Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Hilo Skies

A call for an aerial job in Hilo always brings a grimace to my face. Why? Well,  Hilo is on the windward side of Hawaii and with the wind you get clouds. And clouds mean you are either on top of them and there's no photo or you're under them and too close to the ground meaning no photo or your client wants bright sunshine on his property in the photo and clouds cancel that out meaning no photo.

I remember calling a client in Hilo one day before taking off to get a weather report over his property. Clear as a bell he tells me, not a cloud in the sky. Happily I climbed into the cockpit and took off for the other side of Hawaii. As I approached Hilo via the saddle between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa I could see off in the distance a line of clouds marching towards my target some thirty miles away. By the time I got there the clouds had closed in, completely covering the property I was supposed to photograph as well as the whole east side of the island. Nothing to do but turn tail and fly home. Two hours of fuel wasted. No photos to send to my client and the bitter knowledge that I would have to do it all over again within a week and could just as easily get screwed once again.

Kuhio Plaza shopping center in Hilo and a home in the hills above the town were todays targets. The weather reports were mildly optimistic, which if you read the last paragraph means nothing when it comes to that wet land to the east. But, I need the money and with all the inter island flying involving dodging cloud banks I've been doing recently I figure we have a decent chance of pulling it off. "We" being myself and Captain Jeff McConnel, a fellow owner of our plane 26M and my co-pilot who, when available, goes along to keep me out of trouble when a job calls for flying close to other planes and mountains while I look through the viewfinder on my camera.

The week before we had received a fair amount of snow on the summits of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa and our course to Hilo today took us along the northeast slope of Mauna Kea. On our left was the Pacific Ocean with nothing but 2,500 miles of empty water until you hit California and to our right just a short way off was the mountains summit complete with snow and telescopes.

Below were cattle grazing and watering at a hole on the Parker Ranch lands.

The closer we got to the Hilo side of the island the more the clouds naturally began to appear to snug together in an attempt to keep us from our job. We held onto 9,000 feet instead of dropping down to try to get under the threatening overcast because it looked like there might be some wholes in the grey and white bastards somewhere up ahead. That's what we told ourselves anyway.  

We wove in and out of cloud valleys, pulling up to scrap the tops of a few and banking steeply down to slide under the dark puffy overhangs of others. There was a wall of white just ahead with a tight puka (Hawaiian for hole) low down on its side showing blue beyond it. It was going to require some serious altitude loss between us and the puka if we were going to make it threw the other side today. Throttle back, nose over, left aerliron and right rudder and Dive! Dive! Dive!

It was a tight squeeze with wisps of cloud rolling off our wingtips as we slid on through and were rewarded for our vertical maneuver with the site of Hilo Bay just ahead of us.

Our first target was the Kuhio Plaza shopping center which sits right in downtown Hilo just an eighth of a mile from the runways of the international airport. The low level base of the clouds would require us to have to shoot from altitudes as low as 800 feet over populated areas in the close proximity of other aircraft landing and taking off form the airport. Not a perfect situation by any means, but at $7.00 a gallon for aviation fuel I couldn't afford to turn around and come back again on a hopefully clearer day. So we nosed over and ducked under the clouds until we came upon the mall and began shooting it from the four points of the compass.

It quickly became a test of stick and rudder ability combined with camera skills coupled with close traffic avoidance and cloud dodging. Jeff did a great job of keeping us from being the first to arrive at a crash site. I got the photos the client wanted, no aluminum got bent, only a couple of federal aviation regulations were slightly misinterpreted and the Hilo tower was kind enough not to throw us out of their airspace nor sick the FAA on us. Not that we did anything at all wrong.

As we turned mauka (towards the mountain) in search of my next target we saw an amazing site: the clouds, normally stuck to the side of the mountain on a day like this, were breaking up and pulling away leaving a crisp clear blue sky right where we needed to go!

A private home with a stream running through it was our next stop. There was some kind of a property dispute over the stream and his neighbors so we once again had to get low and slow in order to get clear photos of a single house. We flew a racetrack course over and past the house that found us on the outer leg flying over some beautiful waterfalls. Naturally I grabbed some shots as we banked back towards the target.

The house got shot, the waterfalls were a fun distraction on the outbound legs but it was time to head west, climb and make our way up through the saddle between our two great mountains. The air was calm and the clouds were now absent so our flight up through the sky with mountains towering on either side of us was a pleasant ride. High up in the middle of the saddle between the two mountains lies the Pohakaloa Military Training Area, tens of thousands of acres of barren land used by the U.S. military to train troops, tankers and pilots in the art of winning wars before they ship off to join a real one.

Below us slid Bradshaw Army Airbase which is normally filled with helicopters preparing for training missions, but was empty today.  We are now heading home after a successful days aerial photo work. Our destination is the Kona Airport on the opposite side of the mountain you see in the background, Mt Hualalai.

Dropping down from the Saddles' heights of 9,000 feet we pass over some of the most open and empty land in Hawaii. Tens of thousands of acres of completely untouched land  on the slopes of our most majestic mountains.

Our day started out flying beside snow covered mountains and amongst towering walls of clouds looking for a way through to find our target. We dove through a blue hole, flew just above gushing waterfalls and then climbed up between the two biggest mountains in the Pacific Ocean only to drop down over empty Hawaiian countryside back to our home in Kona. Not a bad day at the office.


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