Friday, August 10, 2012

Wide Awake

I got off work a little earlier than expected and headed to Kahana, I knew it was good. It was a beautiful day and Stalker posted an epic picture four grand over Sacred Falls. On my way to Kahana, a tourist in front of me pulled off on the side of the road without signaling and without even 'really' pulling off the road, I raised my hand up as to say, 'wth?!!' and looked in my rear view mirror to see if anyone was behind me to see what i saw, and to see if i was about to get rear-ended. In my mirror, I saw a gold CRV and Alex's head sticking out the window, smiling and waving.

I pulled in to Kahana at the other parking lot because the main one was full. Alex had pulled in just to say hi and that he had to go drop Amelia off. He said, "Dude, it's good, get up there. Don't waste any time." So... I didn't. I got my stuff and started hiking, I didn't talk to anyone on the beach who had just landed, and went straight up to north launch.

It was easy to get up as I circled Rhino. I quickly got up to 1,900ft out front and made a bay crossing attempt after seeing 1i Jim and Big John try to get up over there. 1i reported that even though the sensor read north, it didn't feel north over there and he had trouble getting up over Crouching Lion. I thought I'd try anyway. I noticed I was sinking quickly over the middle of the bay and I wasn't even going to be close, I was already at only 1,300ft. So, I decided to use that altitude in another way and have some fun and did a spiral; then went back to north ridge to obtain lift again. I saw a squall out front with a huge rainbow under it; but thought it looked like it would pass. I flew to the back of Pu'u Piei and got to 2,200ft, then headed towards Rhino and a wide line for another bay crossing attempt. There were clouds above me and I was getting some lift from them. I was over the middle of the bay and felt like I had it. I announced I was 1,900ft over the middle of the bay. I thought I would make it, I was on speed bar. Then I hit massive sink and started to drop. I was 1,000ft before I even got to the road, so I turned back, and I easily made it back to north ridge to get up again.

I noticed it was even easier to get up by now, so I wanted to try to get up and cross the bay one more time. The direction of the wind was 50 degrees. I went a little ways back to Pu'u Piei and turned back to check my penetration, it was ok. In the middle of the ridge (between Rhino and Pu'u Piei), I was already about 1,900ft. I went to the back of Pu'u Piei and got to about 2,200 and saw a cloud coming and decided to head out front towards Rhino. I took a few pictures, then the cloud got closer.

I was flying with Roland, who was around the Rhino area about 1,500ish. Alex and a few others were on radio in the landing zone (lz). I recalled earlier how I saw Stalker's picture on facebook while he was in the clouds, four grand over Sacred Falls. He and Alex had an epic xc flight earlier. I guess, in the back of my mind, it made me think that these clouds were "ok" to be around. I usually stay away from the clouds as best as I can,I don't like playing with them. As I got closer to the cloud, I reported, "I'm going in the cloud." Roland replied that he copied. I SHOULD have gone on speed bar at this point (but I didn't). I looked all around me ...everything was white. I couldn't see anything. I thought, 'Oh s**t. This is big.' I hoped I would pop right back out on the other side, thinking it was just a small one and I had just pushed through the bottom of it. But it stayed white for a long time. Then I wondered how high it would take me, where would it take me? I stared at my GPS, I knew I needed to pay attention to my heading. I was going NE/SE and I needed to keep that path, since I had no other way of knowing where I was. I kept staring at my direction, and at my altitude, and I was getting lifted fast. I was quickly at 2,400. I kept looking at my GPS, then... it read S. And had a fast down-wind speed, about 25mph or so. I got on the radio and said, "I'm in this cloud and I'm going South." I had to think about it for a minute, then I turned left to get back into the wind. It didn't want to turn, so I kept that heading a LOT longer than I should have. I should have been more firm with turning, and trusted my instruments more. You get this crazy feeling and you don't want to turn because you have no clue where the mountain is at this point. I finally got it back to 'NE'. Again, I kept my eye on my direction, then all of a sudden it said 'W'. I turned again, got it into the wind, then it pushed me South again. I was about 2,700. "Alex, Alex, are you on radio?! I'm in this cloud and it says I'm going South, I don't know what to do!" He responded, "You should NOT be going South, you need to be heading East, and get on speed bar, and 'Big Ears'! I made another turn [too slowly] and got back into the wind. I [FINALLY] got on speed bar and eventually pulled 'Big Ears.'

