Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Crown Jewel

The winter flying season has finally kicked into high gear. Thanks to the long awaited arrival of a couple of remarkably well behaved frontal systems, we have flown seven different sites over the past seven days: Kahana, Makapuu, Lanikai, Koko Head, Nanakuli, Sunset, and Diamond Head. The current front has graciously stalled in place northwest of Kauai, providing consistent Kona winds for two days in a row, allowing us to fly both days at Diamond Head, the halcyon hallmark of wintertime flying on Oahu.

Diamond Head holds a strange and special dominion over most of us. It's a tiny, hard and glittering gem of a flying site set into the volcanic tiara of our most urban coastline, a crown made thorny by the lacy filigree of Kiawe trees surrounding the setting, and placed low upon the stony brow of our island's landmark headland. This gem is even more precious because of its high price, a price exacted from many pilots over the years for the slightest lapses in their skill or judgement.

There are many reasons that Diamond Head should be our least favored flying site. Aside from the fact that it only works a couple days a year. The airflow both at the launch and at the beach is notoriously unpredictable. Many pilots with tree-torn or sea-soaked wings can attest to that, including at least four pilots from these last two days. If the tide is high the beach landings are even more treacherous. Plus, even on good days, the wind seems to obey some otherworldly laws of fluid dynamics, as it bends around the various features of the eroded cinder cone. Further, the site works only on the most blazing hot and humid days of the year, when our typical tradewind flow is reversed by incoming storms. The windows of good wind speed and direction are fickle, fleeting and few, and they have proven deceptively hard to safely judge.

Also, it's a site where we are frustrated by a thousand foot ceiling proscribed by the floor of Class B airspace above, where the big jets are constantly rumbling by. In addition, we've been chastised out there for various infractions over the years, by all three of our benevolent acronymic overlords: the FAA, the DLNR, and the HPD. One year the Coast Guard MPs even chimed in to berate us for flying too near the lighthouse. And finally, there is no safe or legitimate cross country distance potential, unlike all the rest of the sites we love. So why on earth should we love Diamond Head so much?

Maybe we love it just because good flights there are so rare and difficult to obtain, like the nonexistent diamonds for which the crater was named. The classic good days there involve scratching and buzzing around the low sea cliffs and crowded tourist roadside lookouts, before working hard to bench up to the crater rim where we can amuse the tourists atop the summit. Or maybe it's because it's a smooth coastal flying site that reveals one of our island's most scenic urban vistas, a majestic view of the entire coastline from Koko Head to Kalaeloa.

Or perhaps the baser instincts of our male majority are to blame, and we love it because of the bevy of scantily clad suntanned surfer girls and minimally attired fitness enthusiasts who parade by all day long. Diamonds may be a girl's best friend, but the bountiful natural beauty of the female form at Diamond Head makes it a boy's best friend. And let's not neglect the interests of those who appreciate the male form: it's hard to ignore the brazenly unclothed denizens of the beach below the lighthouse. Every time I fly over that part of the beach, I try to resist looking down, but the occasional unguarded glance inevitably leaves me with an unwanted but indelible impression.

Whatever the explanation, airtime at Diamond head is undeniably one of our most coveted commodities. Personally, I love the fact that it's possible to launch from a roadside park only a dozen stories above the beach, then carve a flight path all around the crenelated cliffs and gullies, and then finally land right back at launch. Not because I'm too lazy to walk back up from the beach, but just because it's such a unique feat, matched only by our flights on the occasional parapark day at Makapuu.

Top landing at Diamond Head was once the option practiced by most pilots on most days, but over the years, the Kiawe trees have grown a lot taller, blocking the wind and preventing easy or safe approaches (not to mention easy and safe launches). So these days, the beach is definitely the safest bet for landing. However, I can't seem to let go of the memories of all the top landings we enjoyed in those idyllic former days, and despite the challenges presented by the lack of airflow now, I cherish the chance to come in there with a decent approach. I landed there at least five times over the last couple of days, with varying degrees of style and safety, as did both Scrappy and Don. I also went to the beach a few times, either because it was too light to get up, or too strong to safely top land.

The last two days brought record numbers of pilots out to pay their respects to the Crown Jewel. I spent what was for me a record twenty hours in two days there, either lounging at launch or soaring the sea cliffs. On Sunday, thirty pilots were in attendance: seventeen of us flew over the course of the day, many of us numerous times, and a dozen of us soared, with at least eight enjoying their first flights at the site. On Monday, at least twenty pilots flocked to the scene, and at least a dozen of us flew throughout the day. A local blogger wrote a wonderful positive story about us, with pictures and video. And one photo hound submitted a shot of us to the TV news.

The conditions varied between super strong and gusty, to light and scratchy. There were only a couple of rain squalls, which dampened the scene briefly before allowing us back into the air. Most flights were made in the stronger conditions, which forced folks to stay low and out front, but there were a few notable periods where the winds got light enough for pilots to enjoy exploring higher, including the sunset session enjoyed by Don and Bernie at the summit on the second day.

I enjoyed one spectacularly speedy and unforgettable flight on Joey's new 17 square meter Zion. After kiting it on launch for a while, uncertain if I would be able to stay up under such a tiny wing, the guys finally cajoled me into launching, and I was pleasantly surprised to find it easy to bench up and soar. I careened around the cliffs for a few heart pounding minutes, screaming back and forth past the terrain much faster than I'm used to.

