Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Riders on the Storm

The law of inverse expectations ensures that the more certain I am that I will have a sledder, the higher the probability is that I will have an interesting flight. Not always a good flight, mind you, but an interesting one. Sometimes it is interesting in the way the northern lights are interesting--beautiful, hypnotic, and kinda magical--other times it is interesting in the way a rampaging rhino (with an unknown blood pathogen) charging at you is interesting. Today, I think between Allan, Berndt, and myself we experienced the full spectrum of interesting.

Click here for full-screen version of this video!

Allan and I talked at length this morning before deciding to head out to Nanakuli. The huge nasty front that was straddling the channel and pounding Kauai was first and foremost on our minds. If that thing decided to make a visit to Oahu, then no one should be in the air when it arrived. We watched it for a few hours and decided that it was "most likely" that the front was moving north and that we would have at least a few hours of thermal research before we had to run from the weather--we agreed to bring our mountain bikes as a back-up plan should we decide not to fly. In the process of gathering information for the day, we each spoke to Mad Dog, and I spoke with Jeff, Jim, and Alex also--poor Mad Dog ended up having to work--no research for the Dog today. He might have been the lucky one.

Allan and I met up with Berndt at Mickie D's and we all caravanned to Nanakuli. The flags were showing light north-west flow--dump side should be working. On the lower slopes of the hike, there was some disconcerting wind coming strong from school side. As we got higher, the butterflies thermaling along the trail left us room to consider that we may have chosen poorly. We eventually arrived at high launch on the dump side to find that there wasn't even a breath of wind--not a good sign. But, when you have invested as we had to be there, patience is in order. We waited.

After a while, we felt a breeze begin. It seemed to be coming from out of the valley behind Lualualei, almost fully cross to the face of Haleakala. It lasted for a few minutes--we figured that that was a thermal traveling through. So, I set up knowing I would have a cross-wind launch. As I setup, Pierre came on over the radio--he was trying to decide whether or not to come and join us. Allan and Berndt skillfully RC'd him to the trail head. I continued setting up and with Allan and Berndt's help eventually felt ready to launch.

I was fully committed to the idea that I was going to have a sledder. There was little to no wind. It was fully overcast. And there was no sign that things were getting better. So, I prepared to launch without even putting on my vest or setting up my GoPro--I was that certain that I was going to have a sled ride. I told Berndt and Allan that they should have good flights because I KNEW that I was going down.

I launched into what I figured was a light but decent cycle--the wind had not really died off from previously, but it was not really doing much either. Within a few feet, I heard Berndt say, "He's going up!" My vario agreed with him. Conditions were so light that I was ridge soaring Nanakuli. I pulled in close and flew the entire length of Haleakala--going up most of the way. I'd tuck into the bowls and get a little thermal bump, 160 ft/m, but not really much. Still, I WAS going up. I quickly realized that the predominant wind was coming from the NW effectively hitting the dump side almost perpendicularly. I settled in for a light day of ridge soaring.

Meanwhile, back on the farm, Berndt was setting up and he launched after me into the light ridge lift. Berndt made easy work of climbing the embedded thermals and soon joined me at the peak of Haleakala.

As Berndt and I boated around in the seriously unstable conditions, we took our time exploring the back of Haleakala and the edge of the Waianae range behind it. Conditions seemed to be changing slightly. I flew from Haleakala to the back range with thoughts of going over-the-back to Kunia, only to find that there did not seem to be any lift, only wind. Berndt confirmed this on his own trip to the back. It was at about this time that Allan launched. He immediately reported strong conditions; and shortly thereafter, decided that he should set-up to land. As I approached Haleakala from the back, I noticed that the wind was getting stronger and coming in almost due west. Berndt charged out across the antenna farms headed to Maili Point.

