Monday, January 03, 2011

The Winter of Our Discontent

The TFR is over. The Temporary Flight Restriction that banished us to farthest Dillinghamshire for the last twelve days expires tonight, as our island's favorite native son winds up his tropical vacation and heads back to work in chilly Washington. These were not exactly the most festive twelve days of yuletide joy for which our local paraglider pilots might have hoped.

This winter's La Nina conditions have made the flying days sparse enough, without forcing us to explore a strange and distant corner of the island. But we made the best of our deprivation, as we always do. Thanks to the twenty or so faithful thermal researchers who came out to help with the hiking and flying experiments during this long exile, we were able to transform this onerous acronym into a reason for celebration: four flying days, and fourteen flights flown. I know I shouldn't have neglected to weave my usual yarn for this long: so herein are the promised Tales Finally Recounted.

The thing is, we really don't know much about flying in the Dillingham area these days. It's a site that was pioneered by a band of long lost renegade pilots in the earliest days of paragliding on this island, but those ancient exploits are shrouded in mystery, and the site has suffered from over a decade of increasing neglect. If nothing else, many of us were hopeful that this temporary confinement would require us to rediscover some of that lost flying lore, as we exercised our unquenchable Thirst For Research!

First Day

On the first day of the President's visit, I called Honolulu Air Traffic Control as I was driving into Mokuleia, only to be told that paraglider pilots were not authorized to fly under the TFR. Thanks to quick intervention by our Secret Service contact, the confusion was soon cleared up, and we enjoyed a great day of flying at Dillingham, with folks getting airborne both from the Kealia Trail launch, and from the old grassy drive-up launch way down towards the point. But the day wasn't without its challenges. Conditions were light at the Kealia launch, and many pilots ended up hiking back down the endless slippery switchbacks of that damp trail. Also, a few of the drive-up crew sank out on the hiking side. A short and sweet summary of the day can be found here. Thanks to Frank for the Truly Fine Report.

Second Day

A bunch of us headed back out there the next day with high hopes, but the sky overdeveloped too quickly, and we ended up hiding from the drizzle under a makeshift shelter formed by the combined tailgates of Allan's and Gavin's para-vehicles. When the weather throws a curve at paraglider pilots, we don't meekly surrender. There are still stories to be told and dreams to be shared. We stick around and fly the cooler! Of course we're busy people, with families that are waiting for us to do chores around the house; but there is always Time For Refreshments!

Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Days

These four days were marked by the passage of a massive low pressure system, complete with thunder, lightning, and torrential rain, not to mention a pronounced southerly flow that may well have been perfect for flying Diamond Head or Tantalus, if those sites hadn't been proscribed by the TFR. Many of us also made time to celebrate a minor holiday, which helped to distract us from the stringent restrictions devised by our cruel tormentors. To our relief, a certain well known red-suited pilot managed to circumvent the authorities and deliver the bounty of the season to well-behaved paragliding children, by means of his Trusty Flying Reindeer.

Seventh Day

The front was on its way out, but we were left with light wind and a thick soupy vog clogging the skies. There was still lots of moisture in the atmosphere, and many parts of the island were still awash in downpours. But as he was getting ready to head off to work, Harvey called me from Haleiwa, with an incredible report of clearing skies and a light onshore breeze, and I scrambled out there all by myself to see if it might really work. Fortunately for me, Aron was just around the corner, surfing at Sunset, and he soon joined me for my second hike up the Kealia Trail during this TFR. The breeze was ridiculously light, and we didn't really expect more than sled rides down. I launched first, and burned over to the climbing wall ridge to see if there might be more action down that way, and I was rewarded with a nice extended thermal flight. After a while, I headed back to the dead zone at Kealia to check on Aron, only to sink out there near where we had parked. Aron launched and scratched for a long time before joining me down there. We'd expected sledders, but each of us ended up flying for quite a long time as the vog cleared and made way for a beautiful sunset. What a Thoroughly Fantastic Restitution.

Eighth Day

The wind was pretty strong and east, but that didn't stop the most optimistic and hardy crew from heading out there to continue the research. To our surprise, the President decided to follow us out, to visit a childhood friend of his who lives right across from the Dillingham Airfield. The entire area was crawling with police cars, military vehicles, and big SUVs marked by the Homeland Security logo. I finally got to meet our Secret Service contact! All the flying at the airfield was shut down for the day, but it was pretty clear that the weather wasn't going to work for us anyway. To make the best of a nonflying day, we decided to hike up and scout launches. Frank, Bill, Thom and I hiked up and scouted the Kealia ridge, locating the nice grassy speedflying launch on the outermost knoll to the east of our familiar Kealia brown spot. Then we continued over the mountain for a long hour or so, along a confusing network of dirt roads, finally reaching the back of Makua Valley.

After looking at some launch possibilities and enjoying some cold refreshments there, we turned back for the long return slog. We took a few wrong turns, and got a lot more lost than four smart guys with smart navigating phones should have got, but somehow we managed to reconnect with the Kealia Trail and get down before dark. That was an epic five hour hike that I won't need to try again anytime soon. I was proud to have made it but my body was telling me that I was a Total Frickin' Retard.

