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Volcano helicopter flights

  to   - darkometer rating:  ca. 5 (variable!) -
An expensive but spectacular way of experiencing Hawaii's volcanic action. When current lava flows are in areas inaccessible overland, this may even be the only way of getting close to that action. And flying directly over the active Pu'u O'o vent is certainly one of the best things on offer to volcano enthusiasts.      
More background info: See under Volcanoes National Park and under Hawaii in general.
What there is to see: This is dependent on what the current activity is – and that's something that cannot be fully planned ahead. If you're lucky you might see splattering lava fountains, rivers of red-hot lava or lava reaching the ocean in a steamy spectacle. At other times, you'll only get a glimmer of faint orange on the edge of slow lava flows or vents emitting plumes of steam and gasses, but no lava at all. 
Unless you have the flexibility to fly in specifically when the volcanic action is at its most spectacular, you will have to go with whatever the situation is when you get there. Normally there will be enough to justify a helicopter flight, but it cannot be guaranteed.
When I was in Hawaii in the summer of 2015, no lava reached the ocean and there were no lava fountains, but there were lava flows on land that would otherwise have been inaccessible – so seeing these from the air was a definite bonus. But the best bit was seeing the lava inside Pu'u O'o , the main crater of the current eruption, which had started in 1983 and has been ongoing ever since. Luckily the weather played along too.
But let's start at the beginning. I had chosen a doors-off helicopter flight – specifically with photography in mind, as that way there's no window in the way, and no reflections on glass that can ruin the images. It literally means that they take the side doors off completely. So there is nothing between you and the outside world right next to where you are sitting. This also makes it feel much more adventurous, of course, and is indeed sold as the “extreme” version of such flights. For more on this and alternatives to doors-off flights, see under access and costs below!
After the required safety briefing, and being equipped with a life vest and headset, the ground crew boarded us one after the other onto the helicopter and made sure we were safely strapped in. We were lucky to be the only two passengers on this flight, and I was especially lucky to be seated in the front next to the pilot. (Note that on flights in bigger helicopters you may end up seated in the middle of a row of three or four – unless you pay for a guaranteed window seat!)  
After take-off we headed straight towards the (then) most recent lava flows near Pahoa and then searched out actively flowing lava within the vast lava desert beyond. We saw some fresh lava flowing in faint orange and silver (obviously the really bright glow could only be seen at night when helicopters cannot fly). At some points lava was burning its way through vegetation too, at others it flowed onto older lava, adding yet another layer.  
The top highlight came next when we flew over Pu'u O'o, the main active vent of the current Kilauea eruption. We were able to clearly see the lava-lake crust inside the crater, with the red zigzagging lines where the lava plates break open at the surface, and there was even some splattering of lava around the edges. 
Near the crater were also cracks in the lava crust that allowed a glimpse into the lava tubes where bright orange light signalled hot action flowing inside. 
We circled this crater several times, so we got various good angles for viewing and taking pictures. The pilot was very good in pointing out were to look to get the most of it. 
The second half of the flight was over the area north-west of Hilo where there are numerous waterfalls in lush rainforest scenery. These are also spectacular to see from the air, especially given that some of these areas are hardly accessible overland either (with the notable exception of Rainbow Falls just on the edge of town). 
Apart from the waterfalls and volcanic highlights, the flight afforded aerial views of Hilo itself and the plantations and villages around it. After a good three quarters of an hour we landed again at Hilo airport. Exhilarated and with truly memorable impressions. 
So was it worth it? Oh yes! Absolutely. True, it is a hefty investment, but if there is one thing you really want to splash out on when in Hawaii it has to be such a helicopter flight!  
Location: varies –  except for Pu'u O'o, the lava action on the day of the flight can be in a variety of places, but will most likely be within the large recent flow area to the south-east of Pu'u O'o. Your pilot will know where to look for the best action. 
Different companies also use different airports or helipads as the departure point for the flights. Hilo is the one closest to the volcanoes, so flying time to and from those areas will be shorter on flights from there than from Kona, Hapuna or Waikoloa. 
Google Maps locators:  
Pu'u O'o:  [19.389, -155.105]
Hilo airport: [19.715, -155.042]
Access and costs: restricted, pre-booking usually required; very expensive.  
