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As Kilauea Volcano sends molten lava down a mountain and across the southeastern side of Hawaii Island all the way to the sea, people are clamoring to see it from on high.
“Prior to the most recent volcanic activity [in 2016], guests typically waited until they arrived on-island before booking a tour,” said Meghan Lee, director of sales and marketing for tour operator Blue Hawaiian Helicopters. “Now, because we often sell out on a daily basis, we recommend that clients book weeks, if not months, in advance to confirm their desired tour date.”
Demand for Hawaii Island air tours is red-hot these days, according to the company.
During the operator’s 50-minute Circle of Fire Plus Waterfalls tour, I found out what all the fuss is about. As we lifted off from Hilo International Airport, we got an immediate sense of the dramatic lava landscape that defines Hawaii Island. Using two-way headsets, our pilot, Scott, told us about different types of volcanoes around the world and what makes Kilauea unique, and he regaled us with volcano-related legends and lore.
From above, we were treated to a fascinating perspective of an island still in the making. Scott pointed out the fingers of hardened lava that snaked down to the town of Pahoa in 2015, stopping just short of destroying it. He flew us to striking overviews of the brilliant lava hose pouring into the sea from a 90-foot-high cliff and the resulting massive white plume of smoke. He made several passes by the point of lava entry so that every passenger could snap photos and gawk at the spectacle.
Next, our chopper followed a line of steam and lava upland to its source: Puu Oo vent, in Kilauea’s east rift zone. Part of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Puu Oo has erupted nonstop since 1983. As we hovered as low as 500 feet above the vent, we could easily peer down at its glowing orange lava lake, which has been creating all the fiery excitement.
The final part of the tour was a cool-down of sorts. Scott whisked us away for bird’s-eye views of waterfalls in the Hilo area, famous for its many cascades. Throughout the adventure, Scott’s personally curated musical soundtrack heightened the emotions.
Other helicopter operators offer volcano-oriented itineraries, but 32-year-old Blue Hawaiian has a lot going for it. The largest helicopter tour company in Hawaii, it features the biggest fleet of Eco-Stars, the first helicopter specifically designed for air touring. These comfortable fliers come with individual seats, plenty of leg room and expansive glass allowing for sweeping views. Flights are filmed by four cameras: three external and one internal. Clients can buy a DVD of their tour after they land.
Blue Hawaiian also operates flightseeing tours out of Waikoloa Heliport on the island’s west side. However, for clients who are staying in Hilo, Circle of Fire Plus Waterfalls is the speediest route to the volcanic action.
“Viewing lava while on Hawaii Island is a bucket-list item for many visitors,” Lee said. “Lava flows often shift, so we will always tour the most active areas of the volcano to provide our guests with the best views possible.”