Flight of the Mosquito
story by Derek Ferrar
photos by Sergio Goes
The first time I meet Armando Martinez, he’s picking up his airplane. I mean, literally lifting up the nose of the hang glider-like ultralight, which he lovingly calls “my little Mosquito,” and hauling it out of its hangar at Dillingham Field, a serene little airstrip on a remote stretch of O‘ahu’s North Shore.
Going through his preflight check, it’s obvious that Armando’s steamy love affair with his little Mosquito is the stuff of telenovelas. He adoringly sweeps his eyes over her every surface: the golden fabric of her wing, her svelte “trike” fuselage, her perky little motor, the curves of the twin propeller at her rear.
He makes it clear from the get-go that he is ready to lay down his life for her. “I have to tell you, people have been hurt flying the ultralights; some have died,” he says earnestly in his peculiar accentthink Desi Arnaz meets Sylvester the Cat. “I believe it is very safe. But if God is calling for me, then I can be in the safest place in world, and still I go to Him.”
So much for “Welcome aboard.”
I’ve known Armando for only a few minutes, and already he’s calling me his “berry good friend.” He has me wriggle into an olive-drab flight suit that matches his own and pats me down. It’s a precaution, he says, against a cell phone, keys or anything else drifting out of a pocket and getting sucked back into the Mosquito’s prop, which at 5,000 rpm could prove a fatal screw-up.
I gather that your average ultralight pilot would have a hard time just keeping the souped-up, small-winged Mosquitoa customized version of a GibboGear Manta modelin the air. But Armando is hardly your average ultralight pilot; he once set records and made headlines by island-hopping 3,000 miles across the Caribbean from his adoptive Florida to his native Venezuela in “nineteen beautiful days.”
Nowadays he spends a lot of time in Hawai‘i, where his son, Nacho, is stationed in the Air Force, and he’s come up with another island-hopping mission: to become the first person anyone can think of to fly the whole length of the main Hawaiian chain in an ultralight. (OK, there were these two zany brothers from Florida calling themselves “The Wrong Brothers” who created a big media splash in 1980 by flying straight from the Big Island to O‘ahubut that was different and left out Kaua‘i.) Anyway, it’s all part of Armando’s grand plan to eventually fly the Mosquito around all fifty states.
Through a mutual friend, Brazilian-born photographer Sergio Goes, I’ve been recruited to tag along as part reporter, part passenger and part ground crew. Sergio and I will be leapfrogging in and out of airports and rental cars down the length of the archipelago, chasing the Mosquito with containers of the carefully measured gas-and-oil mixture Armando needs to power the little two-stroke motor.
When I meet up with him at Dillingham, he’s already flown north from O‘ahu to Kaua‘i and back; now he’s heading south. He and Sergio huddle in the Mosquito’s small hangar, ruffling through ragged maps and scraps of paper, chaotically trying to plot out the trip. When I ask nervously whether it mightn’t be a bit late in the game to be figuring out a flight plan, Sergio lifts his head and deadpans, “Relax, there’s nothing to worry about. You’re in the hands of South Americans!”
A few minutes later, I’m squeezing into the Mosquito’s minuscule back seat to ride along on the next leg of the trip, clear across the island to Sandy Beach. Armando makes sure I’m strapped in tight, then fits me with a bulky headset so we can talk to each other over the rush of the wind and piercing buzz of the engine.
He leans over me to pull-start the Mosquito like a lawn mower. After a couple of tugs, the motor hacks to life, and Armando jumps in the front seat. As we taxi, I’m struck again by how little there is to this thing. His back is between my legs, and my feet rest on pegs outside the fiberglass cowling like I’m a Backseat Betty on a Harley run.
Armando’s got the Mosquito stripped down to a minimum weight of about 300 pounds. A hand-held GPS serves as the instrument panel, and a walkie-talkie is our radio. There’s no fuel gauge; he checks the level by leaning out of the trike in midflight to eyeball a translucent strip in the fiberglass gas tank. The one luxury item is an iPod velcroed to the dashboard which pumps Armando’s collection of classic rock tunes through our headphones. As we roll out onto the tarmac for takeoff, Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind” is blasting. I am not comforted.