Details: Helicopter flights in Hawaii are big business and there are various companies in competition with each other. It is worth shopping around and checking the details of the various tours offered. They all have informative websites, so you can do this well in advance from home. But make sure you know what you are looking for. 
Things to pay attention to include: how much airtime is included – and how much of this will be over volcanic areas? What's the flight path likely to be? Is there a doors-off option? If not, how good is visibility (how big are the windows)? How many other passengers will/can be on the helicopter? What's the seating arrangement? Can a window seat be guaranteed? If so, at what extra cost? Where does the flight depart from? Does the package include transfers to/from the departure point or not? Can you purchase a video of your flight afterwards? And then of course there's the decisive question: how much does it cost?
Costs: this ranges roughly from ca. 170 USD per person for a regular 30-45 minute flight (when booked and paid for online in advance) to over 2000 USD an hour for a private charter. In between there are numerous different packages on offer. A private charter will give you maximum flexibility but is probably out of the price range for most tourists – so you'll have to look for the right compromise for you. Rates usually include extra fuel surcharges and taxes – but better check this before booking.
The doors-off tour I did with Paradise Helicopters (at the end of July 2015) cost 282 USD per person and lasted ca. 50 minutes; it was operated out of Hilo airport. 
Some companies claim that such doors-off flights are too dangerous, but I think that's just being overcautious. Naturally, special rules apply when flying in an open helicopter, e.g. you have to wear closed shoes (no flip-flops or sandals) and ideally a light jacket, but no hats, handbags or anything else that could fall out. All cameras must be secured with a strap round your neck. Items you may have on you that are not allowed on the flight can be stored in a secure locker for you until you're back. 
The doors-off flight was in a Hughes MD500, an older model (of “Magnum” fame) with fewer seats than other choppers (pilot + 3-4 passengers). Some companies use much more modern types that are specifically built for scenic flights, offering large windows and a quieter, smoother ride and even an “eco” badge. These usually seat six passengers, two in the front, four in the back, so only half the seats will be right next to a window, unless you pay an extra surcharge for the privilege. With open seating it is down to chance (i.e. fifty-fifty), and the pilot's decision will be final and non-negotiable.
One criticism of the doors-off flights in the MD500 that I have read is that this aircraft generates a lot of vibration which makes taking sharp photos difficult. I did not encounter that problem so much – but of course you have to adapt your photo shooting to the situation (e.g. use fast shutter speeds). 
Flying with doors off is also noisier – but you are given headsets that cancel the noise out fairly well, and you get a two-way intercom for talking with the pilot and fellow passengers. I didn't feel any of this was a problem. Headsets are also the norm on other flights. 
Having no doors for protection naturally also means a lot more wind. More so on the rear seats. In the front you don't notice it so much – unless you make the mistake of stretching your arm out to the outside (which will instantly lash your arm backwards … I did this once, trying to point towards something, but I got away with it, no damage done … funnily enough the pilot admitted to having done this himself on various occasions too!). 
As long as you have a camera with a viewfinder (and use it!) the wind will hardly interfere with taking pictures. Obviously taking pictures with arms stretched out (using the rear display) is really not practical on such a flight. And a smartphone or tablet is no option at all (unless you can have it strapped tightly to your body) – the idea of using a selfie stick is even more obviously 100% out of the question. 
Being partly exposed to the elements outside also means that you might get wet if it rains during the flight, so at least a waterproof jacket may be a good idea. The weather in the volcanic parts of Hawaii's Big Island is notoriously changeable, so even if the day starts out sunny, there's no guarantee that it won't turn rainy. When I did the flight we started in bright sunshine – and were lucky to have clear skies while over the volcanoes and waterfalls, but rain clouds could already be seen on the horizon and by the time we got back to Hilo a constant drizzle had begun. Good job, then, that we had booked an early morning slot.
Note that all flights can be cancelled at short notice due to adverse weather conditions! You just cannot fly a helicopter in a storm. For that reason it may also be a good idea to schedule your helicopter flight as early as possible during your stay in Hawaii – that way you may have a second chance by rescheduling. 
Also note that certain weight restrictions apply; if your weight is over a set limit you may be required to purchase a special seat (or two seats). During the booking process you are therefore required to state your weight – and you will be weighed on scales at the airport/helipad before being allowed on the helicopter. Allocation of seats is also dependent on weight distribution considerations. 