I continued to climb above the peak. I saw Allan below and it looked like he had the beach. Berndt was at least halfway to the point. I went hands up into the wind and saw that I had 7-9 mph penetration. I had over three thousand feet of elevation and a tail wind--it was time for me to go XC. I headed out across the valley fully expecting to get to the far side, be flushed, and have to land out in the ball field--I had no idea how truly unstable it had become. All day, I had been watching the front stalled out in the ocean--huge towers of white cumulo-nimbus punctuating a dark purple background. Was the front all of a sudden closer? Was it just because I was crossing closer to the ocean and the illusion was one of the front moving in? Nope...

Berndt came over the radio--it is getting stronger. Allan was still trying to land. I took a good look and saw huge whitecaps for the first time. They stretched all along the ocean from Ko Olina in front of me to as far back as I dared look. The front had arrived, or at least the gust front. I left Haleakala around 3200' and traveled across the Nanakuli valley at about 28 mph. Upon seeing the gust front, I turned more fully into the wind and soon I was traveling more like 38 mph. Oh yeah, I definitely had Ko Olina on glide!

Berndt reported bad turbulence and said that he was in danger of flying backwards. Allan, poor guy, still had not been able to land--he was caught in a washing machine between 200-400' and kept getting pushed back way too close to the terrain for comfort. All the while, I was happily buzzing along surfing the gust front and being propelled to Ko Olina. I arrived at Ko Olina with more than 2000'. I briefly thought about going further, but decided to play it safe instead. I heard Berndt report that he had landed backwards (I think). I assumed that Allan had also landed. I checked my penetration at each of the lagoons and was not happy with what I found. I needed more room to either get pushed back or to (hopefully) elevator into.

After boating around for a while, I moved further back above the open fields closer to the Marina. I pulled big ears and full speed bar and found that I was still tracking slightly backwards--my vario read 3 mph (most likely in reverse). The big ears were too much drag. I came off bar and pumped them out; in the process I got pushed farther back than I wanted. So I chose an alternate LZ farther downwind and closer yet to the Marina. Long and short, I was able to make an easy, controlled landing in the field, penetrating from 5-7 mph. I landed and had begun to fold my wing up when security arrived.

The initial response was that we were not supposed to land at Ko Olina, anywhere. After a bit of discussion, we decided that it was not that big of a deal--turns out that a guy used to do this run somewhat often in the past, and he just called in when he was going to land there. Thanks Quentin! So, now if we are going to land at Ko Olina, they would prefer we call ahead of time. I will get the number and post it in the comments section of this article.

As I was discussing my landing with security, Berndt was getting his A$$ kicked by conditions he deemed "worse than anything but the Owens Valley" and Allan was finally able to surf the sink and land in crazy conditions on the dump side of the valley. Allan and Berndt will have to extrapolate their woes.

So, my second flight at Nanakuli seemed to break all the rules I knew about the site--this was not the NAN I had heard about and experienced just a few days before. This was a west side Kahana and it was not even Kahanakuli! There were some small thermals close to the ridge, but due to the instability they were gentle--except the ones that Berndt and Allan experienced--those ones were horrific! I clearly had a very different flight than my two brothers-in-arms on this day. Berndt suffered a 75% collapse coming back over the dump, dropped 10 ft and rebounded in his harness as his wing finally re-inflated. Allan had a rough-and-tumble half hour of washing machine action close to the ridge. I ask that Allan and Berndt please discuss their flights in this article, and I would really like to hear from those of you with Nanakuli experience--was this just a case of prefrontal lunacy? I do not think it was--conditions on launch for Berndt and I were light. So, please comment if you can. I would love to get some insight on this experience.

Thanks go to Berndt for the title and musical score...his fitting suggestion.

On a sadder note, I also heard that Tommy was hurt today and blew out his knee at MPU. Get better soon my friend!


