|Tandem glider in the air on my way back to launch|
|The launches always grows crowded by noon|
I watched as one pilot, Neal, hit a strong thermal edge and stalled half his wing into a helicopter spin. He recovered, but not before giving himself a 180 degree riser twist and sending his glider downwind towards the hill. With a skill I only hope to one day have, he turned himself around beneath his glider and then turned his glider around. I thought he was going to try to crash land. To my amazement, Neal cleared the trees of the ridge, went out over the valley, and climbed to greet me. I could only congratulate him.
The lift improved as clouds continued to build. The 3200 ft ceiling disappeared. I reached 3900 ft, a previous record for me at Kealakekua, and encountered the base of the scattered clouds. Clouds are still a new and foreign feature to me. I am trying to figure out what their lift and sink patterns are. I may have entered a cloud or two that day to see what they are all about and discovered, as I had been told, that the latent heat of condensation produces fair lift. The lift was consistent, widespread, and mellow on the edges. I played by jumping in and out of the cloud margins seeing how quickly visibility disappeared and practicing using only a GPS to fly a bearing. Once, I cored up to 4600 feet at one point and used my GPS to set a course due W for the beach, where I knew I would meet blue skies. As fantastic as this experience was, I began to grow nervous as I stayed in this soup for several minutes. I thought for sure that I should have left the cloud by this point. According to the GPS, I continued to gain altitude and had positive ground speed. As terrain slowly faded into view and the sun warmed my face I released a sigh of relief. I played with clouds for a long time and then noticed most pilots were headed toward the bay landing site, the church. I flew out over the bay, where the air was smooth and enjoyed being on glide from 4000 ft to nearly 100 ft all the while observing the marine life and coral. I kept thinking how lucky I was to being experiencing that moment. As I dropped lower and lower, I noticed the onshore wind increasing in strength. I found my glider bucking into a 12+mph headwind as I set up for the church landing. Depending on what combination of brakes and speedbar I used, I could sit almost motionless above the ground. I parked my wing for a few minutes while another pilot landed and then followed his landing pattern in. In effect, I just hung above the LZ and waited until I gently descended straight down to terrafirma.
|Last pilot landing Saturday|
I spent over 2 hours and 20 minutes in the air on that one flight. The LZ crowd held a celebratory mood. I too marveled in the experience I just had and packed my glider with shaky hands. As much as I liked being in the air, I had been ready to land. I relaxed in the balmy heat of being at sea level in the tropics and enjoyed laughs with my soon to be old friends.
That night I was invited to dinner by a neighbor of the launch. Several other pilots were there. Everyone else was in their 60s or 70s. The conversations varied from flying to former lives to how everyone ended up in Hawaii. As the groups split and rejoined, I eventually found myself at the balcony starring into the evening sky and wondering just how I started hanging out with a group of people that were all at least twice my age. The funny thing is, before that moment I had never viewed them as being that old. They all flew in strong conditions and landed like spry 20-somethings. I began to understand how odd paragliding is, to bring such an unusual group of people together - Scotty, a sky bum and contractor; Gene, a retired commercial fisherman from Alaska; Charlie, a retired teacher and construction worker; and then me, a volcanologist. Last October, I was only a random person that materialized on their launch one Saturday morning and they treated me like family from the get-go. Returning to my tent on launch, I realized this would be my last night in Kealakekua. The moonshine was surprisingly bright, but sleeping wasn't difficult.
Sunday didn't return the same air time. I enjoyed a half hour of flying, but conditions over developed early and I ended up saying goodbye to the closest thing to a family I have had on the Big Island with handshakes and hugs.
|View S from launch with my glider before the final flight|