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Racing the Trade Winds

Flying fast over the fiftieth state

By Barry Schiff (From AOPA Pilot, May 1999.)

Some of the most spectacular and fun-filled flying I have ever done has been in our fiftieth state.  So it is little wonder that I jumped at the opportunity to participate in the Great Hawaiian Air Race last February.  No, I am not a race enthusiast.  My only previous experience was in 1958, and I was proud not to have finished last.

GHAR 1999, as it was called, was billed as the Last Great Pacific Air Race of the Twentieth Century.  The first was the Dole Air Derby in 1927, when pineapple magnate James Dole offered $25,000 to the winner of a race between California and Hawaii.  There were eight entries, but four dropped out for mechanical reasons.  Of the four starting aircraft, only two finished the race; the other two were never seen again.

My partner during this race was my close friend and Beech Bonanza owner, Richard Somers, for whom the combination of a winter vacation in Hawaii and some exciting flying was irresistible.  We were fortunate to have been offered the use of a superbly equipped and maintained Beech A36 Bonanza owned by retired surgeon Dr.  Willie Tashima.  Tashima also participated in the race, flying his other airplane, a Cessna 421 Golden Eagle.

According to Greg Marshall, cochairman of GHAR 1999, VFR conditions prevail in Hawaii more than 360 days per year.  He claims, with obvious tongue in cheek, that the last time anyone called the Honolulu Flight Service Station for a weather briefing was in 1962, and that was a wrong number.

As Somers and I taxied for takeoff at Honolulu International Airport along with the other 49 aircraft in the race, I silently wished good luck and safe flying to my son Paul, who was flying a rented Beech Sundowner.  Because the interisland race is based on handicapped speeds, he had as much chance of winning as anyone did.

Others in the race included seven father-and-son teams, two brother-and-brother teams, one father-and-daughter team, seven all-women teams, and eight husband-and-wife teams.

The flag dropped, and the official timing of our flight began.  We passed over the east end of Runway 8R, leveled off a few hundred feet above the water, and paralleled Waikiki Beach while heading for our first checkpoint, the lighthouse at Diamond Head.

The challenging, zigzag route was designed to pass abeam and above some of this planet’s most spectacular topography.  Mandatory turnpoints included airports, lighthouses, historical sites, shipwrecks, piers, harbors, and a vortac.  Each crew was provided with a sealed disposable camera with which to take photographs of the turnpoints and verify that no corners had been cut.

While crossing the channel between Oahu and Molokai, I was re-minded that an island-hopping pilot can take advantage of the FAA’s Island Reporting Service.  While en route, he maintains contact with the Honolulu FSS and reports passing over designated checkpoints prior to and after crossing a channel.  When any such report is 15 minutes overdue and radio contact with the aircraft cannot be reestablished, the U.S.  Coast Guard is alerted, and a search-and-rescue effort is immediately begun.  (It is said that the Coast Guard in Hawaii is so efficient that a pilot who broadcasts a Mayday during a powerless glide toward the water should not be surprised to pass a waiting helicopter on the way down.)

Most of the 48 contiguous states are north of the permanent high-pressure belt that girdles the globe at about 30 degrees north latitude.  Winds generated by the clockwise flow of air from this high-pressure area generally result in westerly winds aloft.  But Hawaii is south of this pressure belt.  As a result, northeasterly trade winds prevail most of the year and keep Hawaii relatively cool.  The trades rarely fail, but when they do, the state is exposed to the southerly Kona wind, and the islands become hot and muggy.

The northeasterly trades also result in smooth flight on the northern or windward sides of the islands.  But flight along the southern or leeward shores can be turbulent.

The moisture-laden trades also cause rain-producing cumulus to form along the northern mountain slopes, explaining why these sides of the islands are so heavily blanketed with vegetation.  So not only do the northern sides of the islands offer the smoothest rides, they are also the most scenic, especially during and after the rainy winter season when spectacular waterfalls are abundant.  Because the northern slopes have been exposed to the unrelenting trade winds for two million years, this also is where magnificent geological forms have been carved into the landscape.

One of the wettest spots in the world is on Kauai.  Clouds almost perpetually cover the Kawaikini Peak and dump nearly 600 inches of rain annually.  Yet fewer than 15 miles away, where there are no mountains to wring moisture from the trade winds, there is almost a desert with less than 20 inches of rain annually.

Fog is as common in Hawaii as snow is in Samoa, and only a few instrument landing systems are available in the state.  These are used primarily to assist jetliners during visual approaches or to guide pilots descending through a local rainshower on final approach.

Navigating the islands is pleasantly simple, but to keep happy those who like to chase needles in the sky, 11 vortacs link the 340-nm-mile-long island chain.  Also, there are 15 civilian airports on six islands (Hawaii, Kauai, Lanai, Maui, Molokai, and Oahu).

VFR pilots probably should avoid island hopping at night.  Clear-weather cumulus can be difficult to see and avoid, and they often obscure island lights, as well as the horizon.

During daylight hours, scattered clouds and their shadows on the water can create the illusion of a distant shoreline. This can lure a pilot to unwittingly turn off course and cause him to miss an island entirely.  Inexperienced pilots are offered this advice: "If you cannot positively identify the island ahead before losing sight of the island behind (because of scattered rainshowers, for example), turn around." Usually, however, a pilot can easily see the island ahead before heading across the channel between them.

