Flying the Aloha Skies

A helicopter tour might be pricey, but that doesn’t deter tourists from signing up.

By: Marty Wentzel

Compared to other visitor activities, a helicopter tour carries one of the highest ticket prices on Kauai, but that doesn’t deter tourists from signing up.

“Visitors consider a helicopter ride a must-do on Kauai,” said Grace Myers, Safari Helicopters spokeswoman. “Our guests often comment that Kauai is the most beautiful and spiritual place they have ever seen.”

Kauai currently lists 10 helicopter companies whose combined offerings total dozens of tours per day, with rates from $109 to $269 per person.

John Power of Heli USA Airways described the allure of a helicopter tour, saying: “Many of Kauai’s most beautiful sites and scenery are not accessible by foot or car,” he said. “Helicopters have the flexibility to take you to spectacular waterfalls, hidden beaches, extinct volcanoes and lush tropical forests. Helicopters show guests various eco-climates and the diversity of Kauai.”

Operating out of Princeville Airport on Kauai’s North Shore, Heli USA flies three A-star jet helicopters over the island. After check-in, guests watch a surround-sound presentation about the making of the Hawaiian islands.

“The presentation really puts guests in the frame of mind to experience the island from a historical, cultural and sightseeing point of view,” said Power.

Safari Helicopters has been in business since 1987, when a retired Naval commander named Preston Myers began the business. Myers continues to run the company, which operates out of Lihue Airport.

“Our company is small for a reason,” said Myers. “We want to make our guests feel special and not rushed. For many, this is the experience of a lifetime.”

Safari was the first company on Kauai to feature an air-conditioned craft with high-visibility windows, said Myers, and it is the only helicopter tour on the island with a multiple camera system to record videos of the passenger’s actual experience.

One of the names synonymous with Kauai helicopters is Jack Harter, who came to Kauai in 1962 and started the first helicopter tour business on the island in 1975.

“Jack wanted to provide very personalized tours,” said Casey Riemer, Harter general manager, “so we’re still a relatively small company, owned entirely by Jack and his wife, Bev. I am their son-in-law, so we really are a family business.”

During a Jack Harter tour, pilots provide narration about Kauai’s natural history, geology, geography and ecosystems. Passengers wear noise-canceling headsets that are connected to a two-way intercom system.

“Our pilots converse with their passengers during the flight, and they discuss the significant features of the island as they explore the inaccessible interior and remote coastlines of Kauai,” said Riemer. “We make the helicopter like a smooth magic carpet ride, and we make the island, not the helicopter, the focus of the tour.”

With a staff of 25 people, Ohana Helicopters holds a large share of the island’s chopper-tour business. Bogart Kealoha has owned and operated the company since 1986. Raised on Kauai, the Hawaii native got his helicopter training during his work with the Honolulu Fire Department and Hawaii National Guard.

“I was 28 years old when I first flew around Kauai, and I was shocked,” said Kealoha. “It’s really sad that people born and raised over here have no idea what the island looks like.”

Despite a busy schedule, Kealoha still manages to pilot some tours, and he handpicks and trains all of his pilots.

Most Kauai helicopter tours fly over the dramatic valleys and sea cliffs of Kauai’s North Shore, called the Na Pali Coast. Other popular sights include Waimea Canyon, nicknamed the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. The highlight for many flights is Waialeale Crater, frequently referred to as the wettest spot on Earth, where dozens of waterfalls cascade amid lush, tropical greenery.

“From a helicopter, visitors can see the sculpted canyons, valleys and shorelines that Mother Nature has carved with years of wind, rain and pounding surf,” said Riemer. “We hope that our clients come back from our tours with the feeling that they just took the most incredible trip of their lives.”