Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Winter’s Last Gasp

Many people don’t realize that we only have two seasons in Hawaii, a trade wind summer from May to October, and a stormy winter from November to April. So by that climatological reckoning, yesterday marked the official beginning of our tropical summer. But if this wet and stingy winter is really ending, at least it’s ending with a last burst of nice weather that brought us a wide variety of fun and beautiful flights. Over the last four days we have flown stellar wintertime cross country flights at three sites around the island.

That's the executive summary. For details of our flights each day, read on, and please add your own details in the comments!

I was away last week, and as I flew back to the island on Saturday, I used the Wifi on the 11 hour flight to live track Marc and Drew as they flew XC on a classic northwesterly postfrontal day from Motocross. And of course they sent me some pictures while they were flying. I landed at HNL at 1 PM, completely fried, having been awake and traveling for 16 hours. But I somehow mustered the energy to rush out and launch minutes before 3 PM, joining Marc who was wrapping up 4 hours in the air, as well as the later shift, Tommy, Flystrong, and Shawn.

My launch was terrible: I was in a rush, and I stumbled backwards off the cliff before my wing was off the ground, then managed to yank it up into the airflow from my upside down cliff perch, and hoisted myself back on top to fly away like that was a normal way to do it. Then I managed two super fun cross country laps in two hours between the Opana radars and Pupukea, in increasingly northerly flow, enjoying the perfect mix of all three types of lift! Light northerly days at many sites often bring us that interesting mix of ridge lift, thermals, and convergence.

On Sunday, the postfrontal conditions lingered beautifully, dry and northerly, with only some high cirrus and hardly a cumulus cloud to interrupt our cross country ambitions. Most pilots flocked to Makapuu and tried their hands at the upwind push through some tricky north-northwesterly flow to explore downrange, with varying and impressive results. Igor made it to Temple Valley and back, Thom made it almost to the Pali and back, and Doug made it to Koolau Golf Course. This is the picture Igor texted me.

Meanwhile on the same day, a small crew of northsiders headed to the site which really shines in light north-northwesterly conditions: Dillingham. It seemed too westerly when we got there and we had low hopes. Also I had some replacement parts to fix the Mokuleia sensor and we thought maybe we’d get a quick flight and then get that sensor working. Marc had a brake line compression which grounded him early, but Drew and I survived challenging launch conditions at the knob to connect weak thermals up and down the ridge between the point and the drop zone for a few hours. The plan to work on the sensor was a distant memory.

The northwesterly flow made it very tricky to stay up as we explored east of Kealia, in a very cross tailwind, so we didn’t go far that way, envious of the Makapuu crew who were making progress in their headwind. Igor called me on the phone from above the H3, and he texted me the sick picture above, and I heard Thom and Doug on the radio from Lanipo. Meanwhile Marc ran out to Waialua to bring back pizza and cold refreshments. As he was returning, I blundered into a solid late afternoon thermal behind the airfield that surprised me with it’s potency. Marc saw me up high, and encouraged me to explore downwind, and he offered to follow with the refreshments. How could I resist? That sensor was definitely not getting fixed today.

The airflow was super cross to the ridge line, basically a tailwind almost parallel to the ridge, but the further I went the better organized and stronger the thermals got. I soon found myself making turns and drifting directly towards Mt. Kaala. It’s long been my dream to fly over the island’s tallest mountain from Dillingham. I’ve had a couple chances in the past, but both times I got spooked as I got close. On this day I tried to steel my nerves and talk myself through the approach. That mountain is so massive, the distance is hard to gauge. It never seems like it’s getting closer! But as I circled up towards four grand and finally felt like I was closing in, I started to feel the air getting bigger and more committing. And I was worried the tailwind flow would be massive as it collected at the summit.

So I veered aside, and passed wistfully over the flank of that enormous beast. Now what? No way was I turning back to fight my way back upwind. And I’d never before had the height or the tailwind to consider exploring further east from that point, so this seemed like the perfect day for it, especially with Marc below me radioing encouragement. It was so cool to explore that new territory. A vast gently rising flatland plateau of huge red and green fields interrupted by some amazing deep ravines, with nice thermals popping up and drifting steeply in the westerly tailwind. I didn’t really expect to get that far, and I knew the Wheeler airspace was looming directly in my path, so I didn’t take full advantage of every climb. I finally landed in a nice roadside field a few centimeters outside the airspace, for my farthest XC flight ever from Dillingham, as Marc arrived to snap a photo before I put my wing down. I look forward to more days exploring in that direction!

On Monday the forecast models were a bit trickier, no longer classic postfrontal, maybe transitioning back to trades in a roundabout way. Air was still dry with high clouds, but the flow ended up light southwesterly overall, with sea breeze working just barely at Makapuu. I heard quite a few pilots showed up and made the best of it but no XC was possible in those weak conditions. Meanwhile I was feeling a super strong westerly flow at Dillingham where I finally got the sensor fixed. The numbers looked like pretty decent NW flow at Kahuku Motocross so I headed that way with my visiting buddy Taka, and a few others close behind. Well, I instantly sank out in what felt like a too westerly and light flow, having turned to work the downwind side, so I radioed Taka to try and work it in the upwind direction. He scratched at launch for a long time, long enough for the other guys to watch from launch and then hike down.

But then Taka found a decent thermal near launch, and he started to head towards Waimea, slowly and painstakingly working weak thermals all the way to the bay. It was amazing. He’d never flown there before and none of us locals were willing or able to do that! I really wished I could have accompanied him. At that point the rest of us had gathered at Pupukea thinking the flow might be working better there, but it was really dying off at that point. We watched Taka sail by and land at the beach. I ended up just taking a sledder down to meet him. The others joined us and we all hung out down there to watch the sunset and enjoy some refreshments.

On Tuesday the light tradewinds looked like they’d be a bit strong at Dillingham, way too light at Kahana, and perfect for Makapuu. Clouds were quite a bit lower than they’d been the last few days, brushing all the tallest peaks on the Koolaus. A couple of our northsiders took their mini wings to Dillingham, but most folks headed to Makapuu for what promised to be one last day of winter cross country conditions. Despite the low clouds, many good long flights were made. 5-0 Mike gave us a good scare by hitching a ride in a cloud and losing his way to end up over the back and, amazingly, landing safely in Aina Haina. Ike flew to the Pali and back, turning back to the LZ just to check on Mike. Later Dave and Doug flew to the H3 and back under a very solid, dark and low ceiling of cloud base, while Taka and I enjoyed staying more in the clear at Greenwalls and Olomana.

Four days in a row of wintry cross country conditions just before the closing bell! Four last generous gifts from what many have called the stingiest winter ever. It was great to see so many pilots out there enjoying this last gasp of winter on all corners of the island. Roll on summer and her easy trade wind flights, and let’s hope for a few rare summertime light days with high clouds before our best XC chances resume next winter!


Thom said...

Thanks for the story. Kept me busy during a trialing meeting.

firedave2 said...

Sad is that this is how I find out what everyone is up to. Thanks for putting down the wrap up.