Many of the most beautiful places on Kauai are inaccessible by car. For this reason, a helicopter tour is an unforgettable way to see this spectacular island.
The helicopter touring industry was started by an extraordinary pilot, Jack Harter, who had the vision more than 30 years ago of showing visitors the island’s hidden beauty by air. Jack became a legend for his extraordinary flying skill, mechanical savvy, and intimate knowledge and love of Kauai.
Following Jack, younger pilots like Will Squyres started companies on Kauai, piloting all the flights personally, and then, as their companies added aircraft and brought in and trained even younger pilots to fly them, the ‘owner piloted’ company became an economically unworkable business model. The Bell Jet Rangers, which accommodated 4 paying passengers, were gradually replaced by the larger, more economical ‘6 -pac’ ASTARs.
Beautiful as Kauai is from the air, however, the island’s mountainous terrain, occasionally turbulent winds, and rapidly changing cloud conditions can pose real challenges for the pilot. In a review of 8 weather-related accidents statewide since 1994, the National Transportation Safety Board found that half involved pilots relatively new to air tour operations in Hawaii. The reality is that a pilot with sufficient hours to be licensed may not have extensive experience on Kauai, where judgment calls are often crucial.
Helicopter Tours & Safety: Accidents on Kauai
In 2005, a Heli USA helicopter crashed during a ‘microburst’ or sudden wind and rainstorm in the waters off Ha’ena, killing 3 people. According to an NTSB report (3/5/2007), “the decision by the pilot to continue flight into adverse weather conditions” contributed to the accident. In 2004, a Bali Hai Helicopters pilot flying below the recommended SFAR minimum altitude made the decision “to continue flight into an area of turbulent, reduced visibility weather conditions” rather than deviate from his tour route, and crashed into a ridgeline; all 5 on board died (NTSB 2/13/2007). Both pilots had been flying on Kauai for only a few months.
NTSB recommends pilot training that specifically addresses local weather phenomena and in-flight decision-making, and also that the FAA increase surveillance of pilots to ensure compliance with minimum terrain clearance requirements. The Honolulu FAA recommended in August, 2006 that pilots not perform ‘non-flight’ duties such as operating videography, sound systems, or two-way intercoms which may distract attention from primary flight responsibilities.
Two more accidents took place in March, 2007, when four people died in a Heli USA crash at the Princeville Airport after the pilot reported hydraulic problems, according to Kauai Fire Chief Robert Westerman (as quoted in CBS/AP).
An Inter-Island Helicopter crashed near Ha‘ena a few days later, with one fatality.
Key questions to ask when you are interviewing companies:
FAA certification: Not all companies are certified under Part 135 of Federal Aviation Regulations, which requires a company to perform a more rigorous (thus more expensive) maintenance program than other certification categories, as well as annual flight tests of its pilots. This certificate must be displayed in the company’s office. Ask to see it. You also have a right to know whether the company, or your pilot, has been involved in accidents during the past three years. (You can check with NTSB at ntsb.gov). You should also ask if the company’s FAA certificate has ever been revoked or suspended, and whether it is currently under FAA investigation for accidents or maintenance deficiencies (as opposed to record-keeping violations). Since each helicopter must display its individual ‘certificate of airworthiness,’ look for it or ask to see it.
Pilot experience: How long has your pilot been flying over Kauai? Will you be told who your pilot will be? Don't be distracted by add-ons like on board videography when the real issue is safety and pilot experience.
Exact length of the tour. Actual in-flight time for the around-the-island tour should be no less than 60 minutes, or Kauai will appear to whiz past your window, limiting your opportunities to explore the more remote terrain inside the island’s perimeter, or to take satisfying photographs. Ask for the daily flight schedule, subtract 5 minutes for landing and changing passengers, and draw your own conclusions. In this area, in our opinion, economy is not always the best policy. Operating costs for helicopters are high; companies may try to speed up tours to squeeze as many into the day as possible. Cheaper tours will almost certainly be short, possibly too short, and the extra dollars you spend for a longer tour will be well worthwhile.
Aircraft and window configuration: Seating depends on balancing the passenger weight load. The air-conditioned, 6-passenger ASTAR seats 2 passengers next to the pilot in front and 4 passengers in the rear. For passengers in the center rear seats, the view can be obstructed by passengers seated next to the windows as well as those in front. The new oversized windows are essential. Since windows are sealed, wearing darker colored shirts will cause less reflection in the glass and give you better photographs.
The Hughes 500-D helicopter seats two passengers in the rear and two in front next to the pilot, with a narrow middle seat. Jack Harter Helicopters offers a ‘doors off’ option on its Hughes to put passengers even closer to the scenery. The FAA has no objection, but it’s not for everyone. Some will like the unique experience of being almost inside the landscape; and some, like photographers, will appreciate the absence of windshield glass for capturing the light and the vivid colors. Others may not enjoy being so close to the weather, when clouds, and the moisture they carry, can drift inside.
Cancellation policy in case of bad weather: When rain and clouds sock in the interior mountains, tours often simply go around the island’s perimeter, and you miss all that gorgeous interior scenery. Even in a rainstorm, we often see choppers flying. You will want a refund if can’t see very much – once you’re in the air. (Jack Harter Helicopters will cancel and try to reschedule your flight if visibility is below par.)
We consider helicopter tours a unique and special way to see Kauai. We wouldn’t go ourselves, or let our children fly, if we thought they were unsafe. But we make careful decisions about the pilots we fly with. We think you should do your homework carefully and have all pertinent information when making your choices as well.