To helicopter, or not to helicopter?
That is the question that has confronted visitors like us who hope to see some of the most beautiful spots on earth. But being environmentally conscious, we realize that the amount of fuel and pollution involved can make it a highly impactful (not to mention expensive) way to tour an area. But sometimes you're overcome with an incredible urge to see the amazing and incredible and in the case of waterfalls, such things (especially in Hawai'i) are only accessible by air. So this poses a most interesting dilemma for the visitor. It also evokes mixed reactions amongst locals who have to put up with them. A pure-blood Hawaiian local in Kaua'i summed it up best when he said to us, "They're a two-edged sword. You hate 'em when you're on the ground. But you love 'em when you're in the air."
In this feature article, we'll look into this issue more in depth as well as what one should expect when helicopter touring. Among the topics we'll cover are...
ACCESSIBILITY: ATTRACTIONS YOU OTHERWISE COULDN'T SEEThis is perhaps the most compelling reason to take a helicopter tour. In the case of waterfalling (especially in places like Hawaii), most of the tallest and most beautiful waterfalls are only accessible by air. In our experience, we have seen places like Jim Jim Falls and Mitchell Falls in Australia when neither 4wd tours were accessible nor appealing. We also saw some of Hawaii's greatest waterfalls in Honokohau Falls, Manawaiopuna Falls (or Jurassic Falls), and even Sacred Falls - all of which are not accessible to the public.
In Australia's Mitchell Falls, the helicopter allowed an elderly woman access to the top of the very remote waterfall. There was no way she could've ever hoped to see the falls any other way (even if she could endure a two-day each way bumpy 4wd ride with a tough day hike with class 4 obstacles).
Moreover, we also flew to see Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls in Australia because access was closed due to a late season Cyclone that kept estuarine crocodiles in the area while keeping the 4wd roads flooded, muddy, and hence impassable.
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| Jim Jim Falls in Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory Australia as seen from the air || Mitchell Falls in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia as seen from the air |
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| Twin Falls near Jim Jim Falls in the Northern Territory Australia as seen from the air || Double Falls by the Death Adder Valley in the Northern Territory Australia as seen from the air |
In Hawaii, this is a real issue as the island's best waterfalls are on private land or reside deep enough in rugged terrain that no normal visitor would even consider going bushwhacking to get to. And to the delight of the helicopter companies, it's a real motivating factor for tourists to part with their hard-earned money to blow it off on a flight lasting typically an hour - often with mixed results.
Speaking of which, this accessibility comes at a steep price. You'll typically pay upwards of $200 per person depending on the tour company you choose. It's really up to you whether you find the price justified or not for the aerial views you'll get of some of the most beautiful spots on earth.
Below is a collection of some of the waterfalls we've witnessed that are exclusively via helicopter. And as you can see, it's hard to ignore the beauty and forego one of these tours - especially if you like nature.
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| Honokohau Falls in an inaccessible valley of West Maui || Papalaua Falls on the rugged North Shore of Molokai |
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| Manawaiopuna Falls on the Robinson Property in Kauai || Wai'alae Falls as seen from the air deep in Waimea Canyon, Kauai |
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| Kahili Falls or the Five Sisters Falls deep in the mountains of Kauai || Sacred Falls as seen from the air over Oahu |
EXPERIENCES: WHAT YOU CAN EXPECT WHILE TOURING VIA HELICOPTERWhile helicopter touring yields sights that few people get to experience, you may or may not get what you're paying for. In this mini-section, we'll address our own experiences with helicopter tours so that you may be better informed whether or not you should go one of these yourselves.
So far, we've been on helicopter tours for West Maui/Molokai, Twin Falls and Jim Jim Falls in Northern Territory Australia, Mitchell Falls in Western Australia, Kauai, and Oahu. And with each of these experiences, we've gotten a mixed bag of disappointments, exuberance, and lots of emotions in between. So here's some things to look out for when you're considering a chopper tour.