We pick up speed for a few yards, and thenpoof!we’re suddenly off the ground. At first I grip the sides of the trike with white knuckles, overcome by the feeling that I’m just going to tumble out into midair, especially when Armando banks a series of steep turns to catch an updraft off the cliff face. But gradually I relax into the powerlessness of the passenger, surrendering to Armando’s flying mastery, come what may.
The Mosquito skews side to side disconcertingly, but Armando has it under control. He tells me later that once you master the art of surfing the air currents, it just becomes a matter of trimming the steering bar with small nudges. Just like surfers can feel the movement and spirit of the living ocean, he says, “in the Mosquito, you really feel the spirit of the sky.”
We fly out over the ocean, where he points out a whale breaching and kite surfers racing along the shore. I don’t realize how high we’ve risen until I see how tiny their fluttering airfoils look below us. Although it’s barely past dawn, a strong head wind is already cranking against us. We seem to crawl along, with the groundspeed display on the little GPS unit barely registering 30 miles an hour. (With no wind, Armando tells me, the Mosquito will average around 75.)
Beneath us, the farms of Mokulë‘ia roll by, and from this vantage point I see hidden estates and secret ravines I never knew were there. We follow the artery of the highway up over O‘ahu’s central plateau, with the military bases and housing developments forming circuit-board patterns below.
Halfway across the island, Armando cuts east toward the Ko‘olau mountain ridge. Soon the fingers of steep, folded rock sweep up toward us alarmingly. Ahead, a gap in the ridge-line scrapes the bottom of a roiling cloud bank, with the taller peaks on either side lost in mist. My teeth are chattering, and it’s only partly because of the biting cold wind at 4,000 feet.
Armando aims to squeeze through the slim gap between rock and cloud. Too high, and we’ll be flying blind in the unpredictable cloud drafts. Too low, and, well
“Hang on,” he warns over the headset. “It’s going to get bumpy.”
Understatement. As we approach the ridge, blasts of wind slam us around, and the Mosquito bucks and rolls as Armando surfs the sky, grunting as he muscles the wing around. A wall of cloud streams up over the ridge and rolls abruptly down toward us like a breaking wave. We’re almost enveloped until Armando pulls a quick dive under it.
Suddenly the ridge is maybe 100 feet below us, looking way too close for comfort. Just as quickly, it drops away on the other side, and we’re through. The expanse of O‘ahu’s Windward side opens up ahead: rooftops, golf courses and the broad sweep of Kane‘ohe Bay dotted with ivory sandbanks.
We head south, with the cold crosswind now driving us along at a much faster clip. Almost before I realize it, we’re approaching the island’s rocky southeast corner, and the air begins to warm as we descend. We cross out over the water next to the ashy cone of Koko Crater, and Armando drops the Mosquito suddenly into a steep downward spiral.
“It’s no good to fly low for a long a time in this wind,” he tosses back through the headset. “Better to just go for it!”
For a moment, the arc of our turn sends us dead for the crater slope, and I taste my heart in the back of my throat. Then, in an instant, we wheel around and plop sharply onto the broad lawn at Sandy Beach, a popular landing pad for the hang gliders and other sky junkies who ride the updrafts against the cliffs nearby.
As we swoop down, a lone figure waves us in like a traffic cop. Armando rolls the Mosquito across the lawn to a bathroom blockhouse at the far end, its walls painted with murals of Hawaiian surf heroes.
The traffic cop comes trotting up. He’s Eddie Tadao, a Vietnam vet helicopter pilot who now spends his days flying an assortment of kites on the breezy lawn at Sandy’s, decked out in an array of fanny packs, utility belts and a vest bejeweled with a multitude of colored carabiner clips. He’s the one-man air traffic tower of Sandy Beach, proudly calling the strip of grass “my little airport.” Eddie used to fly ultralights and paragliders himself, he tells us, until one day he came down hard near the bathroom and busted himself up pretty good. He shows us the scars where he broke his arm and pelvis, and where they operated on his ruptured spleen. His wife divorced him, he says, because he spent all his weekends flying.
With the wind as strong as it is, Armando thinks it’s wiser to make the flight over the channel to Moloka‘i solo. And I’m OK with that. Sergio drives up with a can of fuel, and Armando quickly drains it into the Mosquito’s tank. He yanks the starter and rolls to the far end of the lawn, then pops off into the wind, with Eddie waving him on.
