Hawai’i: Flying over a volcano feet first
While visiting Hawaii recently, I became aware of a phrase I’d never heard before. And it’s a real cracker. In the technical vernacular of the seasoned helicopter pilot, a ‘doors-off’ flight isn’t some vanilla compromise where a helicopter’s doors might actually still be somehow attached after take-off but are maybe left open or placed somewhere out of the way. ‘Doors-off’ means what it says. They are taken off, physically removed prior to the flight, not present to be called upon should a passenger at some point decide to totally freak out.
On a recent flight to see Kilauea volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island, the youngest and most active of all Hawaii’s volcanos, I experienced it firsthand, and once the Paradise Helicopters chopper took off, there was nothing except a substantial downdraft between me and potential oblivion. And to think I paid extra for this privilege.
Thoughts of oblivion were no match for the cascading layers of sensory overload I was about to experience. Flying over the extraordinarily visceral landscape that Kilauea (a Hawaiian word meaning “spewing”) has been patiently building over the past 275,000 years inspires only wonder. And what’s more, it doesn’t rest on its laurels. Erupting constantly since 1983, it has been in a state of “dual eruptions” since 2007, both from the lava lake at its summit and also from the Pu’u O’o vent on its East Rift Zone.
The flow from Pu’u O’o takes a southeast line, largely unseen through subterranean lava tubes, and re-emerges to enter the ocean in what vulcanologists call a “fire hose” – a cylindrical river of molten lava – that tumbles over a cliff fall directly into the Pacific Ocean on the island’s southern coastline at Kamokuna. Until recently the fire hose was only a sporadic event, its flow interrupted by the sea cliff the lava itself has been so assiduously creating.
But all that changed on 31 December, 2016 when 10.5 hectares of accumulated sea cliff and lava delta collapsed without warning into the ocean. In just minutes, the only impediment to the Pu’u O’o lava flow as it made its molten journey to the southern edge of Hawaii’s largest island was spectacularly removed. Now there is nothing on or below the water line to hinder this mesmerising window onto our Earth’s hidden mantle.
And there won’t be a hindrance either, at least until sufficient amounts of solidified lava begins to accumulate into a new delta. And the size of the breakaway seems to have been so great that the sea beneath the outfall is deep enough to guarantee it continues for some time yet. Just how long, no one knows. But meanwhile, it’s an ongoing event that has everyone very excited. Especially the pilots.
Perched over the door rails of a helicopter as it suddenly banks sharply to your side because someone squeals they’ve spotted a lava trail is more thrilling than any thrill ride. New vistas appear, the whole world revolves before you. Horizons vanish. I wanted to say “Tighter, bank tighter!” I swear, I was pointing my Canon 6D almost straight down at the planet in an almost vertical line past my feet, with either the ocean or the seismic beauty of Kilauea with its palette of mineralised shapes and colours engorging the viewfinder. It was so spectacular that the fact that there was nothing between me and that lava apart from a seat belt did not even register.
There are three ways you can see this primordial land-building event for yourself. You can take boat tours that sometimes battle heaving seas but do their best to give guests up-close views even though there are often thick blankets of steam, the result of a constant series of pulsating littoral explosions. You can rent a bicycle and make your way seven kilometres along a gravel road from the Kalapana side of the event to a small promontory a couple of hundred metres to the east of the outflow, pedalling through a lava-filled landscape itself the result of a previous eruption. Or you can fly.
Each approach has its advantages. Cycling 30 minutes to the promontory at Kamokuna is by far the cheaper option (bicycle rental US$20; helicopter US$299; boat from US$180) and best done just prior to sunset so you can stay and see the luminous lava after dark. But you’ll have to contend with being a hundred metres or more further away than you’d like behind a roped-off perimeter thanks to the presence of sulphur dioxide and hydrochloric acid in the steam, not to mention the (all-but negligible) possibility of being hit by flying debris or coming into contact with minute volcanic particles.
Unfortunately, even possessing a reasonably sized zoom lens failed to overcome having to stay at this safe prescribed distance – the fire hose and other smaller outfalls around it were never more than slivers of fluorescent red. A boat will get you the closest – around 50 metres or closer depending on conditions. But heaving seas can, and do, rise up along this coastline and tours can be cancelled with little warning.
Flying over it all does get you closer than renting a bike (minimum flying height over the volcano is 152 metres, distance of the roped-off promontory 275 metres), and it also provides one crucial ingredient that the others lack – context. Seeing Kilauea from above allows you to marvel at the myriad volcanic textures and features. Its entire Eastern Rift Zone is laid out before you: fissures, pit craters, cinder cones, lava fields, solidified lava tubes, and of course the real treat – those tantalising views of flowing lava on its inexorable, inevitable journey to extinction in the waters of the Pacific.
Prior to lifting off the tarmac at Hilo International Airport in my door-less flying machine, you’d never seen so zealous a promoter of seatbelt safety. (Did you know a strip of 48 millimetre-wide polyester webbing has a tensile strength of three metric tonnes?)
By the time we returned to Hilo 45 minutes later, the Hughes 500 was a part of me. I trusted it and the instincts of its pilot implicitly. Flying ‘doors off’ seemed all of a sudden natural, obvious, de rigueur. If I’d only had Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries on my playlist . . . .
Now, regarding the fire hose, don’t be complacent. It’s guaranteed to come to an end when enough of a new lava delta is eventually built up. Reason enough to take a fresh look at your calendars. And whether it’s a helicopter, a boat, or a bicycle isn’t anywhere near as important as simply getting there.
Even after 275,000 years, geologic time is still of the essence. •
Photography by Bruce Omori and Unsplash.
Hawaiian Airlines flies to Honolulu with frequent connections to the Big Island. hawaiianairlines.com
Where to stay
The Four Seasons Hualalai is the Big Island’s finest resort. fourseasons.com
If you need to stay in Waikiki, choose the Hyatt Regency or Outrigger. waikiki.regency.hyatt.com; outrigger.com
What to do:
Paradise Helicopters offers a multitude of flight options. paradisecopters.com
Hawaii Tourism Oceania: gohawaii.com/au