Flight statistics
Date 2011-02-22
Start/finish 00:30:50 - 01:52:33
Duration 1 : 21 : 43
Max./min. height 974 / 15 m
Max. mean/top speed 54 km/h / 60 km/h
Max/min climb rate 0.98 / -2.23 m/s over 60s
Total distance 22.26 km



Ka'a'awa Larry said...

Geez! Landing in trees, not being able to descend for landing, getting blasted downrange faster than Vne while being kicked around the whole time.....I might want to stay away from that "Lady".
Good write-up Dreamy Bee.....and Duck, too. Keep 'em coming.


Thom said...

I have not been demanding stories lately due the weird weather conditions in which we have all been choosing to fly in.

This story was a welcome yet discomforting surprise at my 6:30 a.m. coffee break. I needed to warm it up due to the gripping tale I just read and video I watched.

Congrats on your XC to Koolina, sounds like your flight was overly interesting.

PILOTS, we are starting to push some envelopes here that maybe we don't need to. I am thankful that no one was hurt out at NAN this event.

Our injured reserve list is growing by the day, Jim just getting back in action, Alex, Scrappy (not a pg injury but maybe still from poor judgment)and now TommyRD out for months, my back is still lingering from my "lawn dart" incident. This is just from our club recently.

I have only been flying for 2+ years now and there have been several others of mention: Ginny, Joey and Jim with major operations. Bonnie somehow coming out unscathed from her multiple close calls. There were visitors too during my short reign that have had serious injuries and close calls.

I am guilty as well with my list of items filling my "luck bag", Sidehills, OTB, Lawn Dart, Water Splashes and even recently leading a provoked charge up KNA ridge which lead to HiloKen's tree incident.

We were all shocked and still are that Alex had become one of his own accident reports. So, if you ever have it in your mind "It will never happen to me". Call Alex, 10 years without an injury that kept him from flying and now even he is "Shattered".

Thanks for the read Duck and I hope to hear comments from Allan & Berndt as well.

I hope all that read this story as well as the comments take heed.

I hope you all read this comment not as a negative but as an insight. I love to fly, I am so addicted but I loath hearing of my comrades injuries and close calls.

Fly safe. "It is better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than being in the air wishing you were on the ground."

Puka Wai said...

Thanks for the write-up from your rather relaxed point of view, and the great job of editing my GoPro footage. I think your video editing software needs a plugin with the "Add reality" function....

I thought we had a good chance of getting some decent flights at NAN despite the very light wind and thermal quenching overcast since I had flown in such low-pressure, high instability days before. On days like that it seems like one doesn't need much in the way of wind or thermal activity: gliders just seem to float!

And indeed, most of the flight was like that: the vario steadily beeping no matter where I was flying, just some slight bumps where easy, soft-edged thermals came up from the usual triggers. The lift tapered off to a 0 sink glide to the back of the valley so I turned around and spied Maile Point which seemed like an easy glide from 2700 ft., much more attainable that it had appeared a couple of days earlier. As I glided out to Maile Point, like a frog boiling in a pot of water, I watched my goundspeed decrease ever so slowly from 17 to 7 and watched the sink rate go from 50 to 400. I then jumped out of the pot and into the fire: after a brief thought of going to the beach I saw Duck specked out high over the ridge on the south side of Nanakuli and so I headed back to Haleakala to tank up on some altitude and follow. This was the virgin flight on my new glider: Alex's old Cobra, or rather it's much more youthful twin brother, and I remember thinking how fast this new ship was after seeing 45 mph on the GPS. All these serene thoughts were violently shaken out of my head as I looked up and saw something like a wad of newspaper above me and I dropped like a rock til the slack went out of my lines and the glider reopened with a bang over the middle of the dump. Clearly it was time to get out of the sky and I set up over the dirt road on the dump side and waited to burn off 1500 ft of altitude. But wait a minute, why am I getting closer to Nanakuli ridge while pointed in the other direction? Well, some speed bar should fix that... well maybe full speed bar. Thankfully, on the last 20 ft or so I started going forward again and touched down right where I wanted to at the relatively open intersection of two dirt "roads". Whew!

allanc said...

