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SW Aviator Feb/Mar 2001
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Story and photos by Gerrit Paulsen

Kauai is no place for an airplane. The island is a maze of steep, narrow, cloud-capped canyons, which either abruptly end in a vertical wall splashed with 1000-foot waterfalls, or simply vanish into the perennial milky white clouds shrouding the mountaintops. There is no room for a stiff-wing to turn around, and there’s no way out the top. This inhospitable terrain is the undisputed realm of the helicopter.

Kauai’s 5148-foot Mt. Waiale‘ale is the wettest spot on earth, receiving well over 400 inches of rain per year. This abundance of water flowing down the dramatically eroded volcanic cliffs has created some of the most beautiful scenery on earth. The problem is, seeing it. Seventy percent of the island is inaccessible by road, and even foot trails are treacherous at best. Unquestionably, if you want to experience the unique beauty of Kauai, you need to do it by helicopter.

Tour operators have figured this out. The island is abuzz with helicopters. The heliport at Lihue boasts no fewer than a dozen helipads, each occupied by a different tour operator. Conversely, there isn’t a single aircraft rental company on the entire island. Since I have a thousand or so hours of helicopter stick-time, I figured I could just rent a helicopter with an instructor, as one would a fixed-wing on the other islands. Unfortunately, I had no luck finding a helicopter on Kauai with dual controls – the redundant sets have all been removed to make way for more fare-paying passengers. I finally resigned myself to the fact that if I was going to fly Kauai, I’d have to do it like the rest of the tourists.

Of the dozen or so tour operators vying for my money, I picked Jack Harter Helicopters for two reasons. First, they are the originators of helicopter tours in Kauai, way back in 1962. Second, and most importantly for me, they were the only company who offered a 90-minute tour (in addition to the 60-minute tour that this and most other companies offer). For me, the more time in the air, the better.

The tour was, in a word, spectacular! We circled the island in a clockwise direction, first swooping past our cruise ship docked in Nawiliwili Harbor, then up the Hanapepe Valley for an up-close look at Manawaiopuna Falls. (Remember the scene in Jurassic Park where the helicopter hovers down the waterfall? Yep, this is the one.) We then flew down through the red-tinged Waimea Canyon, often called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, followed by an in-depth exploration of the deepest valleys of the Na Pali coast’s spectacular sea cliffs. After climbing to a respectful 1500 feet agl, we toured the North Shore beaches from Ke'e to Hanalei, before descending back into the beautiful Hanalei Valley to hover past more spectacular waterfalls. Our pilot then carefully picked his way under the clouds into the Mt. Waialeale Crater, an unworldly green box canyon with hundreds of waterfalls cascading down the 3000-foot cliffs. After successfully extracting us from the crater, the pilot made a brief pass past Wailua Falls (star of the Fantasy Island TV show’s opening sequence), before returning to Lihue for a smooth touchdown.

Throughout the tour, our superb pilot provided interesting narration, while effortlessly negotiating the rugged, unforgiving terrain that surrounded us. Comfort and visibility in the air-conditioned 2001 Eurocopter AS350B2 ASTAR was excellent, even for those of us relegated to the back seat. There were, however, only four of us aboard – I imagine it might be a bit cramped with all six passenger seats filled. The extra room on our flight was due to the tour operator’s weight restrictions. Passengers exceeding 400 pounds per couple, and/or 250 pounds per person must pay for an extra seat. Okay, I always knew there would be a consequence for my portliness. In this case, the price of corpulence lightened my wallet considerably: the 90-minute tour costs $249 per seat (with discounts available if you book online at, and the 60-minute tour retails for $189 per seat.

It was money well spent, with the scenery and experience exceeding my already high expectations. The only disappointment was that the tour came up short on time, lasting only 80 minutes, instead of the 90 to 95 minutes of “air-time” promised. No matter, I had still been able to venture deep into the forbidding misty canyons where the helicopter is king.

For a comprehensive list of Kauai’s helicopter tour operators, including phone numbers and links to their web sites, visit Jack Harter Helicopters may be reached at 888-245-2001, or at

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The material in this publication is for advisory information only and should not be relied upon for navigation, maintenance or flight techniques. SW Regional Publications and the staff neither assume any responsibility for the accuracy of this publication's content nor any liability arising fom it
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