A Helicopter with No Doors

I had promised Deb a helicopter ride months ago. It is about time to deliver on that promise. Just waiting for the volcano to do something interesting. Will a new lava flow work?

The currently active Puʻu Oʻo vent on Kilauea
The currently active Puʻu Oʻo vent on Kilauea
Paradise Helicopter has a doors off Volcanoes and Waterfalls Extreme tour I really wanted to try. I have always been frustrated when shooting through a window on an aircraft, reflections or scuffed plastic windows always seem to spoil the shot. Not having a window, much less a door to shoot through was a huge incentive.

We first tried to do the flight last week, but our arrival in Hilo was not looking good, fog and blowing rain. We checked in and waited, just to find that the flight had been cancelled about fifteen minutes before our scheduled departure. We were sorely disappointed. Not much to do but have breakfast and drive back over the island to home. Good thing I can swap days at work, working a Sunday day in place of a weekday, it makes rescheduling much easier.

Our second attempt looked much better, a fantastic clear morning in Hilo! A clear blue sky over the city with the peaks of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea against a blue tropical sky. This is quite unusual in the normally cloudy Hilo, the best you can usually expect is partly cloudy in the morning with the rain moving in during the afternoon. We were pleasantly surprised… A perfect morning for a helicopter ride.

Kilauea lava flow map for 8July2016
Kilauea lava flow map for 8July2016
The new lava flow that started on May 24th was our target. Previous flows had been burning into the forest northwest of Puʻu Oʻo. the new flow is headed for the sea again, flowing almost due south from the vent down the pali. It has moved much faster than most expected reaching to within a mile of the sea cliffs. As the lava moves down the steep slopes there should be ample exposed lava to photograph.

Doors Off
Preparing a helicopter for the doors off tour
There are a few considerations for safety on a doors-off tour. Nothing loose! Empty your pockets, no bags, no hats, any camera must have a strap. Do not stick any part of your anatomy outside the helicopter while in flight.

The wind buffeting is notably worse in the rear seats of the helo. We had been warned about the wind before takeoff, but I really did not know what to expect. I found the wash of wind over my head was a bit annoying as we crossed Puna to the volcano. I could escape the buffeting by leaning into the aircraft towards the center and Deb. Reaching the volcano I realized later that the wind had been totally forgotten in the wonder of the view and the effort to take photos. I was very glad I had remembered sunglasses, having my eyes protected was huge. The light jacket that seemed so warm on the Hilo tarmac was now perfectly comfortable.

Deb without Doors
Deborah shooting through the open door of the helicopter
Deb and I were both shooting. We compromised on lenses, she wanted to shoot the telephoto, mounting the 70-200 f/2.8L on her SL1 camera. This gave her a lot of telephoto reach but no wide angle. There would be no lens swapping in the open helicopter, you go with the lens you have. I decided on a more general purpose setup, opting for the versatile 24-105 f/4L on my Canon 6D. This division of shooting seemed to work well, we both got some decent shots the other could not get given the lens choice. I also had a GoPro Hero4 Black in my pocket with a leash improvised out of para-cord for a few wide angle shots of the flight.

A skylight allows a view into an active lava tube
A skylight allows a view into an active lava tube
The clear weather continued on to the volcano, not a cloud in the sky. The plumes for the vents were thick with no stiff trade winds to sweep them away. Conditions were great for photography with one exception. the bright sunlight would drown out the orange glow of the lava somewhat.

The flight plan called for us to fly by Puʻu Oʻo first. The source of the current lava flows including the new May 24th flow that is headed for the ocean. There were huge plumes coming off the wrecked cinder cone and a pool of splattering lava to be seen in the western pit.

A large skylight on the eastern rim provided a view into the head of the current lava flow’s tube system. Two separate channels of bright lava could be seen inside the skylight, bright orange and moving fast. It was clear that there is a lot of lava moving into the flow field.

Breakout
A large breakout in the May 24th lava flow
A week ago there had been open lava channels to photograph. Unfortunately these seem to have tubed over and were not very visible. There were quite a few skylights along the primary flow, some quite large. Here and there were good sized breakouts.

The helicopter maneuvered left and right, allowing both sides to get a good view of the more interesting features. The pilot sometimes banked hard, rather fun when you are looking right out an open door at the ground a few hundred feet below. You could feel the radiant heat from the new flows and smell the sulfur in the air.

Wailuku Water Falls
One of the upper falls on the Wailuku River
The last part of the flight was spent in a few minutes over rainbow falls. It was OK, the falls were pretty in the mid-morning light. I would prefer to spend a few more minutes over the volcano. Deb got a few decent shots of the waterfalls with the longer telephoto.

We ended up getting a tour a few minutes longer than scheduled, not that we minded at all. I can not take that many photos on a short flight, but still managed 260 frames. Deb squeezed off a few more doubling our total to 550.

I can wholeheartedly recommend flying with Paradise Helicopter. They provide an excellent service with good people. The ground crew was great, our pilot Rob knew his business and took care to give us a great view of the volcano. We had a great time, the other folks flying that day were having a great time.

I have visited the volcano just about every way possible… Multiple times. I am endlessly fascinated by this spectacle of nature. Drive to the park, hike to the lava, or take a helo ride, every trip provides a new experience and new photos.

It was a great day and worth the 4am alarm and a drive across the island. I enjoyed the flight as a very distinct experience, different than hiking to the flows. Not a replacement for photographing from the ground, rather a complimentary plan. Deb is certainly ready to go again!

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on Mauna Kea, Hawai'i.

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