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<b>Ivory Flower</b><br>Keyra Tehani Tejada, a graduate of the hula program at Hawai'i Community College, presents sacred salt to purify the hula grounds.<br><br><i>photo: Elyse Butler</i>
Vol. 15, no. 5
October/November 2012


Surfing the Stratosphere 

Story by Paul Wood

Photos by Chris Woods


For weeks now
the winds have been uncooperative—and tomorrow they’re predicted to get worse. But today at dawn the phone rings. I look at the caller ID and answer.


“Woody. What’s up?”


“What time do you want me to pick you up?” he asks.


I blink. “That depends on what you think’s going to happen.”


“We’re gonna fly.”


This is the aerial equivalent of “Surf’s up.” Suddenly my pulse is hammering in my ears.


By the time Woody and I reach Waimea’s airstrip, the sky looks misty with vog. The trades have backed off and volcanic ash is moving in, creating shear lines wherever air masses are colliding. Twenty miles distant, Mauna Kea towers above the scramble of lower sky.


Woody and I pull the covers off our flying machine for the day: A Schleicher ASH 25 Mi Open Class sailplane, a gleaming white dragonfly with incredibly long, thin wings. Eighty-four feet tip to tip, it’s about as wide as my house and fashioned from light, supple carbon fiberglass. Two seats, one behind the other, sit under a sleek plastic canopy. The controls are mechanical and simple: a stick, rudder pedals and some ball pulls. Besides the radio headset and a few instruments—the most compelling being the variometer, or vario, which indicates lift—this gorgeous gadget is pretty simple. One other detail, though: Most sailplanes have to be towed into the sky, but Woody’s craft can self-launch. A hidden propeller pops up, flies him to altitude, then retracts.


Woody pulls the sailplane onto the runway using a golf cart with a tow hitch. I strap on a parachute while various people explain what to do if I have to bail: Pop the plane’s canopy open; the wind will rip it right off. Then just stand up, cross arms, step over the side and yank the parachute’s pull-cord ring.


“I’m glad that doesn’t happen very often,” I say and slide into my seat. It’s like getting in a bathtub. My feet are on the rudder pedals. The stick is between my legs. A little red barf bag sits in the side pocket.


Someone drops the canopy over me. Outside it’s cool and breezy, but with the canopy down I get warm: greenhouse effect. Woody climbs into the front and tests the flaps, then starts the engine. I hear the high whining grumble of the propeller. He lets the motor warm up for three or four minutes as I sit, incredulous that I’m actually going to fly at ten thousand feet with nothing powering me but wind.


“Here we go,” Woody says. A short run, then we pop into the air. The plane’s wings flex and tremble. Woody carves a big circle, then points right at Mauna Kea, over the stony brown acres of Parker Ranch. After ten minutes of untroubled air time, we reach the rising slopes of the mountain.


He doubles back across the mountain face. The vario swings wildly. “Some lifting air here,” he says. He cruises up under a puff of cloud. “This’ll be a good one up here.” The darker the cloud, he explains, the more lift in it.


“How you doing?” he asks me.


“I have to remember to keep breathing.”


At ten thousand feet, over the high shoulder of the mountain, Woody drops the power on the engine to an idle. Now we’re among the mountaintops. Mauna Loa, monstrous and sharp-sided, rises behind Mauna Kea. The modest humps of Hualalai stand off to the west. Behind us, the green ridge of Kohala. Below us the clouds have thickened into an inversion layer.


Woody shuts off the engine. All we hear is wind whistling. We go looking for lift.