(What felt like forever) was, I think, about ten minutes where I couldn't see anything at all. I was in the "white room". Most of the time, I was flying in the wrong direction (towards the mountains). Then, I started to come out of the cloud... a little. I saw the sun and I was facing it, I thought, "Oh sh*t." Then I saw green, and I thought, "Oh sh*t." Alex was asking Roland, "Can you see her, can you see her?" He said, "No, she's not out of the cloud yet." I told them, "I'm starting to come out of it, but I don't know were the eff I am!!!" Alex, (and I think 1i, Scrappy and Sharky all joined him) got in the car and headed towards Punalu'u, they thought for sure I had gotten blown back that way.

Then... the cloud was gone. I could see. Roland said, "I see her! I see her!" I looked around and my first thought was, 'Oh. My. God.' I looked at my altitude, I was 2,800ft. I looked around and tried to figure out exactly where I was. I was in the back of Kahana Valley, waaaayy beyond Pu'u Piei. I thought I should take a quick picture as a reference as to where I was, so I snapped a couple, and turned on my helmet cam. We were all trying to communicate where I was, and Alex still thought I was on the Punalu'u side of the ridge. Roland said, "No, no, she's on the Kahana side of the mountain; in the back of the valley." I said it a few times, too, but they were in the wrong place to locate me, so they turned around and headed back to Kahana to try to find me. I stayed on full bar the whole time.

My first thought was, 'I'm gonna be ok. . . I have enough altitude to push forward and make it out front.' So I pushed towards the front of the spine that leads up to Pu'u Piei, but I noticed I was getting lower and lower. And I was moving sooo slow. I think I was going about 3mph on full speed bar. Alex finally spotted me and he said, "You need to get off 'Ears' now, to try to keep some of that altitude!" I thought, 'Huh?! I let off 'Big Ears' a loooong time ago!' I looked up and noticed the tips were still stuck a little, so I yanked on the lines to pull them out. Duh. Stupid. I can't believe I never looked up at the wing to see if they had popped out. By now I was about 1,500 behind the ridge leading up to Pu'u Piei and dropping. (I should have taken a wiider line, not so close to the ridge). As I got lower and closer to the terrain, I had thoughts and visions of putting it down on the ridge in the trees, and imagined getting rescued by a helicopter. I did NOT want that to happen. I asked Alex what he thought I should do. He said, "Push out towards the ocean, maybe you can still make the lz, aim for that." I said, "Ok, ok. I think I can make it!" Then I was quickly sinking lower and I decided I didn't think I could make it. I looked around and saw the houses in Kahana Valley and I saw some open spaces in someone's yard. I told Alex, "I'm not gonna make the lz, I'm not gonna clear the trees and power lines,. I'm gonna land in that little spot next to the yellow school bus." They [Alex, 1i Jim, Sharky and Scrappy] were driving down the road at this point. Alex said, "Ok, we're driving there now, do you see my gold CRV?" "Yes, I see you." They all got out and walked around to find the best spot to land. Alex said, "You see Jim and Sharky in the blue shirts? That is where you should land, in this gravel area, that is the best spot, but keep in mind there are two sets of power lines. You need to watch them.." "Ok, I see it, I see it. Do you think I should expect a lot of rotor?" Alex responded, "It shouldn't be too bad." (I was prepared for it anyway). Just then, I got lifted, then dropped a little, then my left tip took a big collapse, I leaned to the right and pumped the left brake. Alex said, "Ok, ok, stay calm, you got this, just fly the wing." I was calm, I was relaxed, I was fine. Then the right tip collapsed, I leaned to the left, pulled the right brake. Then I went up, then down. I was getting lower to the ground. I had to do a few S-turns to lose some altitude. Alex said, "Watch the power lines!" I heard everyone yell, "THE POWER LINES!! ...POWER LINES!!!!!" I saw them in front of me (in an L-shape, one set to the left, and one set in front of me), so I turned right (which was down-wind), and I was going fast. I was probably about 60-80ft or so by now and I saw a huge tree in front of me, I quickly thought, 'Ok, I'm gonna land in a tree, that's fine. Whatever.' Just then, the tree flew past me about 10ft away (or so it seemed) eye level. I was still going down-wind and sinking fast. Then I thought (trying to keep myself calm), 'I'm gonna land down-wind, who cares, just be ready.' It was all happening so fast, but I looked to my left and quickly noticed that set of power lines had ended, so I turned to the left, back into the wind to slow myself down. I saw two trees in front of me, like a goal post on a football field, and I went RIGHT between them, clipping one of the banana trees on my left and slowly landing on the ground, taking a few steps forward. Perfect. I yelled, "YEESSSSS!!!" I looked up (thinking, 'no way!!'), then I looked down, just . . . thinking. I have no clue how I just pulled that off, without a scratch, without being in a tree, not on top of a ridge on the mountain, but safe; on the ground. Then I put my hands over my face, covering my nose and knelt to the ground and just sat there for a minute. I thought, 'Wow. I somehow, some way, got lucky, again, and pulled that off.' Scrappy walked up to me with his GoPro filming and asked if I was ok, 1i Jim, Alex, and Sharky followed. I said, "Yeah, I'm ok, just a little shaken." I held my hand up and it was shaking. My legs were shaking so much I could barely stand up. But I was fine, really.

