Safety Pilot: Island time

February 1, 2008

Bruce Landsberg is an ATP who has logged more than 5,000 flight hours.

A trip to Hawaii is always memorable, but the high point for me was a personal flight around several of the islands. It was a big anniversary for my wife, Jan, and me—I’m sworn to secrecy on any numerical descriptions. I’ve had the privilege to fly light aircraft in almost every state, and each has its beauty and challenges. Renting aircraft in new locations is always interesting. Because of a genetic flaw that serves me well in this vocation, I am always interested in how well checkouts are done and in the accident history of a particular area. The islands have a generally good record with an average of just over four fixed-wing general aviation mishaps annually. You can review these on the AOPA Air Safety Foundation’s Web site in the Accident Analysis section.

I booked my flight online with Maui Aviators, whose Web site outlines the checkout procedures, estimates costs, introduces the staff, and even diagrams some possible sightseeing trips one might make—logical and no surprises. There is the distinct feeling that they’ve done this a time or two.

The airport is a 10-minute cab ride from the Kahului harbor, where our cruise ship docked the night before. Even in the islands, security is an issue and involved a slightly unwieldy procedure to get inside the gate on the GA side of the airport. After we were inside, however, the scene shifted back to island casual. Maui Aviators’ hangar welcomes the pilot with an inside/outdoors blend. The “office,” such as it is, consists of a desk and computer residing in the back of the hangar. The briefing area, complete with wicker furniture, floral prints, and other tropical accoutrements, characterizes the front half and is carefully arranged so an aircraft could be pushed in if needed.

Tony, my checkout CFI, was thorough and friendly. He’s been flying Maui for about two years after coming from Maryland and is recovering nicely from the East Coast insanity. Unlike many instructors, he enjoys teaching and says he’s getting paid a living wage. The checkout briefing was well done with simple but effective materials. A current sectional chart was essential and has made a great souvenir. The airspace in the islands is basic: Class B presides over Honolulu followed by the Maui Class C, a few towered airports with Class D, and just a few restricted areas.

But there are some operational differences. On the mainland, the hemispherical altitude rule, which governs flight direction, doesn’t begin until 3,000 feet agl (see “Pilot Counsel: The Hemispherical Rule,” page 48). Because of the high density of low-altitude helicopter tour traffic, island rules begin at the surface: westbound—it’s 1,000, 2,000, 3,000; and eastbound 500, 1,500, and 2,500 is appropriate. Each island has an assigned Island Traffic Advisory Frequency (ITAF) that works just like a CTAF at nontowered airports. When not talking to ATC, monitor and announce your location periodically on the ITAF.

Tony used two other briefing aids that any CFI doing a local checkout would do well to copy. First, we spent some quality time with the airport taxi diagram for Kahului. Incidentally, he pointed out that to load the GPS, the first letter of any airport identifier is P, not K. I learned about the CAT and the HAT, which has nothing to do with Dr. Seuss. They are the acronyms used by ATC and the locals to describe the Commuter Air Terminal and the Helicopter Air Terminal. On several occasions during my flight it helped to visualize where another aircraft was. Runway safety and ground navigation continue to be a major safety initiative, and a taxi diagram is essential. Second, he shared a kneeboard cheat sheet on what to say to whom when departing and arriving. For those used to Class C procedures it’s merely helpful, but for anyone less than comfortable with busy airspace, it’s essential.

I had rented a 2006 Cessna 172SP, which is one of the last of the steam gauge breed, and it was just perfect from a rental perspective. Although I take nothing away from glass-paneled aircraft, unless you’ve grown up with that particular avionics package, a casual VFR rental checkout is now significantly more convoluted. (I’d really like to see a standard evolve for core VFR functions in all glass-equipped aircraft, but that’s probably unlikely.) It had been years since I’d flown a Skyhawk, but we resumed our longtime friendship immediately.

One thing that I noticed about flying the islands is an omnipresent breeze that frequently strengthens almost into a gale. These are the famous trade winds that sailors have used for centuries to traverse the globe. If that wind can move a 500-ton square-rigged clipper ship across the Pacific, you can imagine what it can do for, or to, a light aircraft. On takeoff, the wind reminded me much of Kansas, except the view is better. Runway 2 pointed us toward the ocean, and the practice area was just offshore and clear of the Class C.

Looking at the azure ocean dotted with whitecaps I wondered about an off-airport, off-land landing. The aircraft all carry inflatable life vests in the seatbacks, and we discussed the ditching procedure. Generally, line up into the wind to effect a relatively slow ground (water) speed and keep the tail low as much as possible without stalling. In a fixed-gear aircraft this minimizes the tendency, I was told, to flip over; be sure to wedge the doors open. Looking at the rocky coastline, mountainous terrain, and the cliffs, ditching would be the only option as there were few of those long wide beaches that so often grace travel posters.

The ASF accident database revealed four ditchings in five years. Three occurred because of undetermined engine stoppage, and one I would chalk up to spatial disorientation in weather at night. In all but the weather mishap, everyone survived. “Undetermined” is a common situation in the islands after a ditching because unless one does the deed close to shore, the water depth goes to several thousand feet very quickly, and recovery of the pieces is problematic.

This is a good time to discuss the weather. Even in paradise you have to watch it carefully. I’ve already mentioned the wind, and most of the flight schools shut down when it goes above 30 knots, which is not unusual at certain times of the year. Tropical rain showers are a ubiquitous fact of life, and in the space of 20 or 30 miles the microclimate may change from tropical rainforest and dense jungle to near desert. One of the islands is designated the wettest place on the planet with over 400 inches of rain per year. The VFR guideline is that if you can see through it—and the terrain allows— proceed; otherwise, divert.

After a steep turn, some slow flight, a stall, and several landings back at Kahului, I was signed off and Jan boarded. There was a minor delay as the 11 a.m. gaggle of airliners arrived from various places, and after obligatory wake turbulence delays we launched eastbound toward Hana, about 25 miles away, where Charles Lindbergh is buried.

A dense rain shower apparently had the same destination in mind. Discretion being the better part of flight safety, we reversed course to the northwest, toward Nakalele point, across Pailolo Channel to the island of Molokai. The abbreviated version of the travelogue includes crossing the middle of Molokai with a quick call to the tower to traverse the Class D airspace, and cross the channel to the island of Lanai. We looked at a World War II shipwreck on the beach and came under the influence of the wind coming off the almost 6,000-foot peaks on the west end of Maui. The only place that we had not yet flown in the local island area was around the backside of Maui, which would have put us in the lee of Haleakala volcano at just over 10,000 feet. It was now past noon and the trade winds were on the rise, so we decided after just over an hour of flightseeing this would be a good time to return.

Perhaps one of the more difficult aspects of flying in Hawaii is to avoid garbling the pronunciation of the various reporting points, but there is an easy alternative—just call the direction of the shoreline of the island you’re passing over, for example, the northwest shore of Maui.

The Kahului ATIS advertised the wind 060 at 22 gusting to 27—just like Kansas and right down the slot for Runway 5. The landing was uneventful, and we took some of the obligatory vacation shots next to the aircraft before heading back to the ship. Hawaii does live up to its billing, and to see it by air from a light aircraft is something that we as pilots should savor. Highly recommended.