The first day’s race ended at Hana, Maui.  After landing, some of us drove south for a half-hour to the tiny seaside community of Kipahulu to pay our respects to Charles A.  Lindbergh. Included in our small group was flying octogenarian Leo Nikora, who flies a Piper Twin Comanche in Massachusetts.  In 1928, when Nikora was 12 years old, Lindbergh flew the Spirit of Louis to the boy’s hometown, Milwaukee, to dedicate a new airport.  His hero also presented him with a medal for having won a statewide model-airplane contest.  (Nikora had designed and built a rubber-band-powered, twin-engine model that flew for two hours and five minutes.)

Lindbergh’s grave is behind a small, quaint church nestled atop a high cliff overlooking the Pacific.  The site is traditionally Hawaiian, consisting of a deep, wide bed of lava rock.  He was buried here in 1974 after dying of lymphatic cancer.  It seems that the Lone Eagle wanted to be as reclusive in death as he was in life.  Passing general aviation pilots flying low along the coast occasionally pay their respects by waggling their wings.

We drove a few miles farther south to Lindbergh’s small and unobtrusive Maui home.  His wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, named it Argonauta after a chapter in her book, Gift from the Sea.  The house was built in 1969 and now is in a state of disrepair.  Marshall is purchasing the house with personal funds and is spearheading an effort to restore and donate it for use as a cultural center at nearby Haleakala National Park, which Lindbergh helped to establish.

During a luau held that evening in honor of the race pilots, we were warned that—according to legend—Madam Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes, bestows bad luck upon any visitor who removes or even disturbs any of the lava rocks on Maui.  This is why some racers were overheard conspiring to hide small lava rocks in the baggage compartments of competing aircraft.

The second and last day of the race followed a different but equally fascinating route that ended downwind and abeam the control tower at the historic Ford Island Naval airfield in Pearl Harbor.  The total distance for the out-and-return legs was 510 nm.  Although we flew over seven islands, no airplane was ever more than 12 miles from land.

After landing at Ford Island, we discovered that strafing damage made during the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor was still painfully visible.  We attended to the servicing of our airplane and validated a Hawaiian pilot’s claim that you can fly in Hawaii for a year and never hit a bug.  After two days of low-altitude flying, the windshield and leading edges were as clean as when we had left Honolulu.

Arthur Mott, an air-race veteran, and his copilot, Robert Bonham, won the speed division in a Piper Seneca II.

Racing for maximum speed is not for everyone.  Winning necessitates punching through turbulence at high speed and flying at very low altitudes (to achieve maximum performance in normally aspirated airplanes).  Those preferring a more conservative approach to competition flying can opt for the proficiency division, the winner of which most accurately calculates and predicts the time and fuel required to fly the two-day route.

Aimee Kuprash, an instructor for Oahu Aviation, and her copilot, Evelyn Ogata, won the proficiency division in a rented Cessna 172.  It was Kuprash’s stepgrandfather, Art Goebel, who had won the Dole Air Derby 72 years ago.

For those wanting to know where Somers and I placed in the race, we prefer that you don’t ask.  Suffice it to say that my son Paul, who came in twentieth, beat us handily.  We did, however, enjoy the flying, the festivities, and the camaraderie as much as anyone did, which—for us—made the race an overwhelming success.

Most of the race participants rented their aircraft, and mainland pilots (from 22 states) found that hourly rates in Honolulu are not much higher than those at home.  A Cessna 152 rents for between $55 and $62 per hour, a Cessna 172 for $68 to $75, a Cessna Cardinal for $75, and so forth.

A checkout in Hawaii requires more than a few circuits and bumps.  It usually includes a demonstration of crosswind takeoffs and landings, a familiarity with airspace restrictions, and an awareness of how terrain influences wind characteristics.  Pilots new to flying in Hawaii also will learn something about the fine art of ocean ditching and the need to wear Mae Wests when over water.  Most rental aircraft are equipped with life jackets and rafts.

Newcomers also need to become familiar with unique local procedures.  To reduce the likelihood of traffic conflict, for example, pilots of interisland flights and those flying along certain sightseeing routes at and below 3,000 feet msl are urged to maintain 1,000, 2,000, or 3,000 feet msl when westbound and 1,500 or 2,500 feet msl when eastbound.  Also, those circling volcanoes should maintain a counterclockwise traffic flow.

The State of Hawaii publishes an informative book titled Hawaii Airports and Flying Safety Manual, which is available at no charge by writing to the Airports Division, Department of Transportation, Honolulu International Airport, 400 Rodgers Boulevard, Suite 700, Honolulu, Hawaii, 96819-1880.

Although Mott and Kuprash won the major prizes, the biggest winner was the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Hawaii, which grants wishes to children with life-threatening illnesses.  More than $30,000 was raised by the race on its behalf, making GHAR its most successful fund-raising event ever.

According to Hank Bruckner, president of the General Aviation Council of Hawaii, the Great Hawaiian Air Race was the largest aviation event in the state since December 7, 1941.

Next year’s race, GHAR 2000, is slated for February 18 to 21 and will include two nights and a full day in Hana.  Those interested should contact race cochairman Greg Marshall at 5779 Haleola Street, Honolulu, Hawaii 96821; telephone 808/373-1889.  His e-mail address is RacePilotGreg@compuserve.com, or you may visit the GHAR Web site (www.flyhawaii.com/GHAR.html).

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