A guy walked over and started talking to Alex. He was upset we walked on his plants. He seemed to be more concerned about the woman who takes care of the plants because she is very particular about them. Alex apologized and explained the situation and said that he "was worried about my friend, Bonnie, who had to make an emergency landing." I walked up to him, shook his hand and said I was sorry. Then, a few of my little "brothers" and "sisters" (from Big Brothers Big Sisters), were yelling and cheering, "Hi Bonnie!!!!" I waved at them and said, "hi."

I grabbed my wing and harness and shoved it in Alex's car to take back to Kahana to pack up, in order to get out of their yard and out of his way. Actually, we were super close to the lz, and not too far back into the housing complex. I thanked everyone and hugged everyone. They were all glad I was ok and stoked I was able to pull the landing off like I did. Scrappy was the most impressed and even told me he was scared to film and questioned whether or not he should keep filming. I'm glad he did.

Thank you, Alex and Roland for talking to me the whole time I was in the cloud and coming out of it, and to everyone for the ground support.

Everyone left me alone to pack up and told me to take my time. That, I did. I sat down and looked up and couldn't believe what had just happened. I looked down and just replayed it all in my head. I sent a couple texts basically saying, "I screwed up. Big time." Then I called Woody to talk about it. He told me not to get too down on myself. I told him I was fine and that I would hike up again if I had enough daylight. He came over to Kahana and we talked about it some more. I knew I made a lot of mistakes. And yes, I even pulled my camera out to snap a few shots. I don't think I could have done as well as I did during the landing had I not been practicing and working so hard with Woody in the past couple of months. Thank you, Woody, you're the best. We've decided now I need to fly around and only look at my compass for several minutes, without taking my eyes off the direction in which I'm flying, without looking at anything else.

Watching the video for the first time was shocking to me. First I watched the landing. I saw the tree fly by the camera that was on my head. My wing was above it, I don't know how I missed it. Seeing the power lines all around was, well; crazy. I'm not sure how else to describe it.

A couple days later, I watched other parts of the video for the first time: the part where I turned on my camera just after coming out of the cloud. It was insane!! All the clouds around me. How high I was. How far back I was! I could only think, 'I can't believe I got out of this one. How did I walk away?' As I keep telling myself, 'I got lucky; again.'

I went from having one of my all-time favorite flights one day, to one of my worst flights the next.

This song [in my video] has a whole new meaning to me. I made a lot of mistakes that I shouldn't have made, but I was definitely 'wide awake'.


Alex said...

Bonnie, I don't think you're alone in your assumptions about cloud flying. I've noticed many other newer pilots who seem to have the same assumptions. "So and so posted pictures of themselves flying around clouds, so it must be okay." Or, "pilots are always talking about flying in clouds, so it must be okay." It's not okay. Flying in the clouds is dangerous and illegal and stupid. There's no excuse for getting caught off guard - it's not hard to avoid them if we treat them with respect.

After a pilot has reached an advanced stage in their career, with a lot of experience and excellent judgment, we may see them get very near the clouds without endangering themselves (or others who are flying nearby). But it takes a lot of experience to recognize which clouds are safe to fly near and on which edge it's safe to approach. It also takes a lot of experience to fly with other pilots when there are clouds around. We need to keep track of everyone in the sky very carefully. If anyone we are flying with seems to disappear into or behind a cloud, we give it a wide berth and wait til we see them again.