Helicopter Types: So far we've ridden on two types of helicopters - the four passenger Hughes 500 helicopters and the six passenger A-star helicopters. The A-star choppers seem to be more prevalent in Hawaii as helicopter tours in each of their islands are quite common.
We'd have to say that between the two helicopter types, we prefer the Hughes 500 ones. That's because you're guaranteed a window seat. I've had the misfortune of sitting in one of the rear middle seats on an A-star and it sucks. Your photos will usually contain the helicopter frame and someone else's body parts and you'll really feel ripped off (at least as far as I was concerned).
Your view of Sacred Falls if you happen to be sitting on the wrong side of the helicopter.
There is also a third type of chopper called the Bell Jet Ranger. We haven't ridden on any of these (yet), but it has a four passenger arrangement with one in front (with the pilot) and three in back. Obviously the back middle seat would suck. But the nice thing about this chopper is that if you get one of the window seats, there's a small window to open for photography.
Unfortunately, avoiding the worst seats in a helicopter is not as avoidable as it sounds. That's because they usually allocate seating arrangements by weight so it all depends on how much your fellow passengers weigh in relation to yourself. This is purely random since you usually have no way of predicting who will be riding along with you before you pay for the tour.
There is also a higher likelihood of airsickness when there are more people crammed into the chopper - especially when the doors are on.
So why are A-stars so prevalent (at least in Hawai'i)?
That's because helicopter operators can fit more passengers per tour than with a Hughes or Bell. As a result, they can make more money per tour and it's a big reason why the cost of riding a Hughes or Bell is considerably higher than an A-star.
So this is the trade that you must consider when it comes to helicopter types and you choice of tours is pretty much the only thing you can really control (after all, you hold the ultimate vote when you choose where to spend your money).
Helicopter Doors - On or Off?: Depending on the type of tours offered by the helicopter company and the discretion of the pilot and/or fellow passengers, you may be able to fly with the doors off.
This may sound scary if you're scared of heights or you're worried about falling off the chopper. However, I'd say you really only have to worry about losing loose objects if they're not properly stowed in zipper pockets or they're not left in the office before takeoff. With the safety belts on and a pilot who won't do some crazy maneuver while in the air, you really shouldn't have to worry about falling out.
Now the big benefit of having the doors off is for photography. That's because you won't have to worry about having that annoying window glare or reflections in your photos.
When the windows are on, you'll probably have to live with some of those annoying artifacts in your photos since you really have no control over it.
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| The sea cliffs of Molokai with glare through the side window clearly visible on the water || Na Pali Coast with glare through the front window |
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| Fluted cliffs of the Na Pali Coast as seen through the open doors || Looking down the valley opening as we leave the Wai'ale'ale Crater through the open window |
Here are a few last things to remember about flying with the doors off. First of all, you'll probably want to wear a windbreaker because it does get quite windy. Second, you wouldn't want to stick your arms outside the chopper because you might also get pulled out of the helicopter. Finally, if you get airsick, don't throw up outside the doors because all that's gonna happen is that the vomit will fly back up into the chopper. Use the airsick bags provided in flight if you feel the onset of airsickness (this applies whether the doors are on or off).
Most tours that offer the option of having the doors off do so at an additional cost. There is one (like Inter-Island Helicopter in Kaua'i) that always leave the doors off unless you want them on. In one case, we got a free "upgrade" at Paradise Helicopter in O'ahu because the pilot preferred to have the doors off and the fellow passengers had no problems with it.
Helicopter Pilot: This is perhaps the one driving factor as to whether you get your money's worth (and possibly more) or you get buyers remorse.
With a good helicopter pilot, it will matter less what seat assignment you get because he'll go through the trouble to orient the chopper to ensure you get your shots. He might also make sure the ride is smooth so you're less likely to be airsick. Moreover, he might also go above and beyond some of the cookie-cutter sights that he must show the paying passengers. All of this applies whether the type of helicopter you're on and whether the doors are on or off.