If you decide on a regular flight instead of the doors-off option, pay attention to what type of helicopter is being used. Some feature state-of-the-art types that may be worth the extra surcharge for comfort and better visibility. With a view to photography, wear darker clothes to reduce your own reflection on the inside of the windows spoiling your shots, and if possible you could try using a polariser. 
Almost all flights will be combinations of some volcano viewing with other things – be it only the waterfalls that formed part of the package I was on, or more elaborate add-ons, such as flights along the coast, alongside high sea cliffs and into deep valleys etc.; some even include optional landings at otherwise inaccessible viewpoints. These aspects may also inform your choice of tour.
Some companies also offer you the option of purchasing a video recording of your flight, possibly complete with the flight's narration and even music. I watched such a video once, but to be honest I was glad that my flight was without music and a fixed narration, because I would have found that quite distracting (especially the typical hula music that is so ubiquitous in tourist Hawaii – nothing against local music styles as such, but hula is something I just never could get my head round).  
Here are the names of some of the more established companies that offer flights over Big Island's volcanic scenery:  
  • Paradise Helicopters Hawai'i, 
  • Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, 
  • Safari Helicopters,
  • Sunshine Helicopters   
Time required: flights last between 30 minutes and a couple of hours. Some companies offer combined whole-day packages (11 hours), including 2-3 hours airtime plus various activities on the ground. For some tours you have to add extra time for making your way to the departure point. Safety briefings, weighing, etc. will also require your being there a good while before your scheduled take-off time. You will be given thorough instructions to that effect.
Combinations with other dark destinations: See under Volcanoes National Park and Hawaii in general.  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Arguably, these helicopter flights are primarily not specifically a dark-tourism activity at all, even if they also include viewing some of the destruction caused by lava. But they all include non-volcanic scenic beauty in any case – some more so than others. In addition to waterfalls, the coastline of Hawaii Big Island, especially on the north-eastern side, is truly spectacular and may warrant going for a more expensive combination package when choosing your flight. 
Helicopter flights are also available on other islands, in particular O'ahu and Maui (possibly in combination with the sea cliffs of Molokai – see Kalaupapa). 
See also under Hawaii in general.  
  • chopper flight 01 - ready for take-off with doors offchopper flight 01 - ready for take-off with doors off
  • chopper flight 02 - insidechopper flight 02 - inside
  • chopper flight 03 - reflections on the canopychopper flight 03 - reflections on the canopy
  • chopper flight 04 - current lava fieldchopper flight 04 - current lava field
  • chopper flight 05 - another helicopterchopper flight 05 - another helicopter
  • chopper flight 06 - new lava flowchopper flight 06 - new lava flow
  • chopper flight 07 - burning vegetationchopper flight 07 - burning vegetation
  • chopper flight 08 - bit of orange at the front of the lava flowchopper flight 08 - bit of orange at the front of the lava flow
  • chopper flight 09 - singeing treeschopper flight 09 - singeing trees
  • chopper flight 10 - main currently active craterchopper flight 10 - main currently active crater
  • chopper flight 11 - venting crater and observation equipmentchopper flight 11 - venting crater and observation equipment
  • chopper flight 12 - lava in the main craterchopper flight 12 - lava in the main crater
  • chopper flight 13 - lava splatterchopper flight 13 - lava splatter
  • chopper flight 14 - orange heatchopper flight 14 - orange heat
  • chopper flight 15 - flying over venting fumeschopper flight 15 - flying over venting fumes
  • chopper flight 16 - crater amidst vast lava flow fieldchopper flight 16 - crater amidst vast lava flow field
  • chopper flight 17 - waterfallchopper flight 17 - waterfall
  • chopper flight 18 - more waterfallschopper flight 18 - more waterfalls
  • chopper flight 19 - lots of waterfallschopper flight 19 - lots of waterfalls
  • chopper flight 20 - Rainbow Fallschopper flight 20 - Rainbow Falls
  • chopper flight 21 - flying over macadamia plantationschopper flight 21 - flying over macadamia plantations
  • chopper flight 22 - military chopperschopper flight 22 - military choppers
  • chopper flight 23 - back at Hilo airportchopper flight 23 - back at Hilo airport

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