Thursday, August 06, 2009

Stepping Stones (written in April 2009)

Well, this may be really late, but THANKS! Many of you went out of your way to give me and the family one of the best sendoffs one could imagine. Dave, the weather was perfect. You say you don't pray but someone was talking to the big guy that day!!

Before I delve into the flight, I wanted to thank all of you that helped out with the wall and spent your valuable time getting me through so much of my "To Do" list before we left. We were actually painting and doing flooring until 2 hours before we left for the airport. Alex, Ray, Bob, Dave and many others - I could not have done it without you. THANKS.

The family is doing well and we are all enjoying the warmer weather. When we got off the plane three and a half months ago, it was 18 degrees. The boys were so excited to see the remnants of the last snow storm, they took off their shoes and went running around in what was left - barefoot in their shorts. It was a bit like watching a dog after a bath. They were so hyper they did not know what to do with themselves.

Since then we have been really busy... The kids have started, and are adjusting well to, their new school. We have skied in Washington, spent spring break snowboarding in Colorado with my brother, purchased a home, a truck, a boat, been to a hot air balloon festival, and we are ready for summer. We bought a 1970's fixer upper near the river and have just moved in, the household stuff (junk) was delivered last week. Wow - the new house is twice a big as the old one and it is FULL. Where did it all come from? Anyhow, that is not the point of this...

The new truck. The photo was taken at Chandler Butte (which takes a northwest flow).

In the past few weeks it has become more clear that spring is here, with insane cloud streets that stretch to the horizon, and signs of lift everywhere. I have seen several dusties, lots of soaring birds, and even a couple tumble weed devils. Twice, while driving home from work, in the same place it looked like there was some strange machine tossing tumble weeds in the air. With the house stuff and paragliding stuff just arriving I have yet to be flying, but will get to it soon enough.

I titled this story "Stepping Stones" because, as many of you know, I have been trying to put the whole island together into one flight and this was just one of many steps I have taken to get there. When I started flying, my instructor taught me to build a base and then venture out a small bit at a time; expanding this base until you found the edge of the safe area and always leaving enough to get back to your base safely. This flight was just one of many steps taken in an attempt to discover the safe(?) way through.

Dave had set the date and I was really looking forward to a day of joking around at Makapuu. The winter weather had been unusually bad with very few truly epic days. The day started like many winter days - cool (I would say cold but now I know better) with a light catabatic flow. I think many of us were jonesing to get some airtime but the phone was abnormally quiet (probably because folks knew I was still working furiously on the house to get it ready to rent).

With my chores done for the day I started making phone calls. First, I had to find a wing to fly. My faithful Targa was packed with my household stuff and sitting safely in Portland and not ready for this day. A few calls later and I had found a wing and harness. (Thanks to Jim for the gear!) Driving to Makapuu, I could see the range was clear with a high cloud base, and as I got closer, I was getting more excited. Was this to be the day? Could it work out that well? Was it really possible to fly the whole island from one tip to the other?

Arriving at Manic's, there were gliders in the air, several folks on launch, and many others on their way. Jim had left his stuff in the trunk of his car and as I dug through it, I could feel the excitement building. Radio, vario, boots, and helmet - all of it borrowed. All I had that was my own was my GPS.

Manic's was strong and some were choosing to launch from Crazies. The first few stones in the trip were very familiar: Three Poles, the Hang Launch, and then off the end of the Ironwoods without even looking back. My glide to the back of Cow "Poo" thermal must not have looked very good because, though there were many in the air, none followed. When I locked in to the first thermal, it was strong and I quickly climbed to cloud base at almost 3600 feet. When I peeled off at base I flew straight for the Green Wall, passing high over Puu O Kona. The Green Wall was smooth and there were no turns required to stay well above with epic views of Diamond Head, Waikiki and beyond.

At this point I was already looking to the west and the Waianaes were showing just how good the day was, with base looking like it must have been at least 5000 feet. There were a few moments of regret having chosen Makapuu instead of Nanakuli, but the Koolaus were still looking epic and it was hard to complain. As I reached the end of Waimanalo, I paused to thermal back to base where the Olomana ridge meets the Koolaus and then went on glide, skipping the whole section behind Olomana and gliding easily to Konahuanui. As I turned the corner and looked back, I could see gliders were now making their way across the Green Wall. I did not pause to tank up, but headed out on glide hoping for more lift between Pali and Likelike. I was not disappointed - finding a boomer just past the Pali riding it back to base. This is where it started to get interesting...

