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Ultralight Adventures Kauai

 

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HAWAIIAN STYLE

Adventurer takes ultralights to new heights

By Wade Shirkey
Advertiser Staff Writer

PORT ALLEN, Kaua'i Robert Combs should have been born with wings. He's got the next-best thing.

Combs was one of those "crazy people" in the '70s jumping off Makapu'u cliffs, polymer parasail "wings" strapped to their backs "hippies of the air" soaring and sailing above the clouds.

Today, at 57, the then-"20-something" adventurer has graduated, adding powered flight and passengers to the hang-glider equation.

They're called "ultralights." And they still soar above the clouds.

 
Robert Combs gives a passenger a bird's eye view of Kaua'i's Na Pali coast and mountains in his "grown-up hang-glider."

Photo courtesy Robert Combs

Soon, he'll take another step: leading folks from the ethereal mist atop Kaua'i's wettest mountain, Wai'ale'ale, piercing the clouds over Alaka'i Swamp, and gracefully floating down to the safety of a shoreline landing.

Combs remembers when his heart first took flight: On a 1974 Canada vacation, he saw a hang-glider on skis take to the skies.

Before the ski weekend was over, Combs was the proud owner of a similar rig. By the next year, he was "foot-launching" off 100-foot heights in Glacier Park in Montana, among the first in his home state to embrace the novel new sport.

"Folks thought we were crazy!" he said.

That winter, roads plugged with snow, he saw a Hang Gliding Magazine with a guy from Hawai'i soaring off Waimanalo cliffs in a glider painted like a butterfly. Combs was hooked.

"It was 40 below the day we left (for Hawai'i). Winters are eight months long. The day we landed, I knew my life had changed that the world in (just) six hours, could be so changed, could be so lovely."

Since, he's become the quintessential hang-glider. He had a flying stint on Fantasy Island in 1975 and shot the familiar hang-glider Wrigley gum commercials in 1979.

He's flown above the clouds at Rio de Janiero and off the cliffs of Chile; in the frigid air in Switzerland, and the warmth of Hawai'i and all over the Mainland. His favorite? New Zealand. "It is so spectacularly beautiful," he says. "It conjures up images of the Alps."

Closest to his heart, though, is Kaua'i's Na Pali coastline.

His "grown-up hang-glider" with motor is called an ultralight, nicknamed "trike," because of its three little wheels. Its wings of aluminum alloy and sailboat Dacron would stand three stories if stood on end. The propeller is carbon fiber.

The whole thing, lock, stock and landing strut, weighs a mere 500 pounds. It can carry twice that load.

The tank holds only about 10 gallons of gasoline, but offers about five hours of flying at speeds up to 90 mph.

The 81-horsepower aircraft engine sounds like a lawn mower. It's his "Harley in the Sky," he jokes except this hog retails for about $45,000.

If he should lose power, he sits back and enjoys the glide down. "It's one of the safest aircrafts around."

In a real emergency, the craft is equipped with a "rocket-deployed parachute," again yielding a graceful descent to terra firma.

His company Ultralight Adventures, (808) 645-6444 owns two of about 20 such crafts in private and commercial use in Hawai'i.

His passengers are enthralled by the views.

On trips over the Na Pali cliffs, Combs had zoomed in on Spouting Horn, flown down over the lip of Kalalau, 30 feet off the beach, soaring just along the waves, and then right into Waimea Canyon.

He's shown passengers the birth of a whale and the "red globe of the sun come out of the ocean" from the 5,148-foot elevation of Wai'ale'ale.

Plans also include what he thinks is the first ultralight flight across the entire state, Ni'ihau to Big Island, refueling along the way.

Ultralight Adventures Kauai

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