In one of the more memorable experiences, I did a comped helicopter tour with Inter-Island Helicopters in Kaua'i (because a previous tour missed a major sight and they were gracious enough to let me go back on a second time). But more importantly, the pilot on the second tour let me get great photos even though I sat on the left rear seat while he was flying around Kaua'i clockwise. He also landed on the Alaka'i Swamp near the top of Mt Wai'ale'ale as well as some interesting spot near the other side of the Secret Tunnels.
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| Hovering over Waimea Canyon in Kaua'i || The pilot flew over some humpbacked whales at a passenger's request |
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| View of the Wai'ale'ale Crater || Closeup of the Weeping Wall in the Wai'ale'ale Crater |
With the company Air Kaua'i, even though they fly A-stars, the pilot added to the experience with a synchronous mix of headphone music coordinated with the sites he flew over. He also enhanced the experience further with his fluency in Hawaiian so it really felt like we were learning something and the pilot wanted to make sure we got something more than just a laundry list of sights. He might have made things more tolerable for the two guys sitting in the back middle seats, but I had the fortunate of sitting in the front seat as my wife and I had the lightest cumulative weight amongst the three couples (so even with a good pilot, seating arrangement probably trumps this factor).
A nice view of the Na Pali Coast while sitting in the front seat of an A-star.
With a bad helicopter pilot, you can expect the opposite of the above.
For example, I did a helicopter ride with Paradise Helicopters in O'ahu and despite the doors being off in the Hughes 500, I sat on a seat opposite what the direction the pilot consistently turned so I rarely got to see anything besides the legs and head of the guy sitting next to me. When we got to Sacred Falls, the pilot did let me see the falls from my side of the door, but he had the chopper tilted the wrong way so I had to deal with the helicopter foot in my photos of the waterfall. We spent most of the 60 minutes flying over parts of O'ahu you could see by car and he didn't spend any time in the Ko'olau Mountains (except for Sacred Falls). He even wasted some time landing at the Honolulu Airport and who knows why he did that? Needless to say, I felt like I totally wasted the $220 and most of the flight felt like a waste of time and fuel up until we got to Sacred Falls.
Final Thoughts: So these are some of the things you should consider about flying on a helicopter. Unfortunately, many of these factors are not controllable (such as the helicopter pilot or the weight of your fellow passengers). Also the weather (especially in Kaua'i) might move you to tears or leave you thinking you had a ho hum experience. Nonetheless, it pays to be informed so you maximize your chances of getting your money's worth.
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THE NEGATIVE FACTORS: WHAT'S BAD ABOUT HELICOPTERING?I really didn't appreciate how annoyed locals can be with helicopters until a recent trip to Kaua'i as well as to Moloka'i. To give you an idea of how bad the noise is, you pretty much need to wear the noise-cancelling head phones or else you may risk losing your hearing from the deafening sounds of the high frequency ringing of the engine and rotors. Imagine that sound traveling unobstructed from the air right down into peoples' homes or in public parks and you get a feeling for why people on the ground aren't crazy about helicopters.
In Kaua'i, helicopters have been derisively referred to by the locals as the "Kaua'i Mosquitoes" becuase they're just as annoying as the blood-sucking insects leaving the hard-to-ignore itchy welts. Since choppers are one of the best ways to see Kaua'i, residents probably have to deal with the sound of these crafts flying overhead at least a half dozen or more times a day.
On a recent hiking tour to Moloka'i, the tour guide told us he and his family have to deal with the noise about eight times a day. This breaks up the peace and quiet of the Halawa Valley (not to mention disturbing cultural hikes they lead). As we had witnessed, many of them violate the 500ft buffer height requirement so the air disturbance may also pry loose some rocks or induce landslides from the crumbly lava cliffs - especially near the waterfalls.
Looking down at Moa'ula Falls in the Halawa Valley of Moloka'i.
In addition to the noise pollution and air disturbance, helicopters also tend to consume lots of toxic fuel and therefore emit lots of polluting exhaust. Thus, it's a rather impactful way of touring and it goes against the principles of seeing natural attractions while trying to preserve them with minimal impact visitation.