With so much thermal activity, I was keeping a fast pace and again skipped the next section, heading directly for the point in front of the old radar dishes and Stairway to Heavan. When I arrived, there was little lift and I was again down at ridge height. I made a quick try at the north side and then another on the south side, but found only slow sink, with it being a bit slower on the north side. So, instead of sticking around and hoping it was going to get better, I headed for the back of the H-3 valley. This is not my favorite place because it sets you up for a big upwind glide with a fair sized ridge between you and the nest normally lifting place. The lift in the back of the valley was smooth and I was soon looking at the next glide. I have tried this glide in the past with varying degrees of success. Making it on one flight, just barely scraping over the ridge, and I've also been flushed repeatedly trying over and over, just to find myself on glide to the bail out LZ at WCC.

On this day, I succeeded flying on bar at the back of the spine and making it with just a hundred feet or so to spare. At this point, I figured I was back on the highway to the North Shore, but all I found was zeros. I struggled a bit here and never got much higher. The ferns were barley moving. This was a first. Normally this side of the H-3 valley was filled with smooth lift and I have normally used it to convert the altitude lost in the crossing to get reestablished and drive on. With it obviously not working I continued on, turning the corner into Temple Valley, finding a bit here and a bit there. It was not the smooth ridge lift I was hoping for, and I turned 180s in all the scraps I could find.

Slowly I worked my way up the to the power lines and then to ridge height before continuing on. As I turned to the north again, the going was slow and there did not seem to be much lift on the ridge. I spent time establishing a base and probing the edges which did not seem to be working. I spent about 30 minutes in the back of Temple Valley never getting more than fifty feet above the ridge. Each time I probed the north spine of the valley it was very funky, and it seemed like there was some strong lift in the area just past the spine, but I just was not high enough to push past the spine to get to it. I was really wishing for my Targa and own gear at this point. The APCO was performing great but did not have the solid feel of the Targa and I was very reluctant to push it in to the bumps at the spine.

Making pass after pass, telling myself to be patient (one of my many weaknesses), finally I scraped together enough height to push past the spine, and sure enough there was a boomer waiting. When I flew into it, the APCO felt a bit like a leaf in the wind, being pushed and pulled at the thermal's whim, taking me along for the ride. The glider never collapsed, but never dug in, making for a bit of a confused climb. Confused or not, it was quickly taking me to base and far above ridge height. Looking north from cloud base was great, and the feeling you get when you climb in the energy from the sun and earth is a feeling I hope I never get used to. With that gain under my belt, the next few valleys were nothing but a big glide. As I crossed Waihole/Waikane, I could see Jim high over Temple Valley, gliding out to the Hygienic Football field. He looked like he could have glided to the sand bar if he wanted to. As I glided on, I started the discussion with myself: should I fly on to the north shore, try over the back, make a run for the sand bar, or just go land with Jim. The air was smooth as I approached the pyramid and I had slowly returned to ridge height. There was not much lift on the ridge but it was enough to keep you up, but not the type you cheer as you throw yourself over the next ridge with abandon.

After several passes, it was beginning to look like I would be landing with Jim, BUT there was a bit of a cloud forming about halfway between the main ridge and the Koolaus. It looked like it was slowly growing but not by much. I decided I'd give it a shot, and if it didn't work out, I would head out and land with Jim. I glided in about a thousand feet below base and started to get a few beeps. Not strong, but steady, turning slowly to the left. I climbed for a long time, never seeing more than a hundred feet per minute, but never falling out of it. 3000, 4000, 4500 and still not at base. Each circle laying a track directly over the previous one. I was climbing but not drifting. The cloud was not moving any closer to the ridge! My palms were beginning to get sweaty knowing the chance to fly OTB was getting harder and harder to ignore.

