The Kilauea Eruption on the Big Island has carved a path of destruction in Pahoa but business is booming for tour companies offering an up-close view of the lava flow.
Tour helicopters “hot load” passengers every 15-20 minutes at the north end of the Hilo International Airport runway. Hot load means boarding a helicopter with engines running. This one is a 4-passenger Hughes 500. Pilot Daniel Speller, originally from Bristol England, is at the controls.
“Welcome aboard. We’re gonna go and check out the activity caused by Kilauea Volcano today and everything that’s happening in the Leilani area, that is where Fissure 8 is and then the river of lava all the way down to the ocean at Kapoho. Be aware that we fly at about 13o miles an hour top speed as we fly over the island.”
Non-emergency aircraft are restricted from flying below 3-thousand feet but it’s a sunny day with clear visibility for the 12-minute flight to the Leilani Estates eruption site. Flying in a helicopter with no doors lets you feel the heat from the 2,000 degree lava below.
“So down low on the left-hand side of course is Fissure 8. The density of houses you can see around the edge of Fissure 8 would have been exactly the same as we now see the black rock scarring the surface.”
We continue our flight over the 8-mile long flow past the Puna Geothermal Venture site which has been spared so far. And then over Kapoho Crater or Green Mountain, once home to the largest fresh water lake in the state, now completely evaporated. Ahead of us, what was once Kapoho Bay, with a patch of green to our left with a few abandoned houses and the lava’s ocean entry to our right.
“It’s really sad. This was a beautiful snorkeling spot. It was all lush and green and peaceful and now it’s gonna take maybe a century or more for it to kinda grow back. But, of course, there’s some new tide pools and a few black sand beaches that seem to be forming down there.”
The lava extends about a mile beyond what was once Kapoho Bay, with ocean sediment from the lava visible from the air.
The price for a helicopter tour is $270-to-$325 dollars for a 45-minute ride. That includes a flyover of the Wailuku River north of Hilo and a short flight back to the Hilo International Airport.
“Alright we’re down safe and sound.”
Joe and Kimberly Hart from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania were on the flight -- their first in a helicopter -- to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary.
“It surprised me to see the black sand beaches forming already in the new lava flow. And to see the Fissure 8 geyser was just breathtaking.”
In my next report, a view of the Kilauea lava flow from the ocean entry point. Wayne Yoshioka, HPR News.