Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Maui 767 Day

 A Maui 767 Day

The signal light on the transponder was still blinking every time we were hit by Keahole radar which meant there was still power in the battery. That was a good thing, but I had no idea if the alternator was still supplying juice to the battery and then on to the radio, avionics and navigation lights. As I crossed the Kihei, Maui coastline on my way home from a 24 vacation on Maui I saw the voltage regulator was flashing between center and zero. What did this mean? I didn't quite know, but I surmised it meant the alternator was malfunctioning and I could lose all my electronics leaving me not able to contact anyone and no one would know where I was. All I knew was that my flight home from Maui was becoming more worrisome with each minute.

I left the Big Island the morning before to rendezvous with my buddy Curt's 767-300 when it landed at Kahalui airport. Sometime in the past  I had told Curt that the next time he had a day flight to Maui, let me know and I'd fly over and we'd have a chance to drink beer, talk story and catch up. "Hey, maybe you could get a couple shots of me landing that big ass plane?" he asked me last week when he e-mailed me he would be flying into Kahalui on Thursday. Sure, why not,  I'll arrive a few minutes early and if Maui ATC lets me I'll bore holes in the sky till he shows up and grab a few shots of his plane arriving.

Of course these things rarely work out the way you plan them and as such I arrived over Maui fifteen minutes before Curt's flight was expected to arrive. So what do you do with time to waste and no where to go? You circle. After yanking and banking my plane over downtown Kahalui, Maui for a while I heard my friends voice bark into my headset: "Maui Tower, American 253 has the visual for runway two". He was flying a Boeing from Los Angeles to Maui with a couple hundred plus folks on board getting ready to land in Maui for their Hawaiian vacation.

I grabbed my handheld transceiver and called Curt: "Aloha Captain American, welcome to Hawaii...I'm at your eleven o'clock and about a mile...don't bone the landing as I'll have it all on film!"

Now it was my turn to haul back on the stick and stomp on the rudder and try to get my plane in position to get a decent shot of Curt's jumbo jet flying over the last remaining sugar cane fields in Hawaii. The gal in the tower at Maui airport was nervous about a small plane flying around near the big jets and so I had to keep a decent distance from them.

I set up my intercept course, raised my camera and fired off a couple of shots of Curt's plane before I had to bank hard to the left or else cross the center-line of the final approach and risk getting barked at by the tower gal.

I pulled my plane through a 360 turn while calling Maui tower to tel them I was done maneuvering and requested permission to land. I was cleared for a direct approach as there was no other traffic and managed to touch down just as Curt was taxing past me to his gate.

I met my friend in Kihei for dinner, drinks and a lot of talking story to catch up on what had been going on in our lives. The next morning he climbed on a standup paddle board for a seemingly boring as death paddle while I grabbed a real surfboard and paddled out to catch a few waves. I left my camera in the plane hence no photos of surfing in Kihei, but later that day after I was dropped off at my plane I set up to catch a few shots of Curt's plane lifting off for Los Angeles.

I was sitting on the wing of my plane looking at the West Maui mountains when I heard a call on my handheld radio, it was Curt calling me from the cockpit of his 767-300. They were pushing back and would be heading for the runway in a few seconds.

"Aloha Captain 26Mike...we're very light and anticipate a fine take off climb out, you ready to grab a couple of shots?" Crackled over my radio.

"Roger that Captain American...let's see what that Boeing can do." I replied.

After his plane passed me by and began its climb to the cold airless heights it would inhabit all the way to the left coast of America I heard a call from Curt saying "Aloha, fly safe my friend,"  I responded in kind wishing him a safe flight home.

I returned to my ride home, not exactly the multimillion dollar airliner my friend had just piloted east, but a 1979 Piper Cherokee, the equivalent of a '79 Ford Ranger in the sky. Not pretty, but it always gets you home. Although I had done a pre-flight inspection of my plane some time before while waiting for Curt's plane to depart, I decided to do a quick walk around before I fired up. All looked well until I looked closer at the right main gear and saw that their was a bit of flatness in the bottom, might as well pump it up before taxing out. I hooked up the foot pump and immediately heard air rushing out of the tire. I disconnected the pump and re-applied it and began pumping only to see the tire rapidly sinking towards the tarmac.

Crap! Not only have I not topped the tire off with solid air, I am now sitting on a main landing gear with only half it's inflation. The damn pump is no pump at all, but an anti pump! Sucking air from my tire and potentially grounding me in Maui!

