GET TO DA CHOPPA

Damn, I am looking totally awesome in the above picture. Do you remember that trip I took to Honolulu, Hawaii last July? I went mainly for the wedding of a close friend but I wound up doing some interesting things while on the island paradise. One of those things was riding in a helicopter for the first time.

It was last full day of my time in Hawaii and my roomie for the trip, the best man, had already gone home to Vancouver. I was thinking of something to do before I too returned home. Leafing through this travel guide the hotel had given us, I went over the many touristy things I could do. After reading through the luau section, I came across the helicopter tours. I am fascinated by all sorts of modes of transportation, especially flying ones, so this stood out for me.

There were a few offerings but I decided to go down to the concierge desk to figure out which one they recommended. The nice lady at the desk told me that Makani Kai Helicopters would be the best bet given they were reasonably priced and would also pick me up and drop me off at the hotel which was definitely convenient. We settled on the Pali Makani tour which was a 30 minute excursion around the island with the highlight being several dips into the crater of an active volcano. I may be lying about some details of the tour but that’s not important. The hotel concierge did all the arranging with the tour company and even was able to accept my payment there. She printed out my voucher and told me when to go downstairs to wait for the shuttle. It was extremely easy to book the whole thing.

At the appointed time, a shuttle bus arrived and picked me up. I was the third person on the bus and we went around several hotels picking up about six more people, including two very attractive ladies. The bus then took us to the airport where the tour company was located.

We went inside to a waiting area where there were already some people waiting. It turns out we’d be split into two groups since they could accomodate six people at a time on the single bird they were using today. I was hoping I’d be flying with the fine ladies but I got an aerial weiner block unfortunately. It turned out I’d be going up with a family of four from London.

While we waited for the first group, an employee told us the preflight procedures, how to approach the helicopter, get in, buckle up, use the headsets, and then how to exit the helicopter. We were then also given a float device to wear around our waist like a belt. It was obviously not inflated but we were told what to do if we ditched in the water. Then it was time to wait and they put on a DVD on a TV for us to watch. It was some production that showcased aerial tours of the islands. I spent the time mainly leafing through some periodicals they had lying around.

Pretty soon the first group returned and it was our time get in the air. We were also assigned specific seats on the helicopter because the aircraft had to be evenly weight distributed. That’s is why each booking must be accompanied by your honest body mass. We approached the bird single file, all the while watching the “deck officer” for final, non-verbal instructions. By the way, the whole “ducking” while you approach a helicopter is completely unnecessary. We were told the blades of most helicopters are so high, there’s several feet of clearance even for your average basketball player. So all of us just walked normally to the helicopter and then climbed into our assigned seats.

Now since they don’t shut down the bird while they change groups over, the helicopter is still running. I never knew exactly how loud helicopters can be when you’re right next to one. It’s not exactly deafening but you need to shout loud to be heard outside of one. Once inside we all buckled in and then grabbed a headset so we could listen to the pilot. The particular helicopter we were in that day was the Eurocopter AS350. The AS350 has both civilian and military uses, with many US law enforcement agencies having it in their fleets. I was hoping they would be flying decommissioned Apaches but that’s for another day.

With everyone secure, our pilot greeted us and then began our “taxi” to the flight line. Taxiing in a heli means the pilot just lifts the bird just several feet off the ground and then flies slowly forward. The second we started to move, I thought it was already a pretty cool experience. Having just experienced air travel in planes all my life, it was odd to go from sitting still to airborn and flying in just a few seconds, without the need to scream down several hundred feet of runway first.

We maneuvered past buildings and parked aircraft before we made it to a smaller runway where the pilot descended and put us back on the ground. He appeared to be talking to the control tower for perhaps five seconds and then we were airborn again, this time in earnest. We had been given clearance to leave the airport so we were climbing for real. The sensation of being on the ground to being 200 feet in the air in just a few seconds was awesome. The grin on my face must had been dumb looking. I really enjoying it.

It was at this time I realized how much vibration helicopters can have. It was distracting or bone-rattling but we could certainly tell there were massive blades rotating quickly above us. Now you can read the tour details with the link I provided but essentially the pilot took us to many but varied spots around Oahu. It was amazing having a nice big window to look out at the beaches and the ocean. They took us high enough to get a good view but not so high that the details couldn’t be seen. On a swing through the Waikiki Beach and the surrouding ocean, I could still see individual surfers, all in a line, catching the same wave. Awesome!

The pilot narrated the whole tour, telling us how high we were, what we were seeing, and where we were going next. The great thing about the helicopter is that you can just hover whenever you want. Several times the pilot pulled back on the stick and brought us into a hover, just so we could sit in the air and get a clean look at something. You can’t do that in a plane.

For just half an hour, it seemed we went everywhere. The pilot showed us the touristy areas first, like Waikiki proper but then he started showing us the lesser known areas of the island. We floated by the pricer homes on the island, along beaches that are secluded from the busier areas. He showed us a few smaller plantations. We travelled over the interesting highway system on Oahu, where roads twist around moutains and at times, go straight through them. We were then shown some interesting hiking areas, in a mountainous region of the island. The pilot traced for us a spectacular trail that led up some towering ridges. At one point, we saw a hiker, so the pilot put us in a hover and we got close enough to wave at the hiker. He waved back. While our view was incredible, I was thinking the hiker’s view from that ridge must have been breathtaking, with impossibly green mountains below him and the bright blue ocean in the distance. We also got to fly by Pearl Harbor, getting good views of the USS Arizona memorial as well as modern naval vessels anchored in the port. Having viewed the USS Arizona memorial up close, it was interesting to see it from the air.

Well before I knew thirty minutes had passed, we were headed back to the airport. As we landed and left the aircraft, I was quite pleased with my very first helicopter flight. I took many photos and videos but here’s one below for now. You can tell how strong the engin
e vibrations are by how shaky the picture is. I’ll try to post more later.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tp32S0qJm6E&hl=en&fs=1]

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