Friday, May 2, 2008

Flight in a Trike

Husband and I did an ultralight flight a few years on the the east coast of South Africa. That was back before I had any interest in learning to fly-- though Husband was already crazy for anything aviation. Some friends that we were staying with knew about the ultralights-- and so a big group of us went out to the coast to check them out. All the men were going up-- but none of the women. Husband had to talk me into to going... and I finally relented with the promise that if I freaked out, the pilot would just circle around and land again (I remember the comfort that gave me whenever I take someone up in our plane who's never been up before). Of course, as soon as we were airborne, I loved it!

So when I discovered the option to take an ultralight tour in Kauai, I immediately penciled it into our schedule! The day of our flight was beautiful. A few clouds at around 4500-5500 feet, but otherwise blue skies. While waiting for the two trikes to return from the previous flight, we suited up in flight suits provided by Birds of Paradise, our flight school for the day. After waiting a few minutes (remember my post on Aviation Time?), the woman helping us told us to look up. It took a minute, but then we saw and finally heard the trikes approaching the field. They seemed to drop effortlessly onto the runway, and then screeched onto the pads laid out on the grass as a sort of makeshift "ramp".

I got buckled in behind Dan and Nathan behind Tim, and then we quickly rolled out to the runway for the takeoff roll. I heard both pilots make the appropriate calls, and then we were airborne. The runway is right on the tip of Kauai-- running crosswise on a piece of land jutting out into the ocean, so that both ends of the runway are out over the ocean. We immediately flew out over the ocean and stayed just off the beach, flying over the water. The pilots flew us in and out of a few quick turns. I'm not sure what it would look like from below, but I imagined us dancing through the air on our large kites. Luckily there are no strings to get tangled! Dan started to show me how to maneuver the little craft-- and explained the basic principles of a weight-shift airplane. He let me take the controls after a few minutes. Though I was seated directly behind him-- his arm resting against my knees if not on the controls-- I could reach up to the giant bar that ran across in front of him and bent upward on either side of him. With that bar, I could control our pitch and roll movements. Unlike in conventional aircraft, pulling the bar back toward us made the nose pitch down, and pushing it away made it pitch up. It took me most of the flight to get used to the sensation as it is the exact opposite of our airplane. To turn, you moved the whole bar to the left or right. Of course, Dan had rudders and much of the usual flight controls in front of him.

I flew four or five times during the flight, each time for a few minutes. Most of the 90 minutes, though, I just enjoyed the sights and feeling of the wind whipping around us. In such a small craft, we could maneuver easily around and get very close to the cliff faces. We flew down to the water-- and leveled off only about 10-20 feet above to see some sea life (dolphins, sea turtles, etc.). Husband said that he and Tim flew down to about 5 feet off the water! They were definitely much more daring in their flight!

Once we made it around to the west side of the island, we turned inland and flew across part of Waimea Canyon. Spectacular! Then we flew along the Na Pali Coast, zigging and zagging along the valleys that open out to the sea. Most of this coastline is not accessible except from the sea, so it was beautiful and untouched. We watched kayakers cut through the water below, and saw a few sea caves where the water rushed in and out. Then we came up to Hanalei and Princeville, and we flew over our hotel, the Princeville Resort. I waved to the people on the beach, but I doubt anyone saw me as we were quite high at that point! We flew over Queen's Bath and I saw the water rush in and splash high over the edge. After a bit, we turned inland and flew over the saddle of the mountains, coming across the middle of the island.

We flew along side each other and a few helicopters, in and out of the craters and canyons. Everyone seems to fly clockwise around the island-- nice to know for safety! Once we came close to Lihue (where the big airport is), we turned south, and headed back out to sea, flying over the Sheraton, where we stayed for the first four nights. All too soon, we were flying over the coffee fields on the south side of the island, and we knew this amazing flight was coming to an end. Both Tim and Dan did dead-stick landings, cutting the power on downwind, just abeam the end of the field. Two other ultralights came in just as we did, all of us taxiing back across to the makeshift ramp. We learned later that one of the others was flown by the guy that edited/authored the guidebook we used while on the island. If only we'd known, we would have thanked him for all his suggestions!

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