Tuesday, May 07, 2013

West Side Story: Alone and Unafraid

Nanakuli was "on". Jeff made the call and planted the seed. “Stalker: west side looks good. I'm running errands today, but it was clear blue skies when I left”. But the seed didn’t sprout for most. An expedition to Dillingham the day prior took the mickey out of most of those that could have flown. A day to recoup and rest was in order, but not for me. I spent the prior day on a 10-hour flight from NYC to HNL, so I was rested. And I was perfectly positioned. I had the first appointment of the day to get a chipped front tooth repaired from an out-of-hand paragliding party. I was at the Hickam dental clinic and that’s half the drive.

After Alex made a valiant, yet failed attempt to rally a posse, I resigned myself to flying solo. I was disappointed, there’s no doubt. But in the back of my mind, I was sure that today’s flight would be good. The solo ones often are for me.

The blip was surprisingly accurate. It was a light north day with a wrap around Kaena Point and into the west side. I’ve seen this set up before, and it creates an amazing containment of thermal energy. The sky was mostly clear, apart from some 4,000 foot MSL build-ups over Mt. Ka’ala, as well as scattered along the Waianae Range. Like Stalker said, it looked good.

View West Side Flying - WORK IN PROGRESS! in a larger map

On launch it was blowing in from the dump side, as expected. I took the trail to mid launch and took a lull between cycles. It was no problem getting up, but the air was ratty and I was careful to stay as far away from the hill as I could, and still find lift. Above Haleakala it smoothed out. It was such an easy day to get high and go where I wanted. Connecting to the back of the valley was a breeze. From there it was a series of hops to TPs. (TP = triple point, as coined by our guru of the west side, Doug Hoffman.)

Flying along the Waianae Range between Lualualei Naval Magazine to the left and Schofield Barracks to the right was a little unnerving. Both had good bomb-out fields, but each had challenges; Schofield with its large caliber firing ranges and Lualualei with its security police patrolling the many weapons bunkers. I was happy to cross the Kolekole Pass and put that behind me.

Approaching Ka’ala was an amazing feeling. The highest point on Oahu and a massive tabletop was just off to my right and below me. It was clear of clouds, but only by 500 feet. I couldn’t fly over the center of it without getting sucked into a very large cloud, but I was just about able to nick the edge of the plateau before going on full bar to escape the white room. Brad Gunnucio’s escape maneuver was put to the test, and it worked! Even on full bar I was climbing, but I climbed into the clear.

The Waianae Range was impassable beyond Ka’ala due to cloud cover. But the ridge that flowed to our Makua launch was clear. It seemed that every ridgeline in the Waianae Range had thermals pouring off of them, from both sides. It was so … facilitating! When it felt like I could make the transition, I made a bid for the SE ridge of Kaena State Park, which was laced with a NW wind (the wrap), providing good old, dependable ridge lift. This was my get-well point following the transition and also after being turned back from the Dillingham lee. I was confused about the wind at Kaena, to be quite honest. I remembered the BLIP to try and make sense of it, and that helped. On the ridge, I was in the lee, catching disorganized thermals. After failing to get to the Pasture Launch, I made a bid for Yokohama Beach, with enough altitude to miss any leeside off the ridge. When I felt the wind shift from N to NW, that ridge gave me what I needed to start thinking about my return.

From the SE Kaena ridge, I got what I could and went on an offshore line to get the ridge above the Makua Launch. From here, I was in a tight spot. There wasn’t enough heating so close to the ocean to give me any thermals, and the ridge lift was on a spine – tight! I was stuck. After a lot of s-turns and with all the altitude I could possibly get, I made a bid for a finger deeper in the next valley that was taking some of the westerly wrap. It stuck out just far enough to catch the wind. The ridge wasn’t much wider than what I was on before, but with the depth inland, there was enough heating to give it thermal flow that ramped up as I climbed. Throughout, I kept my eye on a ranch in the middle of this very undeveloped valley for landing options.