Ninth Day

The wind was still east and a bit brisk, but it seemed worth investigating. Duck drove me out there, but opted to embark on an epic mountain bike loop around the entire mountaintop. Frank and I hiked up the interminable slick and winding Kealia trail (my fourth time in four days), and JD and LeeAnn hiked up the climbing wall trail. It seemed too cross there, and they ended up hiking back down to enjoy some refreshments on the beach. By the time Frank and I got up top, the wind had somehow switched to a more westerly flow, which is a terrible direction for the Kealia launch. Frank managed to pull off a beautiful launch, but he was stymied by a twig in his lines, and wasn't able to do much more than sink down to land near the hangars. Soon after that, the wind turned catabatic, and I found myself hoping for just a lull, so I could launch in a zero wind cycle and just float right down to join Frank.

There were some still moments, but I couldn't quite bring myself to try hucking off without any positive breeze, and finally my patience was rewarded with a few westerly upslope breaths. I got off okay, and headed into the westerly flow towards the climbing wall, but there was no lift to be found in that cross flow, and I turned to ride the sink back to the airfield, barely leaving enough height for a turn into the wind to land next to Frank. We relaxed and enjoyed some refreshments down there, while we waited to see if Duck would survive his bike ride down the slippery switchbacks of the Kealia Trail. Of course, he was fine. But what a strange day for flying weather, switching 180 degrees on us like that. Most of our flying sites are fairly consistent and predictable, but we were starting to suspect that Dillingham was a Terribly Fickle Region.

Tenth Day

New Year's Day, on a Saturday. The wind was lighter, and even though it was pretty cross, it seemed like we might be able to get off from the climbing wall trail. A large group of us headed up and got busy clearing out a larger launch up there. That launch is really starting to look pretty good! Although there are still some hazards: I put a small rip in my trailing edge, and broke a C line, on my first launch attempt, and I also ruptured the crap out of my shin on a rock hidden in the grass at some point. But the flying conditions seemed favorable, and I was elected wind dummy, so I finally hucked off successfully to see what I could make of the conditions. I scratched around for a while, but wasn't really getting up, and I ended up coming in for a surprise toplanding as I made a pass right across launch. I launched again, and this time headed way down towards the point, to work the ridge below the grassy drive-up launch, maintaining but still not really getting up.

I headed back to the climbing wall and finally started to creep upward a bit as I got close, finally hooking into enough lift to get me solidly above launch. I climbed in the lift along that wall and headed out towards the airfield, hopeful that the others would soon join me. But then Duck reported that the clouds had switched out of the southwest. I found the air over the airfield to be punchy and mean, with very little workable lift, not at all what I expected, so I beat a hasty retreat back to the climbing wall launch. There I found one last sweet thermal which took me back up to a decent height above the ridge, and I boated out over the ocean, barely losing anything. Gavin commented that I had found the convergence line. But I guess I got into the wrong side of it, because suddenly I felt all kinds of turbulence out there, and it was all I could to do fly straight. I spiraled down, hoping that would pressure the wing up enough to cut through the turbulence, and it pretty much worked, although I could feel some very strong jolts of air hit the wing as I burned my way down through it. Finally I made it down to the beach and managed to land in some very rough cross air down there, trying to act calm in front of the beachgoers, but feeling like I wanted to kiss the sand.

Berndt came in right behind me, having launched just as the wind was starting to get strange, but not finding any lift, and fortunately staying below the layer of mixing air that I'd been in. After that, everyone else started to hike down. Moments after Berndt joined me at the beach, we began to feel some incredibly strong gusts of wind heading directly offshore. Yikes. After a while more, a steady westerly flow began to fill in and it pretty much stuck that way. Another complete switch! I just wish it hadn't happened while I was up in the air. I wonder if the afternoon on these moderate trade days doesn't always result in that kind of Total Freaky Reversal.

Eleventh Day

Frank and I drove out there early, but the strong easterly trade wind followed us out and filled in solid. Before we threw in the towel, we got to chat with a cute young sailplane pilot named Megan, and we asked her about house thermals and the best route to the Koolaus. We watched her fly a passenger all around the 4 nm ring of the TFR, and probably right up to the edge a few times, before finally swooping in for a perfect landing on one wheel. Wow. Definitely gotta try that one of these days. It's funny - typically we'll refer to Dillingham by a short name, the Dill, and because of that we'll also often make references to pickles. But our flights during the TFR have been so haphazard and unpredictable, a mixture of fun and scary and strenuous, that I'd have to say the site is more of a Tasty Fickle Relish.

Twelfth Day

Strong trades today - definitely strong enough for kitesurfing, as Mad Dog confirmed out at Kualoa. And after twelve long days, the President is finally returning to Washington tonight, and thus ending our exile at Dillingham, just in time for the trades to back off tomorrow and then go L&V the next day. Now it's officially Time For Rejoicing!
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
And all the clouds that low'r'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.


Sharky said...

Awesome write up Alex! The last two weeks has been a blur with end of year work and parental unit going into hospital and I've only had brief glimpses of the chat board.

Looks like there was some serious research going on!

Can't wait to get in the air in 2011!

Thom said...

As Usual worth the wait. I think I did more hikes up and down than I would care to admit. I "relish" the thought of flying the Dill. I expect future adventures to be had with your "new" toy and repairs to your wing.

Christine said...

Alex, great write-up....and the pictures, so beautiful.Same camera? Please tell me again the model and whether you are working on the pictures before uploading or whether they come out like that automatically? I have to get this camera!!
Happy New Year!! Off for another Vegas flight - looking fwd to do some kiting soon.

JK said...

I've heard stories of pilots getting caught in the lee. It's always a harrowing tale. Glad it didn't wad up your wing and excellent move with a spiraling descent. Great write up! Thanks for that. I learned from it. Have to say, I was gob-smacked when I saw the sudden switch on the graph, and am pleased to know it didn't whack anyone. Did you see it? Striking....