Issue 15.5: 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.

 


 

With all due respect to practitioners of big-wave surfing, there’s an 80-year-old man on the Big Island who is doing the equivalent in thin air and over the tops of our tallest mountains. The waves he surfs are truly titanic and invisible and known to be deadly. He can surf them for hours. Then when he chooses, he drops his silent, unpowered aircraft back onto the ground, landing safely on a single tire—a feat akin to an albatross touching down while perched on a unicycle. He transforms the potential disaster of falling into the ecstasy of soaring by virtue of an exquisite machine and an extraordinary landscape.

 

Woodson “Woody” Woods, president of the Mauna Kea Soaring Club, is that man. He founded the club in 1968, operating out of his adopted hometown of Waimea, a rural, horsy community on the northernmost peninsula of the Big Island. Shortly after launching the club Woody set Hawai‘i altitude records by riding waves over Mauna Kea to 25,500 feet—almost double the height of the mountain. Woody then moved to the Mainland for many years and many adventures. Now, in his white-goateed years, he has returned to Waimea and revived the club.

 

Its members—all seven or so of them—have pioneered soaring in this rugged landscape of Hawai‘i Island. They generally meet for breakfast at their “clubhouse” (a club joke since it’s nothing more than a table at the Paniolo Country Inn, a barn-red roadhouse at the busiest intersection in Waimea). Their true playground is Waimea’s three-thousand-foot-long airstrip, built by the Marine Corps in World War II and these days practically deserted. Woody owns a hangar there, home to the club members’ aircraft and gear.

 

There is Woody’s Schleicher sailplane and also his tow plane, a bright yellow Piper Supercub, a perfectly restored 1930s-vintage two-seat “taildragger” bush plane with a single two-blade propeller. The club’s secretary, Joe Loewenhardt, keeps a Carat sailplane, a compact one-seater that’s an ingeniously designed self-powered glider from Slovakia. When the Carat is soaring, its landing gear retracts, and its propeller folds forward like a duck bill; on the ground, Joe can disassemble the plane himself and secure it neatly in its trailer. Club members John Mitchell and Harold Hughes co-own an ASW 20B, a completely unpowered one-seat craft with a fifty-foot wingspan, which must be towed into the upper air and then released. The actual club itself amounts to very little on paper: It owns the golf cart and collects annual dues of $200.

 


 

What kind of people soar? All kinds, though when it comes to the Mauna Kea Soaring Club, they are all men, mostly balding. The great unifier is their individually discovered passion for getting into the air—and to understand that, you need to understand exactly what it is to soar.

 

Soaring is all about finding and catching lift—the places where air is rising. It’s lift that distinguishes soaring from the better-known sport of gliding, which is simply (according to Woody) the act of making a controlled descent. The soaring pilot reads the sky well enough to insert his sailplane into columns of rising air, thereby gaining altitude and extending his flight. If he runs out of lift in a single spot, he can race—dropping the nose and losing altitude—to find new lift and rise again. If he can’t find lift, he’ll be on the ground again pretty soon, ideally on the tarmac where he began. “Landing out” can tear up a sailplane terribly, especially on the lava fields of Kohala.

 

The first person to experience lift was Orville Wright. He and his brother Wilbur had already achieved some degree of motor-driven flight by this time, but in service of continued research into aerodynamics, Orville headed to the wind-hammered shoreline of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on a day with howling forty mph winds. He clambered into his latest aircraft, a boxy-looking kite with no engine of any kind. The crew turned the thing into the wind, and it began to quiver and lift. Then they moved forward, launching Orville from the face of the dune toward the frothed-up ocean. The force of the wind against the flimsy wings exceeded the pull of gravity, and the plane rose. Its forward speed in the air matched the wind speed, so from the ground Orville appeared to be simply hovering. But the courageous inventor was hardly loafing. He was vigorously working the controls to hold position, and after nine minutes and forty-five seconds (the world record until the sport of soaring began to catch on in France about ten years later), he set the craft down about 120 feet from where he had launched. Regardless of distance or groundspeed, he had flown without motorized propellers. He had soared.

 

Soon after, the design of sailplanes began to evolve quickly in Europe. It was boosted by the Treaty of Versailles—the document that ended the First World War and banned Germany from maintaining an air force. The Germans evaded the treaty by training their pilots in unpowered craft and thus gave soaring a distinctly European personality. Today’s sailplanes are all designed and made in Europe, mostly in Germany, and the sport of competitive soaring is huge in Europe. “If you’re a champion in Germany, Poland or France, you are a national hero,” says Woody’s son Chris. “In the United States nobody notices”—even though some fourteen thousand Americans now pursue the sport.