When I got what I could on this inland finger, there wasn’t anything more I could get with the wind flowing the way it was. The only thing I could think of was to head for the middle of the valley where there was a dirt road and see what I could get. I figured that one thermal would give me what I would need to cross to the other side. Normally, the middle of a valley is the last place I would expect to get lift, but it was my only hope. I think the reason it worked was because the valley sloped upward so much. It didn’t seem to be at first, but I had over 1,500 feet when I made a bid for this plan. The unnerving part was the minimal AGL that I had working the swath of lift – maybe 500 feet. That’s 500 feet over nothing but trees with no more roads. It was perhaps the most unnerving part of my flight. At one point, I made a transition to a different finger going up the valley in the back, and hit sink. I was sure I was about to be flushed. I just went back to where I started and kept to the finger that was producing. It was a very big relief to get out of that valley.

The rest was an easy couple of thermals to cloud base and long straight glides on half bar back to the Nanakuli launch. The gliding techniques that Brad taught me worked well. When I got back to Nanakuli, I imagined landing at the high school for a short walk to the car. But, the wind had gotten stronger from the west, and that LZ was in the lee of Haleakala. Again, the BLIP predicted just that. I went for a beach park landing that was very nearly “elevator down”. It was the right choice.

I sure do wish I had a beer and some pals to relive the flight after landing. But if I wasn’t on my own, the flight may not have happened as it did. Thank you Stalker for bringing the conditions to light. NAN is sometimes a fickle lady, but when she has a good day, it’s not something to miss. I expect we will see at least a few more of these days this year before summer settles in (whenever that might be). Rest up and be ready. You don’t want to miss it! Sorry for the hurried, lengthy "story" and lack of actual photos. But I do have the track log. My only hope with all this is that it gets you out to corkscrew your way into bliss and point it to where you’ve never been! Thermals are FUN!!!


Alex said...

JK, Doug will be happy to know someone is charging his old routes! With that flight you have now elected yourself the new guru of the west side. That position has been vacant for too long! In hindsight, of course I wish I had mustered the energy to join you on this day, but now at least I have the bar set nice and high to chase for days or years to come!

JeffMc said...

Sick flight JK! One of these days, I hope to get the rust off, so I can join you out there!

JK said...

I wrote this in a hurry, so didn't have time to research the title. As I feared, it had been used before (twice). It was too trite not to be! I changed it to keep them all straight. - Alex, I don't think one good flight out west makes me a "guru".There is still so much to know that I was only introduced to out there. I think that title remains for Doug, and for a long time to come. I emailed hime the track log right away. - Wish I had my old pal Alan out there with me. We tried to make something like this happen together on a number of days, but the wx just didn't let it. Everyone would have had big flights yesterday, with a little push and some gung-ho. -- Have to say today was spend all knotted up. I had a bad case of post-flight butterflies. Still do. I'm on my second scotch after getting home from work. It's strange to have the wobbly knees AFTER the flight. I hope someone else can bag a big flight with these conditions. Go get 'um, so we can drink together and talk story!

Thom said...

Holly crap, the SkyGod handle may be passing to JK soon. I was reading this story, half way through I heard his voice in the living room. Now, I got the whole story first hand with facial expressions. This guy has BIG Balls. To do this alone and low in some places......makes Doug smile I am sure. AlanC needs to get back in the mix as JK's wing man. What a duo that would be for NAN exploration.

Great Write up would like to say I would have followed you but I ain't got those kinda nads.

You keep it up and you will see Doug H. on your wing.

Oh my god, its Time to Fly, follow JK if you dare, Bring extra Gear cause it might be a long nite's Go!

JJ Jameson, very happy.

JK said...

I changed the title and added some imagery to try and bring this story to life. It deserved a bit more than I initially gave it, as it still lives vividly in my mind. The screen shot of Google Earth burns in my brain...