Meanwhile, Sergio and I hustle out to the real airport to hop a commercial flight to Kaunakakai. Getting out of the plane at Moloka‘i’s tiny airport, I catch a glimpse of the Mosquito tied down on a corner of the tarmac, and my heart skips a beat.
Armando meets us in the parking lot, where I overhear a guy talking into his cell phone: “Yeah, it’s some kind goofy planean ultralight or something. This guy just flew in on it. He’s crazy!”
“Well, amigo,” Sergio tells Armando, “it looks like you’re definitely the life of the party here today.”
Still raring to go after a day of flying, Armando takes me for a spin over the cliffs of Moloka‘i’s north coast. We take off and cruise low over country homesteads dotted with rusting pickups and A-frame chicken shelters. Suddenly the land drops away, and we’re high over the sea, the line of vertical cliffs stretching ahead of us toward the lonely peninsula of Kalaupapa.
The wind roars against us, and needles of rain start to sting our faces, so before long Armando banks back downwind to the airport. Over the headphones as we come in, we hear the control tower talking to a small plane lined up to land ahead of us: “When you get down, take a look at what the guy behind you is flying. You’re not gonna believe it!”
After Armando ties the Mosquito down for the night, we run into the air traffic controller in the parking lot. “That’s quite a little bird you’ve got,” he says. He compliments Armando on his flying skills but says, “The problem is that your plane is so small, it doesn’t always show up on my radar. You kind of blink in and out, and I don’t really know where you are. It can get kind of nerve-wracking.”
At dinner, Armando tells me that in Caracas his family owned a large flea market that was nationalized by Hugo Chavez’s government. He also once worked as a personal computer guy for the country’s former first lady, Doña Blanca, who had been his neighbor when he was growing up.
I ask how he got into flying, and he says that ever since his father sailed solo from Florida to Venezuela when Armando was a boy, he had dreamed of making the same trip by air.
In the late 1990s he got serious about it, and through the Internet, he hooked up with hang-gliding legend Mark “Gibbo” Gibson, who manufactures his high-performance GibboGear ultralights near Houston.
Gibbo taught him to fly but forbade him from attempting the Venezuela trip for at least a couple of years. In the meantime, Armando says, Gibbo would call him up on days when there was a tornado warning and say, “You want to fly across the Caribbean? Today is a good day to practice.”
He finally got Gibbo’s blessing, and after a trial run to the Bahamas, he made his dream flight to Venezuela in 2004, skipping from island to island with only his optimism and trust as a flight plan.
Early the next morning, Armando and Sergio fly the Mosquito to Maui while I jet over to grab a rental car and a can of fuel. When I catch up with them at the small commuter airport in the Kapalua resort area, the Mosquito is sitting in the airport’s tiny parking lot, and Armando and Sergio are surrounded by airport officials and security guards.
It turns out that private aircraft aren’t allowed at Kapalua, so in order to get permission to land, Armando had to declare a fuel emergency. “I call the guy in the tower, and he tells me, ‘I’m sorry, sir, you’re not allowed to land here,’” Armando tells me. “Then he says, ‘Sir, where are you? Who are you? What are you flying? I can’t see you!’”
When the security guards came out to scold him, Armando charmed them into instant allies. Now they stand around joking and grinning like school kids as he refuels and waits for a passenger prop plane to come and go. One smiling woman in a TSA uniform keeps saying over and over, “That is too cool!” Armando invites them all to come flying with him any time. When he finally jumps back into the Mosquito and flits off into the blue, they all stand on the runway, waving goodbye.
After a refueling stop at Maui’s main airport in Kahului, where the Mosquito is dwarfed by huge jets roaring up and down the runway, Armando takes off around the massive slope of Haleakala volcano toward the remote rural town of Hana at the island’s eastern tip. Meanwhile, Sergio and I give chase on the notoriously winding Hana Highway.
We’ve brought along a small two-way radio, and after a while Armando hails us to say that he’s worried about fuel and he’s going to try to touch down at Ke‘anae, a small peninsula that offers the only level bit of land along the rugged coast.
We race down a side road to the tiny village at the peninsula’s tip just in time to see Armando come in low. He barely clears some telephone lines along the outfield of a small baseball diamond, then drops straight down to the turf and rolls to a stop at home plate maybe 50 yards away.