As I look about the terrain I spot an open hanger off in the distance. The day is getting late and if I cannot find a solution soon it will cost me much time and money to stay overnight on this island. I found a lone pilot  at the flight school hanger some one hundred yards from where 26Mike sits. "Yeah, we have a compressed air pig tank you can use to fill your tire," the pilot at the flight school tells me. So I heft the air container he offers me and fill up the deflated tire. Much thanks are offered to him and I head to my plane to fly back to Hawaii.

Did I mention that I placed the handheld aviation radio that I had been talking to Curt on, on the wing when I inspected the tire? And that I did not pick it back up from the wing?

I wanted to get in the air and away from Maui quickly as the clouds were building over the mountains and coastline. I took off without event and began my climb to 7,500 feet for my crossing of the Alenuihaha Channel between Maui and Hawaii.

Over Kihei I saw that my alternator, which provides electricity to the airplane, was behaving badly. But what was I going to do? Turn around and return to Maui on a Friday afternoon and hope there might be a mechanic on-field who could diagnose and solve my problem before the sunset? I really doubt it, so it was time to fly on and get home hopefully in one piece. I had a handheld aviation radio transceiver anyway didn't I? I could always use it to stay in touch with ATC should the electricity give out. 

Seventy miles of open ocean were ahead of and below me as I headed home. That is a lot of windswept nasty sea to have to ever put a plane down into if you find your aircraft is no longer flying but has become a glider due to engine failure. So as I sail ahead into the channel I keep looking at the transponder light. This light on the instrument panels lights up every minute or so when my plane has been painted with a radar signal from a ground based radar station. It is my only constant indicator that I  still have electrical power and someone knows where I am and can call me on the radio. Over the most violent channel in the Hawaiian Islands, it is good to know someone knows where you are in case they need to send the Coast Guard to go look for you.

After I passed Molokini atol the air began to thicken with Vog (Volcanic Smog). Ahead there was nothing but a grey sea of vog passing below me. From here to Hawaii there would be no visual references to rely on. The sea below was gone, the summits of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa were lost in clouds. At this point I decide to plug the frequencies for Honolulu Center and Kona Tower into my handheld radio in case the power quits in the cockpit. So where is the handheld radio? Nowhere I can find it...oh crap!...did I leave it on the wing after I said aloha to Curt? Yup...looks like it, it's probably lying on the tarmac right now. There was nothing to show that the largest island in the Pacific Ocean was somewhere ahead and I could very well be flying blind and deaf towards it...Damn.

I flew on. I couldn't see the sea below or the island ahead. And of course I heard the "Automatic Rough" every pilot hears when he's over open water: the engine suddenly seems to be running rougher than normal and sounds as if it is about to quit at any moment causing the pilot to look down for a nice place to land in the middle of the sea. I began to run through my options, if the alternator was in fact a goner as indicated by the voltage meter, I might lose my radio, transponder and nav lights somewhere over the channel if the battery doesn't hold up. This would mean that Honolulu Air Traffic Control would suddenly lose radio contact with me as well as seeing my transponder blink off as if I had fallen into the sea. Not a good situation, but not the end of the world. I'd still be flying at least. 

I did the only thing I could and pressed on to my destination. I fixed my gaze on the artificial horizon instrument which told me my wings were level, set up a 500 foot a minute decent and used my iPad GPS to guide me to Kona Airport. At ten miles out Kona tower asked me if I had the airport in sight, no I told them. Again at seven and five joy Kona...nothing in sight. Finally I spotted the shoreline line beach at Mahaiula Bay, and set up for my landing. All went well as I approached runway 17 until the tower informed me that I was cleared to land but I needed to expedite my approach since the winds were calm and they had a Boeing 757 full of tourists inbound from the opposite direction of the runway I was landing on.

So I screamed through the last few miles of vog to make a high speed screeching landing. "26Mike expedite your exit from the runway at taxiway Golf, you have traffic landing at the opposite end of the runway!" Which is ATC nice for "Get your ass off the runway NOW!". So I make a sliding left turn off at Golf and when I begin to apply the brakes they go halfway down to the firewall before there is any breaking action. Good god...after all this I have somehow lost most of my brakes!

I limp along the taxiways to my tie down spot and climb out. Sweaty, exhausted and frustrated I tie 26Mike down after spending twenty minutes searching the plane and my bags for my handheld radio. Nope, it's not there. Gotta be lying on the ramp over in Maui. What a dumbass I am.

Oh well, I had a good time with my buddy Curt. Got some cool photos and didn't end up floating around in the Alenuihaha Channel between Maui and Hawaii hoping the Coast Guard was coming to find me, so I guess it was a good trip. Damn I need a beer.


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