After packing an hour's excitement into five long minutes, I thought my veins were ready to burst with adrenaline, so I radioed my intention to the gathered crowd to make room for what turned out to be my fastest and lowest swooping top landing ever. Somehow I pulled it off. If anyone has video footage of that landing, I'd pay for it! Then I was overcome with the usual feeling I get after flying a small and fast wing like that: I wanted to kiss the ground in gratitude for surviving. I whooped for joy and then swore I would never do that again, not ever. At least not until the next time the guys can talk me into it...

Preliminary roll call for both days: Dave, Jim, Jeff, Bonnie, Harvey, Duck, Scrappy, Ray, Bill, Brent, Gavin, Berndt, Maui Doug, Woody, Dieter, Brian, Derek, Johnny, Chili, Sharky, Don, Thom, Vancouver Jase, TommyRD, Ken Berry, Hilo Ken, Colorado John and Bernie, Fireman Jack, Mad Dog, Frank, Joey, Steve(?) from Cali, Lake, Froggy Marc, not to mention the very enthusiastic prospective student Ed! Please post if I left anyone out. Also please post up if you have any good stories, pictures or video to share.


Bernie said...

- great story!
- I felt privleged to get valuable local coaching, to fly DH, and most of all to be Don's wingman as we cruised near the DH crest on Monday at sunset
- I have some pics of you, JeffMc, Woody, and Don that I need to share and possibly inbed
- my thanks to all, looking forward to another week of HI PG flying!!!!!!

Kevin said...

Thanks for the write up. Makes being in New Jersey even worse. Hope to be able to fly soon. Seems like the flying gets good when I leave town. I'll let you know when I am leaving again so you can get your gear ready. Have fun and be safe.

Paula said...

Really? You guys look at the beach bathing beauties, surfers, and athletes parading by? REALLY? LOL.

I had no idea how precarious it actually is at Diamond Head, let alone the statutes determined to bring you guys down.

I do not remember seeing paragliders when I was growing up in N.J., but I left there a long time ago.

Alex said...

Yeah, Paula, no offense to the campers at Kahana and the BBQ families at Makapuu, but the people-watching opportunities at Diamond Head are just more rewarding in some way.

It's true that the site is fairly difficult compared to our other sites. We try to make the flying look easy when we're out there but it's definitely a site best suited for more advanced pilots, and on some days only the most advanced.

We generally don't worry too much about the statutes aligned against us, because the way most statutes work is that they aren't enforced unless there are actual problems happening. And we do a pretty good job of not causing problems most of the time. Thanks again for your great blog post.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Alex and Duck for coming down to the beach to check on me and help pull my wing out of the water. Thanks B-Ray for carrying my helmet up the hill.
Students and low airtime pilots be aware of a phenomenon called target fixation. I had picked out where I wanted to land and when I got flushed unexpectedly I made a bad decision to execute a low level 360 in order to get back to my targeted landing spot. In fact, I executed a low level 180 and a high speed down wind crash into the shoreline. A bruised ego and a sprained ankle were the result. Jim(1I) and JeffMc both had cautioned me in their own ways. Jim..."Dude your not ready to fly this site" and JeffMc posting about it being a "tricky" site. You were right and I was lucky. Someone said as a new pilot you start off with two cups. One is full of luck and the other is empty of experience. The goal is to fill up the cup of experience before the cup of luck runs out. I gained some valuable experience but my cup of luck is not quite as full.
Thanks for the article Alex. Always look forward to your stories.

Aloha Brent

Alex said...

I didn't realize that's what happened to you, Brent. By no coincidence, that's the same mistake that put the other two pilots in the water on the same day. And both of them are way more experienced than you, so it's not just a beginner's problem. Making last minute corrections is a hard instinct to override. A last minute 360 is a classic error that we see time and again at all our sites, and the result is never pretty. Glad you all paid such a cheap price for that lesson! Imagine if you tried that in a field of boulders, or over an old lava flow. Welcome to the club of those who are continuing to learn from our close calls.

Thom said...

I couldn't sleep again, I am posting this at 2:49 am after reading this possibly one of your best writes ever.

I know I bitched about getting this read and heard you were getting writers block, wow. This one was worth it.

I abstained from flying the first day, not liking the Westerly launch and the fact that we agreed that it was a P3.5-P4 launch that day.

But Monday was great. I had fun in the lumpy air, had my best launch and beach landing ever on this site.

I hope we all treat this like a gem and keep our cool there as much as possible. It would be a shame to loose it.

I sent you some pics that you might be able to add in.


Sharky said...

Hands down your best article this year! :P I always like reading your articles, your wry wit and detailed writing was savored while sipping a Chai Latte. Wish there was more to read!

I was hoping to fly one of the 3 days and even spent some deliberate kiting time at Sandy's in preparation on Saturday. I could shoulda woulda launched, but just weighed the factors and engaged the "better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than be in the air wishing you were on the ground" clause. Last thing I'd want to do is pooch the site for other more able pilots to fly. (As most of us know I'm conservative to an extreme until I feel comfortable...my current spiral addiction not withstanding)

Thanks for sharing the stoke, always glad to come and bring water or help on launches to learn and observe. Every day I learned something new without getting my feet off the ground or getting muh girl Roxy wet/slashed/trashed! :)

Thanks for always writing such awesome articles.

=-) Sharky

bfalk said...

Being gone for a while now and finally spending some time reading this little article brought great memories. Great flight video and images. Good to see everyone standing up on the launch and giving helping hands. And congrats on that flight in a mini wing Alex.

Thom said...

That wing on the front caption is awesome.

Nice shot Flystrong. Its only January and he's filling the calendar already.