At this point on the Koolaus it is about seven miles from the ridge to the first "good" landing zones in Mililani. I had scouted the area on Google Maps looking for possibilities for shorter routes, or routes with bail outs, and had found one in the back of Kahana valley that had a jeep road that was only about two miles from the ridge line, but none of it was downwind from where I was at. If I was going to go OTB, it was going to be the hard way, with seven miles of jungle to cross before the first LZ. I was looking over the back with every turn and could clearly see the convergence in the middle of the island. The convergence was dark and starting to drop rain. When I reached base at 4800 feet, it was looking about as good as it could and the decision was easy, so over I went.

At 4800 feet, I was about a thousand feet over the ridge when I crossed over, and the air was smooth. Watching the GPS and vario, I was feeling pretty good, ground speed 20, then 25, then 30, then 35 as I entered the flow over the back of the hill. About a mile over the back, the smooth glide turned into a still smooth plummet, with sink hitting the ONE THOUSAND feet per minute rate, and it becoming very apparent that at this rate I was not going to make the good LZs. Right of straight downwind was the prison and grave yard, left of downwind was Mililani Mauka, but neither looked like they were within reach. I looking below: here were a series of hills, valleys and streams, all looking like they would require a very difficult landing, followed by several miles of bushwhacking. I was spending way too much time looking down, and took a quick look at the horizon. There was a small wisp just forming right of my line, but in a place that would take me a bit deeper than I was already. With about 1000 feet AGL, I threw the dice and pointed for the wisp. As I approached it I had burned enough altitude to be well below the ridge I had so easily passed over just a few minutes before. My mind was racing and I was ready to cling to anything I could find. No clinging would be necessary. As I approached the wisp I started to climb, and I turned very early, ready to fight for any bit of lift I could find. It turned out not to be necessary, as I climbed for a whole 360, then another, and another. My anxiety quickly turned to elation as I climbed back to base, with the wisps dancing around me, celebrating the joy of the new event horizon as it continued to expand. As I climbed, fields and roads came within reach, and again I celebrated the wonder of being able to climb on currents of air powered only by the sun and air. Turn after turn I climbed, until I was again at base, and the ridge again looked low. At this point I began to plan the next few steps.

To fly the whole island you not only need to successfully cross a large amount of jungle, but you need to get established on the flats, cross them, and then transition back to the Waianae mountains. Still over the jungle, the sun was shining brightly down upon it, but looking out over the flats, there was a lot of development resulting from the convergence of the sea breezes, and rain was falling at the thickest part of the convergence. To the north of the convergence there was some sun on the ground, but it was mostly shaded. The best path would take me toward the sun and over Mililani Mauka, the Mililani Tech Park and toward Schofield. I pointed the glider in that direction and set off on the glide. As I flew out of the sun and into the overcast, the air became very still, and I glided without hope. As I neared the tech park I began picking out LZs. It looked like the best bet was to glide just over the freeway and land near the World War One Memorial. Just before I reached the freeway, my smooth glide turned to zeros, and then to a very light up. I had been low over the WWI Memorial before, and had gotten up from this low before. At this point I was only about two hundred feet AGL. I turned slowly at min sink, trying to turn as flat and efficiently as possible, and was rewarded with slow beeps. It was nice to be low because I was cold and had begun to shiver, but I was wishing to be high once again. The slow beeps continued, and I slowly drifted along at the north edge of the convergence. The climb was slow but organized, and though it was slow, it was up, and with the amount of cloud cover it was impossible to complain. During the climb I had plenty of time to think about the next move. To the south, the convergence was still dark and dropping rain; to the north, the sun was out, and there were a few clouds showing good development; and to the west, the Waianaes were looking good, with just a few clouds and mostly blue skies. The convergence to the south did not extend all the way to the Waianaes, but ended near Kunia Road. Thought the lift in the convergence was obviously strong, it would mean flying the wrong direction, and there would still be a long glide from the end of it into the Waianaes. By the time I got to the top of the lift again at just over 4000 feet, the decision to glide into the sun was an easy one.

During the climb, I had drifted past the WWI Memorial and down the side of the Wheeler airfield. Fully tanked up, it was easy to just point it and hope, so I pointed it north toward the next good-looking cloud. It seemed like it was within reach, and would put me on course while keeping me in the flats in the center of the island. When I headed out from the convergence and into the sun, the air was still, and I had a good glide, but that was not to last. As I descended, I dropped into the flow that was creating the convergence. As my glide dropped, I started to find myself slowly bending my glide from parallel with the mountains to directly into them. Looking at the Waianaes, I clearly did not have enough altitude to glide to the ridge line, but could get fairly deep into them. As I crossed the tree line, my glide was still bending with the wind, and I was now heading downwind, and almost one-hundred and eighty degrees from my previous course line, back to the convergence. I glided on, hoping to pick up another scrap and get back into the game, but it was not be, and I landed next to Kunia road.

