Flying in Hawai’i

If you’re lucky, one day you’ll get to fly in Hawai’i. I had the opportunity for nearly a year and loved it. You would too. The temperatures are tropical (more in a minute), the clouds are usually benign, the skies are amazingly blue, and the vistas are spectacular.
In the winter, the Humpback Whales come to Hawai’i, not to pass through as the Gray Whales do in SoCal, but to mate and spawn and play. I once took a couple on a whale watching tour on the Big Island’s northwest coast. In one hour we saw 36 whales.
In the summer, the trade winds are usually milder, so there’s less worry about turbulence. And the daytime temperatures hover in the high 80’s °F. Which brings us back to the tropical temperature reference. There’s a phrase that describes Hawai’i’s temperature: Night time is the winter of the tropics. What’s that mean? The difference between the daytime and nighttime temperatures is greater than the difference between winter and summer temperatures. In general, the average daytime temperature in winter is around 82° F and the average nighttime temperature is around 62°F. In summer, the average daytime temperature is 88° F, the average nighttime temperature is 68° F.
The first thing you need to understand about flying in Hawai’i is the term “Trade Winds,” because the trade winds affect everything in the Hawai’ian skies.

trade wind, 1. any of the nearly constant easterly winds that dominate most of the tropics and subtropics throughout the world, blowing mainly from the northeast in the Northern Hemisphere, and from the southeast in the Southern Hemisphere. 2. any wind that blows in one regular course, or continually in the same direction.

Below about 30° north or south latitude, the winds blow in an easterly direction and in Hawai’i, in the Northern Hemisphere, that means the trades are blowing from the northeast. Those winds come thousands of miles across open ocean and, when they hit any of the Hawai’ian Islands they climb or go around the rapidly rising terrain and increase in velocity, and, on the back side of the terrain, cause turbulence. The winds generally blow stronger in the winter and more gently in the summer, with velocities normally between 10 and 25 knots, and sometimes greater.

When the winds pass between mountains – for instance in the swale between the northernmost volcano, Kohala, and Maua Kea on the Big Island – that area becomes a venturi, packing the winds closer together and increasing their velocity. The ensuing turbulence can become moderate to severe, and don’t we all love severe turbulence when the airplane experiences large and abrupt changes in attitude and/or altitude, large variations in airspeed – you may even momentarily lose control of the airplane. If that don’t get your heart a-thumpin’, nothing will.

On the east, more specifically northeast, of each island – the windward side – those trade winds climb the mountains, temperature and dew point merge, clouds form and, when the clouds are thick enough, rain falls. Boo hoo. It’s raining in Hawai’i. Warm, tropical rain falling from a warm tropical sky on a warm tropical day – liquid sunshine. Most of that rain falls on the windward side of the mountains which is where you’ll find all that lush tropical vegetation.
If you don’t like rain – even warm tropical rain, head to the leeward side of the mountains. On the Big Island, Hawai’i, Hilo on the east coast gets about 180 inches of rain a year – making it the wettest city in the country. Kailua-Kona on the west coast, 57 nm from Hilo, averages about 14 inches of rain a year. It’s like that on all the islands: the windward side gets the rain, the leeward side doesn’t. In fact, on the Big Island – which is more north and south aligned than the others – if you fly either north or south you can clearly see a line of demarcation: verdant green on the rainy side, and dry, brown on the sunny side.
So, you get the time off, you save the extra money, you decide to wing your way to paradise for some tropical flying. Who do you call? Good question.
In Kona, PHKO, I’ve flown with Mike Laura’s Tropicbird Flight Service. Mike and I flew together for a while at a flight school when I lived on Hawaii. Mike has 40 years of experience flying around Hawaii and he and his instructors are well-versed in the intricacies of Hawaii’s winds and weather. At present, Mike has a 2-passenger, DA-20 Diamond Eclipse with a 125hp IO-240b engine that rents for $200/hour. He also has a 4-passenger Cessna 172M with a 180hp, O-360 conversion with a constant speed prop for $215/hour. He offers training for all ratings and certificates, but, if you’re already a pilot, you may want to take his Island Adventure Flying Course. Last year, Laurel took the Island Adventure Flying Course with Eric Herrle as CFI (and me in the back) and had a wonderful time.

On Maui, you should fly with Maui Aviators at Kahului, the International Airport, PHOG

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