Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Wakeup Calls

We could all use an occasional reminder of our incredible privilege and good fortune, as we pursue our unique pastime here in this place. It's easy to take what we experience for granted, especially during periods of perfect flying weather like the one we're in now. So in the middle of yesterday's otherwise dreamy flight, Thom and I each experienced brief nightmare scenarios to wake us up and remind us how lucky we are!

I don't mean the type of actual nightmare that Duck woke up from the other day after landing in Hawaii Kai, or anything that death defying. I'm just talking about run of the mill bad dreams, like a long, slow, sphincter-tightening, roof-avoiding, tree-kicking, cliff-scraping climb out from an unexpected and impossibly low place, at the end of what we usually consider to be a stress-free transition.

Somehow it happened to both of us around the same time, at different places. My theory now is that the weather just experienced a brief technical interruption of service. At the worst possible time. "Oh, we're sorry sir, our technicians are working on that!" Thom was on his way back from what he told me over the radio was Sucker Hill, although now that I see his track log, I realize he only went halfway.

I was blazing out towards that ignominious lump, determined to match Thom's distance, but as I turned around after getting as close as I dared, I knew I was in trouble for the return trip. There was something wrong with the air. I was parked in a completely lifeless and smooth headwind, and sinking fast. On full bar, I inched forward, as I got closer and closer to many familiar landmarks in Hauula: the beach park, the hiking trails, Duck's house, the church, the school. It's been years since I've been this low or deep in these parts!

My last hope before setting up some sketchy landing in the back of town was to try and reach the tiny long low ridge we used to launch from in the dark days when we couldn't fly Kahana. But the crest of that ridge was rising fast in my sights. I cranked up my bar, twisting the pulleys for one last impossible burst of speed to blast through the sink behind the ridge, just barely edging around the nose at 400 feet.

Whew! Now I knew I had one last slim chance to save this debacle of a flying mission. I know this ridge very well from that dark year when we launched and scratched our way up here quite often. I almost contemplated landing at the old launch if I wasn't getting up. The ridge wasn't working great today, but by god it was working, and I slowly allowed myself to breathe as I gained altitude, foot by foot, shedding a few happy tears of relief.

It was right about this same time that Thom had finally gained enough altitude above me to start the next transition, to Punaluu. I think he already knew something was wrong with the air. As I groveled my way up from the old launch ridge, I watched as Thom came in low on the back end of the Punaluu ridge, to begin a terrifying slow trip over the buildings there in that same lifeless headwind, just waiting for a nice little side rotor to knock him out of the air as he crept forward and sank ever lower. He somehow managed to bobble his way to the front of the Punaluu ridge, but by this time he was no higher than 500 feet.

I always joke that we should relax about getting low on that ridge, because after all, we launch Kahana at 350 feet. But as Thom can tell you, it's no joking matter. The low launches at Kahana owe their excellent lifting properties to the unique shape of the low portions of the ridges, and maybe also the smooth ocean breeze. Punaluu just doesn't have that shape down there, or those breezes! The air is just a sinky mess.

But Thom scraped and clawed his way up, and I watched him get established, albeit barely at ridge height, as I started my leg to follow him. Of course I wanted to improve on his line, and I guess I did, although I felt pretty low along the way. But think I took a slightly liftier line, and I pulled in closer to 900, a whole lifetime of altitude higher than where Thom had arrived. Then we were scratching together right on the front of the ridge, trying to hook into anything that felt like even a distant relation to a thermal, and also trying to avoid crashing into one another in that limited zone of buoyancy.

Finally we both managed to tag something legitimately thermic, at least a first cousin, and we climbed into the back where we knew we'd be able to at least get high and gather our wits. Sure enough, we climbed nicely to cloud base back there and shot back to Kahana like scalded cats. Thom said over the radio, we're definitely not going to be ping ponging back this way again today! I had to agree.

Somehow the rest of the flight was as dreamy as usual, easy up at Kahana, easy bay crossing, easy trip to Kualoa in the gorgeous late afternoon light, blah blah blah. But at least I can say I was fully awake and appreciating all the easy goodness. Great to see Drew and Jonathan out there tearing up the top landings. Somebody's gotta keep up the zooming and wanging while Woody's out of town!

I look forward to more chances to fully appreciate how good we have it!

1 comment:

sandy said...

The wind sensors don't show any strange changes in weather around that time. I think it was all you guys, and Mother Nature was giving you payback for all your trashtalk about getting bored with flying back and forth along her lovely shoulders. Sounds like she gave you a good workout. Thanks for sharing!