It’s a stone-cold crazy landing that has us yelling at the top of our lungs first with terror and then relief, and leaves the rest of the people in the parka few local families hanging out on a Sunday afternoon and a couple of carloads of tourists taking a detour from the long road to Hanawith jaws gaping in shock.
A shirtless, ponytailed local man wanders up with his young son to check out this thing that just dropped out of the sky into his world. Naturally, Armando greets them with beaming charm, enthralling the little boy hiding behind his dad’s leg with a “Give me five, big guy.”
“You have a beautiful family,” he tells the man.
Then he pushes the Mosquito to the back end of the field, with the town’s old stone church and a white cow looking on incuriously as a backdrop. He fires up the motor and pulls off a steep takeoff, just making it over a row of coconut palms along the shoreline and soaring over the heads of a cluster of tourists frantically snapping pictures.
We catch up to him next at Hana’s sleepy airstrip, where he’s already chatting with a local mom and her four kids. A couple of guys in shorts and slippersno shirtsamble over from a tent hangar near the snack bar-size terminal. It turns out they fly their own ultralights here, so friendly if vaguely competitive shop-talk ensues. One of them is a Dutch guy namedget thisArmand. He cautions Armando that since Hana is a “very isolated, noise-sensitive community,” to be careful about flying too close to houses.
“Avoid populated areas,” Armando says. “Got it.”
A glider pilot named Bill walks over, and Armando shows him some of the Mosquito’s fine points.
“You know, the great thing about being a pilot is that it’s like a big family wherever you go,” Bill says. “I once flew across the country, and everywhere I stopped, pilots would give you a bed for the night, keys to a car and directions to the best restaurant in town.”
“Exactly,” Armando says. “I saw the same thing on my trip to Venezuela. We pilots always help one to the other.”
The next morning, we make a pilgrimage of sorts. In Kipahulu, just a few miles down the twisting jungle road from Hana, lies the grave of the great transatlantic flier Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh had a home in Kipahulu that he loved, and in 1974, wracked with cancer, he asked to be flown there from a hospital in New York to spend his last days amid nature with his family. By his own request, the iconic aviator had a simple country funeral and was buried at a little church on a cliff overlooking the ocean in the lush East Maui forest.
The grave itself is a platform of small stones with an engraved tablet in the center. The cryptic inscription reads, “If I can catch the wind of the morning and dwell in the uttermost part of the sea.”
Armando stands quietly for a long time contemplating the grave and the inscription. “Charles Lindbergh,” he says finally. “I guess he was a big man.”
We walk to a clearing at the cliff’s edge. In the distance, across the expanse of frothing whitecaps and racing clouds, lies the faint outline of the Big Island’s northern tip. There, a windswept little airstrip at ‘Upolu Point will be Armando’s landfall on the last island in his joyride down the archipelago.
Sergio points: “That’s where you’re gonna be flying, man.”
Armando shades his eyes with his hand and gazes out. “Looks windy,” he says. “Just how we like it.”
The next day, Armando heads across the channel with Sergio pulling ground support duty. Meanwhile, I have to catch a boring old commercial flight back to my terrestrial life in Honolulu. There’s no way of knowing it, but our parting is to be the last time I ever see Sergio. Just a couple of months later we lost him in an accident while he was freedivingsomething he dearly loved.
While I’m waiting for my flight, they call me from the airstrip at ‘Upolu to shout over the wind that Armando has made it. “Derek, my berry good friend,” Armando gushes, “my little Mosquito has brought me to the Big Island, and we really like it! I think she wants me to stay here with her for a while!”
Later, reclining in the pressurized cabin as the steel bird blazes across the miles toward O‘ahu, I can’t escape the feeling that this is somehow cheating. I’m in the air, but I can’t feel the spirit of the sky.
My chest feels funny, and I realize with a jolt that it’s heartache. Just a few hours apart, and already I’m pining for the sweet bite of Armando’s little of our little Mosquito. HH
Catching the Mosquito
Armando loves to take adventurous passengers flying in his little Mosquito. You can reach him at (808)388-1765 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also watch a video slide show that Sergio made of Armando’s interisland exploits by searching for “Flight of the Mosquito” on YouTube.