October 12th, 2014
Total Hours: 83.5
On Monday we circumnavigated the Big Island. It was a very satisfying experience. The trip was for the requirements of the commercial certificate, which calls for one daytime and one nighttime cross-country to a place at least 50nm straight-line distance from the starting point. And as luck would have it Hilo, on the east side of the island, is 53nm away. This makes it a convenient place to split the day and night portions of an around the island trip. Another student at the school is at the same point as me in his training so we planned the trip with two helicopters, two students, and two instructors. We left in the afternoon and flew to Hilo, spent a few hours there, and then completed our circuit around the island.
The flight was special to me for a number of reasons. Primarily it was simply fun, which is a luxury during training. After all, people who learn to fly generally don’t fantasize about flying patterns around the airport. They imagine using an aircraft to go somewhere and to do something, even if that something is simply visiting another airport for lunch. In the fixed-wing world they joke about the $100 hamburger. (It’s not a joke!) Our flight to Hilo was along these lines, just getting out and about, exploring and seeing a new place. But an unexpected highlight was flying near the active Pu’u O’o vent and getting my first glimpse of Hawaiian lava!
The opportunity to practice the planning skills I’ve been learning also lead to my feeling of satisfaction about the trip. Looking at the charts, estimating the legs, studying the weather, each of these parts of planning cross-country trips are exciting for me. I met the other student in the morning and we did the cross-country planning together, which added to the experience, as most of my work has been solitary. We planned our flight and even talked over some options in case the weather didn’t cooperate. Our plan was to head north around the island past Upolu and then explore the valleys on the east side of the Kohala Mountains. From there we would continue south along the coast to Hilo, stop to refuel and have dinner, and then if luck was on our side we would continue south along the coast all the way around the island back to Kona.
Flying at night is an interesting experience because of the way it changes our outside references. Because we need these outside references when we fly the R22 we can’t fly in total darkness. And because much of Big Island is undeveloped it would be almost pitch-black without enough moonlight. So we need both a big moon and a relatively clear night for a safe flight around the dark southern side of the island. Of course the southern coast is often cloudy and the weather forecast didn’t look perfect, but we hoped for the best. We could always head back north if necessary.
After leaving Kona we saw plenty of clouds around the Kohala region. Nonetheless we enjoyed an uneventful flight to Upolu and made an approach and landing at the airport just for fun. Then we followed the coast to the valleys. It was a busy afternoon with many tour flights coming and going in the area. This was a new experience for me and I felt both busy and awkward on the radio as I tried my best to make position reports and pay attention to everything that was going on around us. We were able to fly into one of the smaller valleys but when we tried Waimanu we were turned around by rain. Since the weather wasn’t cooperating we cut short the valleys portion of our flight and continued south into what looked like more rain.
We didn’t want to arrive too early in Hilo because that would mean a lot more sitting around waiting for night. The other instructor was a little more familiar with the Hilo area and had been to some of the volcanic vents nearby so after a transition over the Hilo airport we followed them to the south. Pu’u O’o is a vent on Kiluea Volcano and is the main source of action on the Big Island these days. In fact it currently has a stream of lava that is threatening the town of Pahoa, although what will actually happen there is anyone’s guess due to the unpredictability of lava flows. As we flew toward Pu’u O’o we could see and smell the smoke from the flow that has trickled through the trees toward Pahoa. In the distance we could see the fuming cone that is its source.
I had no idea what to expect. I’ve been lucky enough to be around a number of active volcanoes over the years but I’ve never seen liquid lava. I knew that we might fly by and see nothing but steam. But as we approached we glimpsed a spot of orange. A little lava lake! At first I thought a bright spot of orange might be all we would see but suddenly there was a spurt of gooey lava. As we passed over we could see the cauldron bubbling like a witch’s brew. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. One I’ve wanted to see for some time. Well, one look simply wasn’t enough! We made several passes over the cone for another look. Too quickly it was time to head back to Hilo for fuel but seeing that lava left a lasting thrill in my heart.
In Hilo we got our fuel and tied down the helicopters. Five minutes walk from the airport is a nice little diner and I enjoyed a $1000 meatball sandwich. Dang helicopters are expensive. The food was good, maybe not a thousand dollars good, but still satisfying. Or maybe I was still just buzzing from the look into Pu’u O’o! During dinner we discussed the weather and if we should continue south or head back north. The weather hadn’t been very good around the north side of the island anyway and we had been encouraged about the clouds to the south during our exploration around Pu’u O’o so we decided to go for it. And the flight around the south couldn’t have been any more beautiful or enjoyable. We had ample moonlight and I easily picked out many landmarks along the way. My girlfriend and I had just travelled the route a little over a month before and I enjoyed searching for the spots we had stopped along the way. After about six and a half hours total, 4.4 in the cramped R22 cockpit, we returned to Kona with our backs aching. My flight around the Big Island would remain a happy memory as I plunged into my work for the rest of the week.