 

There are several kinds of lift. Orville Wright caught ridge lift: strong winds that push consistently against a rise of land. Thermal lift is a plume of ground-heated air that rises like a chimney, often capped with a puffy cumulus cloud; it is what hawks circle in. Convergence zones form when two large wind forces smash together, creating a line of clouds along the collision front. The Mauna Kea Soaring Club’s playground—a triangle of airspace thirty-five or so miles on a side, staked out by volcanoes and hemmed by the ocean—includes all those kinds of lift. It also includes the greatest lift of all: the wave.

 

Wave lift occurs when a high-altitude airstream bounces over the top of a mountain peak. Picture a rushing river that’s flowing constantly over an immovable boulder, the water cresting over the obstruction in an unending surge. Now magnify that to monstrous proportions. Also realize that surges of air don’t settle back to flatness the way water does. Wind rushing over (say) Mauna Kea will sink and then rise again in a secondary wave, then another and another, creating an aerial bucking bronco that keeps hoisting a sailplane higher and higher until blue-sky conditions begin to turn black. When Woody set his altitude record during the 1960s, he did it by riding waves over Mauna Kea.

 

Sailplane pilots talk about “the wave” in awestruck tones. “Wave flying is like flying in oil,” Woody says. “At low elevations you get turbulence, but up there it’s quiet, like sitting in your living room. All you need to do is lean from side to side and the craft will turn.”

 

In the wave there is the intoxication of ascension. At fourteen thousand feet a pilot needs supplemental oxygen. At thirty thousand feet he begins to need pressurized breathing assistance and an astronaut-style suit instead of jeans and a T-shirt. Any pilot who catches a wave has to choose between the delirium of altitude and the desire to return safely back to earth. Right now the world altitude record for wave soaring, set by two men in pressurized suits over El Calafate, Argentina, is 50,699 feet. That’s almost double the height of Mount Everest, floating in an unpressurized fiberglass tube!

 


 

When the club’s members have finished at the airstrip, they head back to their clubhouse for salads and mahi sandwiches and fish tacos. The other customers at the Paniolo Country Inn have no idea that these men can soar with the ease of birds thousands of feet up in the sky.

 

Woody is unquestionably the patriarch of the group. He learned to fly power planes during the 1950s in the US Navy, having been drafted into a lucky billet in Hawai‘i. Hooked on the Islands, he returned in 1959 and, working for engineering firm Belt Collins, sailed the Big Island’s west coast in an eighteen-foot skiff, making the pioneer studies that eventually opened up Waikoloa for development. That job also opened Woody’s eyes to the Kohala region.

 

In 1964 he launched Royal Hawaiian Air Service, the state’s first scheduled air taxi operation, using a small fleet of Cessnas to link even the tiniest airstrips. He raised cattle, created an off-road tour company that took adventurers on hunting expeditions into the hills of Mauna Kea, co-founded Pacific Business News. After he learned to soar, he started the Islands’ Schweizer sailplane dealership.

 

Bold undertakings drew him away from Hawai‘i for many years. He and his son Chris went into business reconstructing historic aircraft, including World War II Spitfires. Woody and Chris both competed nationally on the sailplane racing circuit. No doubt the greatest achievement of Woody’s later maturity is the Lynx, a perfect reincarnation of a Baltimore clipper that served the United States as privateer during the War of 1812. The Lynx is now plying American coastal waters as an educational tool of maritime history.

 

Like Woody, Joe Loewenhardt did a Navy stint: submarine service at Pearl Harbor. After studies at the University of Hawai‘i, he went into film and television, eventually directing popular local fare such as the kids’ show Checkers and Pogo. Now he has a post-retirement career as a real estate appraiser in Waimea. He got hooked on soaring in 2000 in Nevada, and Woody’s return to Waimea double-hooked him. Slender, smart, kind, he embodies the soaring code.

 

Derrick Salmon, with ready smile and Einstein-ish hair, works at the Canada France Hawaii Telescope where, as director of engineering, he creates updated components for one of Mauna Kea’s great telescopes. He fell in love with soaring just by looking, he says. When he was a college student rummaging through a bookstore, he happened upon a photo of a Cirrus, a new super-sleek fiberglass sailplane, landing with its drag chute open. “It looked like a beautiful bird. I didn’t have money for a hamburger, but I bought that book and was bitten,” he recalls. He later learned to soar in Chile with “ex-Luftwaffe guys.” These days, eyesight problems keep him on the ground, but he still meets with the club to reminisce about adventures and re-feel “the most incredible sensations.”

 

John Mitchell chimes in: “I get as much joy out of watching someone fly, the same chicken skin, as I do flying.” He’s a lean, handsome man with a hide tanned by a lifetime of outdoor adventuring. As a kid he filled his bedroom with model airplanes. In his 20s he read Richard Bach’s novel The Bridge Across Forever and got hooked on soaring, every summer trailering his little Libelle sailplane out to the California desert to ride the airwaves around the Sierra Nevadas. He transitioned into power flight, then sold the Libelle to move to Hawai‘i, where he flew for Aloha Airlines. These days he commutes to the Mainland to pilot for Virgin America. When Woody returned to Waimea to revive the Mauna Kea Soaring Club, John laughs, “It was like being a kid and having the best kid ever move into your neighborhood.”