I cannot think of two other pilots I would rather have planning a flight and in the air with me (Duck and Berndt) on such a day. It really helps to have a group with 20-years of experience, growing knowledge of meterology, and some motivation for adventure. Duck and I have been studying our meteorology and spent quiet some time evaluating the conditions and possibility of the north moving front moving in and affecting weather out at NAN.

As Duck said the front was very slowly moving to the north and gaining strength. It was bringing clear air from south of the Big Island with a very mellow southerly flow and unstable conditions. When arriving at NAN there was little to no wind on high launch, then it began to blow at 5-mph on the Dump Side of the ridge consistently. We could see that the front was still way out to sea and the three of us agreed that conditions should be safe to fly but to watch for signs of the front moving in.

Helped Duck the Berndt launch and then it was my turn. Wind on launch had increased from 0-mph when we got there to 10-mph by the time I launched over a 1-hr window. Having launched by myself at NAN maybe 8-10 times this was one of the easier ones as there was actually enough wind to pull the glider up. Had a fine launch and headed from the high launch to the right and immediately started climbing but did not have a very good forward speed as the 10-mph wind was slightly cross to the face low. Started getting rocked around after 10-min and climbing to the elevation of the summit of Haleakala.

At the summit everything was going up but I noticed that the wind on the ocean looked to be gaining in strength. Clouds darkening, I had a general sense to land now before things got bad. Headed for the beach but got into really rough conditions as I tried to get through the strong thermals and mechanical turbulence coming from Maile Point. Decided to try and land in the gap between the Dump Side ridge and Maile Point. This was acting as a venturi because of the west wind. Also tons of lift. I fought to get down while getting rocked and rolled in the air.

I knew that I wanted to be careful on my approach because of the rough air so I proceeded carefully. Ended up finding some sink and got down with a soft landing in the very back of the dump. Packed wing and got a ride out from behind the dump to McDonald's where my car was parked.

The group was reunited in Nanakuli valley where we talked about the flight, watched lightning offshore, and amazing cloud formations that have moved in with the front. We agreed that the conditions had changed during the course of the flight's but we were aware that they could. This is the risk of flying in such unstable conditions, the atmosphere is changing.

It may have been better for me to get high and run down the coast with Duck. Being low and in really unstable conditions was not very fun. I had decided that I just wanted to get out of the air before things got any stronger.

Thom said...

Thanks for your comments an incites.
From you 3 guys especially.

Duck & AllenC as I have said many times you are like bookends. The most natural pilots with innate senses of wind, weather and flying that I have witnessed amongst the latest group of pilots. Your abilities to read the weather and make sound decisions was not being totally criticized by my first comment.
Berndt carries years of well rounded experience and I am so glad to see that he had gotten his new ride in the air. I wish it could have been under better conditions.... traveling at 45 mph in a pg wing would be considered strong to me.
My hopes that others will learn from this and realize that they should fly their abilities not their "balls".
After talking to Duck this morning I was slightly more relieved that the conditions were good at the beginning. I think due to my emptying 'luck bag' I have become a liiiittle more cautious and the pending storm would have deterred me away.......I hope.
Again, your analysis of the day is well taken and this story should be one of our documented must reads.

It's Time to Fly, Get Your Gear & Go!!!!
But Just Do It SAFELY.

JK said...

Thank you for sharing your experience, gents. Understanding weather and knowing whether or not to fly is a very important element for professional pilots. But they have rigid wings, engines, and the ability to out-perform the conditions to get out of it (in most cases). It's even more important for us PG pilots, since we are so helpless in our escape. Our fickle lady was having quite a day, wasn't she? I learned from this so to all, a big mahalo!

Anonymous said...

Great story Duck!

Thanks for the well wishes. I hope to be back in the air in a few months. See you this Saturaday!