To Fly and Die on Kauai

The engine opened its throat to a groaning growl as I pushed in the last bit of throttle I had.  The plane was not shaking yet; I was keeping it above stall speed. My three passengers were getting some once-in-a-lifetime views of the vine-hung, red-brown cliffs beside us. I pulled the yoke harder, slowing below best-angle speed, easing toward the right, because I now knew there was no way we were going to climb over that ridge.  I was going to have to turn this thing around inside this tiny space, and fly back out, where I could climb more gradually out…. If I could keep it flying at all. I smiled at my knuckles, which had not yet turned white… then at my wife in the seat next to me, and said, “Take a picture while the left wing is high, and you can see Pu’u O Kila Lookout up there.”

The faces and cameras of a few people hung over the railing 200 feet above us, documenting a crash for the NTSB to investigate later.  As I gently transitioned from the shallow right bank toward that side of the canyon, to a left bank, to actually make the turn, the stall horn warbled a couple of plaintive notes, but the passengers followed my cue and remained relaxed, enjoying the spectacular views of the mountains up close… very, VERY close.  My hand did not shake as I hit the switch to add the last bit of flaps I had, and gingerly eased the aircraft into a 60° left bank, then a little farther, letting her settle and lose a little altitude, in exchange for a tighter turning radius.  This was going to be the most precise maneuver I had ever performed … and the blood drained from my smile to settle in my gut…

Not fair! The weather report had quoted no wind at all, but the downdraft at the ridge spoke of 30 knots or more.  That, plus the extra weight in the aircraft, meant we could not pop over the ridge the way I had done a dozen times before.  We were stuck inside Waimea Canyon, and as good as dead.

I had taken many friends from Oahu, where we lived, across the 100 miles of open sea to Kauai, the oldest and prettiest of the Hawaiian Islands, and developed a little tour that was always a lot of fun.  On Friday afternoon, we’d land at Lihue, on the south-East corner of the island, closest to Oahu, and rent a car.  We’d pile our stuff in it, and drive past the Menehune fish pond and through Hanapepe, then along the south and leeward coast, to Waimea. There, we’d have a snack and head up the mountain, alongside the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” to Kokee camp to spend the night in the clouds. Next morning, as the mist burned away, we’d go to the very end of the road, to Pu’u O Kila Lookout. From there, we could see the ocean to the North, framed by the enormous green Kalalau valley, and turning to the South, we could see into the red-brown clay valley that cut deep into the island, and I’d tell the passengers that we’d be flying through that valley soon.

We’d head back down Kokee Road, find breakfast at some place along the way back to Lihue, and pile into the airplane, leaving our baggage in the rental car. With ¾-tank of fuel and no baggage, the plane was light and agile.  We’d retrace our path of the afternoon before, swooping low over the Menehune Fish Pond, climbing to crest the Hoary Head Mountains, and pass by Poipu surfing village. Then we’d follow the beach, and just about the time we could see the tiny island of Niihau off the left wing tip, we’d be over Waimea.  There, I’d turn us mauka, toward the center of the island. Instead of following Kokee road as we had driven, I’d stay low, inside the canyon just east of it.  The brown and red soil was spotted with lush green, and tiny streams flowed at the bottom of every ravine. As we passed the center of the island, the elevation even inside the canyon was rising, and we’d climb gently toward my favorite spot. I had pored over flight charts and topographical maps for hours to find it.

At the very end of the longest arm of the canyon, there is a ridge.  Kokee Road ends at the Pu’u O Kila lookout, and Pihea Trail continues along that ridge. I had used that spot many times to thrill my passengers on these little trips.  We’d dawdle along inside the canyon until very close to the ridge, then I’d pour on some power, build up some speed, and pop up over the ridge to a view of the enormous, deep-green Kalalau valley, with the sea and sky rising from the beach in a crystalline blue bowl.  I’d swoop down through the large, lush valley of wild boar and pakalolo plantations, and turn right at the beach. We’d follow the coast back to Lihue, spotting places we would visit later that day, and where we would camp that night. We’d stop at different spots on our way back to Lihue on Sunday.  We always returned to Oahu with eyes and hearts and cameras full of wonders.