To give you an idea of how much fuel a chopper consumes, the following table compares the Hughes 500D, a similar model to the A-star (I couldn't find a direct stat for that one), and a Bell Jetranger.
Helicopter Fuel Consumption Summary
| Helicopter Type || Loading || Fuel Consumtion |
| Hughes 500D || 4 passengers + 1 pilot || 128L/hr (33.8gal/hr) |
| AS335 F-1 Twinstar (A-star substitute) || 6 passengers + 1 pilot || 228L/hr (60.2gal/hr) |
| Bell Jetranger || 4 passengers + 1 pilot || 114L/hr (30.1gal/hr) |
Note: The data I'm stating here was taken directly from here
Note: Generally the heavier the load, the more fuel (energy) is required to carry that load.
When you compare those numbers to an automobile (lets assume a load of 4 people per vehicle - i.e. an average American household sitting in a car), you get the following table...
Automobile Fuel Consumption Summary
| Car by Country || Fuel Efficiency || Fuel Consumtion |
| Average European Car || 40mpg (5.9L/100km) || 1.63gal/hr |
| Average Japanese Car || 45mpg (5.2L/100km) || 1.44gal/hr |
| Average North American Car || 20.4mpg (11.5L/100km) || 3.19gal/hr |
Note: The data I'm stating was taken directly from here
Note: Fuel Consumption metric based on assumption that you drive on average of 65mph (speed limit in most highways in the US). Of course this efficiency is far worse in traffic and you'll be driving a car for longer than an hour to cover the same distance that a helicopter would, but we'll keep the assumption simple for illustration purposes.
So you can see that helicopters certainly make a gas guzzling SUV, pickup truck, or Hummer seem like a drop in the bucket. Given how much the American cars really impact the air and the land (and contribute to Global Warming), you can imagine how bad helicopters are for the environment.
A few more things to note about Helicopter tour companies. We've been lied to about what you'll be seeing on a tour so that they can get your money and commit to them. For example, salesperson at Air Maui claimed that Honokohau Falls was the same thing as the Wall of Tears at the head of 'Iao Valley - that's BS.
There are also concerns about safety. You certainly don't want to be in the chopper if it crashes. Unfortunately, this has happened in the past and you'll have to dig and inquire through the FAA if you're really concerned about this. We haven't gone through these measures and fortunately I'm still here to write this article (hoping I didn't jinx myself by just saying that).
One final thing to note about helicopters (to be fair to them)... They are generally used for...
- fighting fires
- search and rescue
- anti-crime measures
- military operations
Tourism is usually low on the priority list when it comes to their use.
Waterfalls coming down into a lush area off the beaten path of Kauai's mountains.
Given all these factors, sometimes I think the high price of helicopter tours are justified. I say this not only because they're expensive to operate, but also because they're bad for the environment. In an ideal world, the increased cost would go towards some kind of measure to "clean up the mess" so-to-speak (though this is never the case these days). But ultimately the decision is up to the customer what they want to do with their money (guilt-ridden or not).
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TO HELICOPTER, OR NOT TO HELICOPTER?Given all the data I've supplied in this feature article (and this just scratches the surface about what can be written about this topic), the question remains. Should you helicopter or should you forego helicoptering.
Would you spend hundreds of dollars for a view of the Na Pali Coast such as this?
The answer to that question ultimately comes down to your conscience and your sense of value. Do you feel you're going to get your money's worth? Unfortunately, you can't make that determination (at least accurately) unless you give helicopters at least one chance.
But it's clear that helicopters can't be a sustained means of tourism (or transportation in general). Certainly there is room for improvement in terms of making them more fuel efficient, but the practical solution would be their limited use. Of course with that measure, you'll be missing out on some of the most memorable sights you'll be remembering for the rest of your life.
To close off this discussion, I've basically thrown out lots of information and considerations. I can't tell people what to do and so the question still remains. To helicopter, or not to helicopter?
I'll leave it up to you...
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