What a great flight!!!! But there had been many others before this one that had identified all the small stones along the way, and this I'm sure will serve to be just another stone in the path that will eventually lead from Makapuu to Kaena, and allow someone to cross the whole island. During any flight there are many choices that could lead to success or failure, but I think the crux of any flight that crosses the whole island will be the transition from the flats to the Waianaes. Many of you will be thinking: that's a bit crazy, seeing how you have to make a big glide over the back of the Koolaus, BUT on a thermal day when you glide from the windward side OTB toward the flats, you glide downwind from ridge lift into a thermal rich area, and are likely to pick something up. When you glide from the flats into the Waianaes, you have to transition from the thermal rich flats across the shaded lee of the Waianaes. The lee is created by the thermal push from the west side of the Waianaes, and you will have to be HIGH enough to glide from that last thermal to the ridge line. The next time I am out testing the stepping stones, I will probably stay in the convergence until I am a bit closer to the Waianaes, then aim for the nearest low point.

I hope to see you all soon, and remember . . . The end of your path is only as far as the last stepping stone you have tested. So, get out there and test the next one to see if it will keep you afloat. It always surprises me how life and flying parallel each other. Even if you land out, don't let it get you down - "MAKE EVERY MOMENT AWESOME" - learn what there was to learn and get stoked for the next flight.


JeffMc said...

Doug - great to hear from you again! Thanks for detailing this incredible flight for us! I'm about to go relive it vicariously using Google Earth and the hints and landmarks you've documented here. Amazing, amazing flight!

(You may notice I tweaked the formatting and text just a bit to make it fit our article format a little better - hope you don't mind.)

Thanks again Doug - Aloha to you and the family!


Scot said...

Doug, great write up. Thanks. Good to see you're enjoying the mainland. Did you get the GPS plot from that flight? It ought to be attached to this article.


Alex said...

Great story, Doug. I am still hopeful that someone will be able to connect the dots from Makapuu to Kaena one day (or the reverse would be fine too), but with you on the mainland now my hopes are dimmed a bit.

Keep us posted on your adventures over there. We miss you!

Brazilian Ray said...

WOW!!! I'd love to see the gps plots on leonardo!

Joey said...

I will never have the huevos to cross booga booga land like that!!

Great article and even greater inspiration...take care Doug


Anonymous said...

What a great send-off Doug. Ya know, we've been chasing you for years, and now that you left we have nobody to follow. But hopefully the day will come when the wind gods align for those wishing to connect the stones to attempt your feats.

Have a great time in Washington, Hoffmans...


firedave2 said...

Doug, I am glad you finally took the time to write up that most epic oahu flight to date. Maybe your Nanakuli to Maemae Elementary in Nuuanu, done so long ago is up there. It would be a shame to waste the details of that flight by not writing something down, so I thank you for that. Plus, I am doing research for my own Maakpuu to Kaena route. Jorge wants in as well.
That day in January was a one of a kind day, we haven't seen anything close since, true. I am equally impressed that you put it together on borrowed gear. By the time I got out to Makapuu mid afternoon, I was suffering from a bad case of party suck and family suck back at the LZ, so I didn't even get a chance to really capitalize on the "Best flying day in 7 years", as I heard someone say.
It wasn't my praying that got such an unreal day for you going away fly-in. I just sold my soul to the devil instead. No biggie, as the saying goes," The devil can wait for those he is sure of". So I have that going for me.

Seriously, I hope things are getting settled in in Washington and you are putting in some XC miles. We miss hanging out with your gang here.

Jorge and I are planning on heading to Valle in January, are you interested in meeting up?

AZ Chandler said...

Dave, great stuff man. I think all pilots learn a lot about flying and the right attitude from write ups like this. Thx again. flyin Colorado lately I'll keep in touch via e mail in case our paths cross here on the mainland.

David and Aloha crew I'll be in Valle first week or so of Jan. Let's hook up.