This weekend did not happen exactly that way.  On Friday night, we camped at Polihale beach, at the end of the leeward road, instead of at Kokee in the middle of the mountains.  That was nice, but it meant missing Pu’u O Kila lookout, because clouds would likely have obscured the view by the time we got there.  Then, at the airport in Lihue, I learned that the weather would not let us do the Waimea canyon trip.  Winds and cloud cover were simply not in our favor.  No big deal – we had a great time swimming at the Kilauea slippery slide, and saw some beautiful caves and waterfalls, and bought some food to cook up at Hanakapiai beach where we camped that night.  Next day, we headed back to Lihue and piled into the aircraft, and the Sunday weather report was exactly what I had hoped for Saturday.  I had talked a lot about the trip through the canyon, and didn’t want to disappoint my passengers, especially my wife. Maybe this was our chance.  With a full tank of fuel for the trip back to Oahu, we took off. The tower let me use runway 17, because we didn’t even have the usual trade winds out of the NorthWest. That headed us South across Nawiliwili Harbor, and it just seemed inevitable that we visit the misty green Hoary Heads. After that it was smooth flying along the south coast of the island and up into Waimea Canyon.

As we turned from the beach toward the center of the island, we waved to Barking Sands, on the Leeward coast, where Navy aircraft would fuel up to run practice missions out around Niihau. That was also where the Coast Guard waited to hear an emergency beacon and go rescue, or recover body parts.  The day was severe clear, liquid bright, and the canyon was more brilliantly colored than I had ever seen it.  We wound our way through mile after mile of lush green trees and bushes dotting deep red volcanic soil. By the time we got to the ridge, I saw clearly the exact spot where I would cross it. I headed toward it, and began to ease the power in to gain airspeed.  We had to clear the ridge by at least 500 feet to be legal, so I began my climb at a point that would allow that margin of safety plus an extra hundred feet.  Nosing up, I traded airspeed for altitude, and kept adding power.  We were not climbing as quickly as I expected.  I peered ahead at the Keawe on the ridge, and damn it, they were whipping around in a strong wind coming across the ridge!  That meant that the air was bouncing high over the windward slope and then falling hard as it crossed the ridge, right in our faces.  That downdraft was not going to let me climb as I had so many times before.  We were stuck below the ridge line, and a Cessna 172 has no reverse gear.

This was NOT going to end well, unless I came up with a new plan, quickly. A pilot must always plan for unexpected adverse conditions, but cannot allow for every possible fault mode.  This was a problem for which I had only partially prepared. The weight of the full fuel, baggage, and some very solid souvenirs was holding us down, and the downdraft over that ridge was clinching the deal. I knew that a left-hand turn was more efficient in an aircraft with a clockwise-spinning prop, so it would be a left turn to get out of there, but I also needed the full diameter of the dent in the ridge where we were stuck, to get the bird headed South. I began the maneuver I had practiced as a commercial pilot, but never bet my life and the lives of others on.

Once I’d eased over toward the right side of the canyon and banked left, I followed the procedure I knew would allow the tightest possible radius turn, losing just a little altitude, hoping that it did not run us into the ridge. The aircraft began to vibrate just the tiniest extra bit, which told a pilot that we were nearing the stall buffet. The engine groaned on, and it got very, very hot in that cabin. Through clenched teeth, I spoke calmly over the cheerfully chirping stall horn. “We’re going to follow a different track than usual, and retrace some of Kokee Road, so we can fly over Kokee Camp.”

That sounded like a hell of a lot of fun, compared to piling into the ridge 100 feet below Pihea Trail.  The turn took about two years.  Finally, I saw the canyon walls begin to back away from the left landing gear, and a little while later I began transitioning to normal flight, closing the flaps, easing back the power to cruise climb, leveling off and heading south. The sweat on my forehead felt cool.  The aircraft was performing flawlessly. We cruised the 6 miles down to where a low spot made it easy to get over to Kokee Road, and very gradually kept climbing over the gently rising terrain. Passing the Pu’u O Kila lookout, we had 1,000 feet to spare, and eased through the clear, rushing air above Kalalau Valley up to the Na Pali coast.

From there, the trip went as planned, along the windward shore, past Princeville, Kilauea, Anahola, and Wailua, then the 100-mile channel back to Oahu and Barber’s Point Naval air station, our home base.  Landing and post flight were routine, except I had to check carefully that there was no red clay in the tire treads.  That’s a dead giveaway that a pilot has been naughty.