Too many pilots have misjudged the strength of the suction below clouds, or the size of the clouds, or the effect of being completely whited out. I have only been completely whited out twice in my 13 years of flying, for only a minute each time, because I misjudged the strength or the size of the clouds. Those were two horrifying lessons that I don't want to repeat. Bonnie, I know you don't want to repeat yours either.

A couple of corrections: Jeff's pictures he posted were taken from a vantage point well outside of the clouds. There's a huge difference between being alongside or above a cloud and being beneath it. We were never flying inside them during our flight. I think that is part of the misunderstanding, and perhaps we all need to be a lot more clear when we talk about flying in or near the clouds. Good and safe pilots are never flying inside them, only around or above them. Also, if you get sucked into a cloud at Kahana and don't know where you are, you should always head northeast, which is what I told you on the radio. Northeast takes you directly toward the shoreline and will be the shortest route to clear air.

Alex said...

One more thing: at the end there, when you were trying to see if you could glide out to the LZ, we were telling you on the radio that you needed to decide early if you thought you would make it, and if there was any doubt, turn and fly downwind to land in a clearing in the furthest back section of houses. We absolutely did not want you landing near us - that was a horrible place to come in, as you found out. We assumed that as soon as you knew you wouldn't make the LZ you'd turn and burn downwind, early enough to make it easily into one of the nice big clearings way back in there. But you continued toward the LZ too long and ran out of good options. Next time you're flying over Puu Piei, take a close look at all the landing options down there and catalog the ones you think might be worth checking out. Then drive down there and see how they look from the ground. Hopefully we never need to think about landing down there but it would be good to know what's in store.

AZ Chandler said...

The clouds are just sooooo friendly there it makes it waaay too easy to find yourself in trouble. Thanks for the thorough post so we can all learn from it and no matter how many things you did wrong you did a bunch right to get outa there ok.
C ya in September.

Geronimo John said...

I'm sure that we all recall that it is required that we only fly our aircraft in strict conformance with FAR Part 103.

Specifically, Section 103.23 which mandates that we only fly our Class E airspace (below 10,000 MSL) when we have 3 miles visability and that we maintain clearance from clouds of at least 500' below them, 1,000' above them, and 2,000' horizontal distance from them at all times.

I submit that we should only post pictures that are in compliance with the FAR.

That said, great write-up and lessons learned I am sure. I am very happy that you were not hurt.

Alex said...

Thanks John! I wrote an article a while back all about cloud clearance and other issues, but it's always good to refresh our memories!

sandy said...

Thanks Bonnie for posting the great story and vid (both viewpoints!) and I am so glad you pulled off that excellent landing. I was thinking of driving back there one day to see what the landing options were, now I know, they TERRIBLE! I hope all will heed your cautionary tale.

Thom said...

Bonnie I hope you take these comments well. Look back at my story when I got caught with my shorts down.

This is an awesome write up and the comments were super educational. I learn every time I read one of these now especially from a doomed perspective cause I have been there.

You have improved immensely over the past few months and your kicking butt. Keep up the kiting and keep pushing it with respect to the clouds.

As Chandler said our clouds are sweet. The ones on the mainland can kill you. We lost a pilot durign the comp I was at in Pemberton last week. I watched him go, it was hard, don't want that to happen to anyone especially one of our own.

Thanks for sharing, we are always learning and these write help so much for all to read. old and new pilots alike.

Expecting Great Things from YOU!

JJ Jameson

Alex said...

Thom, I know when you say "keep pushing it with respect to the clouds" you don't mean to keep pushing your boundaries with clouds, although it sort of sounds like that. Might be better to rephrase it: keep pushing your boundaries while keeping a respectful distance from the clouds. And when you say "...our clouds are sweet. The ones on the mainland can kill you." I have to disagree. Any cloud can be life-threatening. We have been super lucky so far despite plenty of cloudsuck/OTB incidents with locals and visitors, but the odds are pretty bad in the long run.

Thom said...

I guess I need you to edit my comments too. I went back and read it and yes what I meant was to keep pushing "but" respect the clouds and I should add keep them at a safe distance. On the sweet part, I was just reiterating what Chandler had said about are clouds being sooo friendly, which they can be then they can sneak up bite you in the arse. OTBs due to clouds: Me, Becca, Roger just off the top. I know others have gotten sucked up in there and yes, we have been lucky that the outcomes were not dismal. Stay out of clouds is just the best thing.