 

John co-owns the ASW 20B sailplane with Harold Hughes, a manager for First Hawaiian Bank. Harold’s voice expresses his local roots as a home-grown Hilo boy: Pidgin-inflected, poetic. “The beauty about soaring, it’s like going fishing with my friends,” Harold says. “Sometimes the best time is in a little boat that’s in danger of tipping out into the sea.” Also, “In the sailplane you’re kind of wrapped in a cocoon. The wings come right out of your shoulders. It’s like you’re not two different things.” Harold began flying as a teenager in Hilo, when he washed planes and answered the phone for Royal Hawaiian Air Service in exchange for lessons. “Woodson has a lot to do with my sailing life,” he says.

 

The men of the Mauna Kea Soaring Club all remember former club member Dave Bigelow, a one-time F-102 fighter pilot they all admired. After Woody returned to Waimea in 2005 and reactivated the club, Dave bested Woody’s Mauna Kea record rather quickly by riding waves over the mountain to thirty-three thousand feet. “He was a genius,” says Joe. Woody describes Dave as a blend of kindness and meticulous perfectionism. And he was ambitious. He dreamed of catching waves across the entire Island chain, hopping from mountaintop to mountaintop—an unbelievable feat, but Bigelow had worked out a computer simulation to prove it could be done.

 

On January 16, 2009, the soaring conditions were the best anyone had ever seen in Kohala. Everyone in the club vividly remembers their wave rides that day. Above all, they made way for Dave to beat his own record. Anticipating high-atmosphere chill, he chose to dress in eight pounds of clothing and leave his parachute on the ground. Towed aloft, he released at 12,600 feet at 10:30 a.m. He caught the wave over Hualalai and reached twenty thousand feet, then crossed to Mauna Kea and climbed to more than thirty thousand feet. He radioed his friends that he was crossing to Mauna Loa. That was his last message. By 1:16 p.m. his plane was wreckage strewn for miles over that monster mountain’s leeward lava fields. The GPS recording device found among the stones showed that Bigelow had reached 38,716 feet before falling almost vertically out of the sky. No one is sure what happened, and members of the Mauna Kea Soaring Club are reluctant to dwell on the accident.

 


 

The wind whooshing. Besides the two great mountains at hand, I see farther across the channel to Haleakala. Clouds. Singing of wind. Something universal. Joe, who is airborne in his Carat sailplane, comes in over the radio: “It sure feels good to be up here again.” He adds, “We’ll continue to hang around here waiting for you to come across.” Woody shuts off the radio and we pull off the headsets. We’re flying eighty knots now. “Nothing going on up here,” Woody tells me. “We’re above all the action.” He drops the nose and we dive, picking up speed.

 

Now we’re bouncing and rocking under clouds over Kohala. “Like driving a country road,” Woody says. We drop to 6,500 feet and get under a shear line of clouds that will carry us to Kohala. The clouds are like creatures. They look at us the way a whale might look at a diver.

 

Once we reach Kohala’s green ridge, we spot Joe’s dart-like Carat and also Woody’s bright yellow Cub, which is being piloted by Chris with his own son Nick riding in the back. Our three planes have the sky all to themselves.

 

“We’re over the tree line just abeam the summit,” Woody radios to the others. “There should be a little lift underneath this cloud.”

 

“We’re between you and the upper road, 5,600,” Chris replies.

 

“The wind is not very strong today, but every so often it gives us a little kick in the butt,” Woody says to me, turning gyres as he speaks.

 

Joe passes us. “I’m right behind, Woody, maybe half a mile,” he radios. Woody banks over the treetops. “I’m still under power,” Joe comes in again. “In these conditions I can’t keep up with you.”

 

Now we’re at 5,700 feet. “Nice thermal here,” says Woody. “We’ll circle it just like a hawk.”

 

He starts showing me how to catch lift when you’re in a race. I remember something Chris told me about racing: “People think this sport is so peaceful, but racing is stressful, violent. If you haven’t made a decision in the last thirty seconds, then you’re just loafing.” We plunge, then buck and kick back up. Woody executes a steep turn. The long wing below us shakes and shivers as it points to the ground. “That’s beautiful, watching that wing down there, isn’t it?” Woody muses aloud. We revolve over the toy-scale rooftops of Waimea.

 

I remember answering the phone this morning. Now I wonder: Was that just part of a dream I still haven’t woken from? Under Woody’s cool control, gravity seems transformed from something that has kept me earthbound my entire life into nothing more than an illusion.

 

“Yes,” I say as we spin like a slow-motion dancer. “Yes, it is.”