soon Joey!


Gravity said...

I'm glad the Para-drinking team got some together. That was the fun part... for me.

DaveZ said...

Alex (or anybody else) do you have an email or other contact for Moku? I flew with him there in Nov. and have something for him. Cheers.

Alex said...

Dave, I sent you an e-mail, let me know if you didn't get it.

Gravity said...

Thats two trips to the Big isle that I haven't flown. Whats up with that? Next time 'I'm gonna be the wind Dummy'. Or just another 'Dummy'?

Sharky said...

Was a good trip and fun with the gang. Interesting watching the sock fly uphill...

Thanks Alex for pitching in for some of the car expense. Much appreciated.

Hopefully will be in the air this weekend!