Kauai by Chopper

Above the Garden Isle with Jack Harter Helicopters

By: Ken Shapiro

There are certain activities that are associated with particular destinations. When a client visits New York City, they really should take in a play. In Hong Kong, the view from the top of Victoria Peak is unforgettable. What is Paris without the Eiffel Tower? (Or is it the Louvre?)

Kauai has its own signature activity or it should. A helicopter ride on Kauai is one of those activities clients will remember forever. At the very least, it is hard to imagine any client coming away disappointed (as long as they aren’t prone to motion sickness), making this commissionable activity a no-brainer add-on for the agent.

Going With the Original
With the enormous variety of terrain, and breathtaking natural beauty on the island, the best overview of Kauai really is by air. Even veteran travelers to Kauai can appreciate it.

“We’ve been to Kauai a bunch of times and have never done a helicopter tour,” said Bill, a tourist from Orange County, Calif., who was on our flight with his teenage daughter. “Every time we come people tell us we don’t know what we’re missing, so we finally booked a tour.”

Our flight was with one of the oldest operations on the island, Jack Harter Helicopters. In fact, the company claims that Harter brought the first helicopter to the island in 1962. Although Jack Harter has retired from the business, Casey Riemer, the company’s general manager said the staff carries on in Harter’s tradition.

“Jack’s philosophy states that safety comes first. Also that business decisions are made based upon providing customers with a quality experience that they will want to tell their friends about,” Riemer said. “Keep the operation as simple as possible. Provide value for the dollars the customers spend.”

It was with this in mind that my 4-year-old son Henry and I took to the air with Harter last June.

Because of Henry’s age we booked one of the company’s AStar choppers, rather than the Hughes 500 model that comes without doors (children must be over 10 for that). While some hardcore photographers might find doors a slight disadvantage, the majority of clients will find doors make for a more comfortable flight.

Henry and I signed in at the company’s office in Lihue and received a safety briefing before getting into a van for the short drive to the airstrip.

Once there, the six of us on the tour donned safety vests (Henry’s practically went down to his shoes) and climbed onboard our chopper. The next thing we knew, we were airborne.

“Whoa,” Henry said with a big grin as we lifted off the tarmac. “Cool.”

A View to Remember
From the air, Kauai’s natural beauty is staggering. Mere seconds after liftoff we found ourselves over green sugarcane fields cut by dusty red trails without a person or car in sight. Moments later we were dipping in and out of Waimea Canyon dubbed the Grand Canyon of the Pacific with its narrow red-rock cliffs hundreds of feet high.

Then it was back to the coast where a long empty beach stretched invitingly.

“That beach is my personal favorite,” our pilot told us, as we stared open-mouthed at this hidden gem, without a swimmer to be seen. “But don’t even think I’m telling you how to get there,” he joked.

Riemer feels another advantage the company has over its competition is its knowledgeable and entertaining pilots.

“Each pilot has their own style and presentation during their flights, which means no two flights are exactly alike,” he said. “The personality of each of our pilots is something our customers often comment on after their flights.”

Riemer said one of the secrets of their success is that they work hard to keep their pilots fresh.

“Our pilots fly up to six tours per day, which is well below the limits set by the FAA,” he said.

On our tour, the pilot was indeed very adept at straddling the fine line between providing us with enough facts and light-hearted banter to keep the flight interesting, and knowing when to keep quiet and let the island’s beauty speak for itself.

And there is plenty of beauty to be found. One of the highlights of the tour is the incredible Na Pali Coast. There are a handful of popular ways to visit this remote coast by catamaran or by kayak, for instance however, a helicopter has the advantage of being able to get up close to the strange folds of the canyon walls until you feel like you can reach out and touch them. Then the next minute you are back over the water, hovering over a hidden cove with the bluest water imaginable.

While this part of the tour was spectacular, it was also the only time that I felt slightly airsick. As the helicopter hovered and rotated to give passengers on both sides the same view, I felt a bit queasy. It didn’t last long, however.

Next up was an aerial view of the island’s North Shore and the famed Hanalei Valley, and then a visit to Mount Waialeale.

In Hawaiian, waialeale means rippling water, and early Hawaiians felt the mountain, which is one of the rainiest places in the world, was a sacred spot. When you are up near its peak, it is easy to see why.

As the helicopter ascended Waialeale, wind and water whipped the chopper’s windows, and from out of the mist at the top of the mountain, multiple waterfalls rushed down the canyon walls for hundreds of feet on all sides of us. It was truly an unforgettable sight.

Finally the pilot flew past Wailua Falls back to the airstrip where the tour began 60 minutes (and not a minute less) earlier.

“They were right,” I overheard Bill’s daughter tell her father on the van ride back to the office. “That was amazing.”

And what about Henry, you might ask. After preparing him for weeks so that he wouldn’t be scared of the flight, how did he take it?

He fell asleep somewhere over the Na Pali Coast.

“Well, I guess that’s a compliment,” our pilot said laughing.


Jack Harter Helicopters
4231 Ahukini Road
Lihue, HI 96766
808-245-3774, 888-245-2001
E-mail: jharter@aloha.net

Jack Harter offers two tours on Kauai.

60-65 Minute Tour: The company bills this as “the longest one-hour tour of Kauai,” pointing out that most companies are actually in the air for 55 minutes, not a full hour. This
is the company’s most popular tour. ($209 per person,
plus tax)

90-95 Minute Tour: The brochure calls this trip a “photographers dream,” as the pilot flies lower and takes longer at each sight. ($289 per person, plus tax)
Both tours include (depending on weather conditions): The Hanapepe Valley (Manawaiopuna Falls), Olokele Canyon, Waimea Canyon, Na Pali Coast, North Shore and Hanalei Valley, Mount Waialeale and Wailua Falls

Jack Harter uses two types of helicopter.

The Eurocopter AStar seats six, has air conditioning, large windows, a two-way stereo intercom system and noise-canceling headsets.

The Hughes 500 seats four, has no doors, has a two-way intercom system and headsets with individual microphones. (Note: clients that opt for the Hughes should be told not to bring any loose items; to dress warmly; and to leave their eyeglasses behind. Children under 10 are not allowed on the Hughes 500.)

For all helicopters there is a weight limit of 250 pounds per person (check with company for other limitations).

Passengers should check in 45 minutes before flight. Cancellation is permitted up to 24 hours before flight time.

Jack Harter offers travel agent commissions. Check with company for details.

Agents can arrange tours directly or through most
island hotels.