story by Dennis Hollier
photos by Sergio Goes
The skies of Hawai‘i teem with helicopters. Behind my home in Windward O‘ahu, I can hear the tour birds thrum in the mountains, looking for waterfalls in the hanging valleys. Over Kane‘ohe Bay and along the North Shore, the big military choppers thump-thump-thump up the coast on their mysterious errands. And anyone who spends time in the surf zones of O‘ahu has heard the whine of the Coast Guard helicopters on patrol.
In fact, helicopters are so common here they seem to blend into the background. Until recently, I hardly noticed them. Then, last September, while working on a story about Hawai‘i’s endangered plants, I teamed up with a couple of state Department of Land and Natural Resources biologists and hopped a ride to the top of the Ko‘olau Mountains in a little red Pacific Helicopters chopper. It was a dazzling flight, and one that opened up a whole new perspective for me. Since then, I see helicopters everywhere.
That day, Joe Allen was waiting for us in a small clearing on the ridge at the top of Waimano Home Road in ‘Aiea. His helicopter gleamed in the sun. It was a windy day, and the biologists were worried about conditions in the mountains. At the time, I had no idea that Allen’s MD-500 was something of a hot-rod, or that he was an unusually talented pilot. Later, the biologists would tell me that Allen was the only pilot who would fly for them in those conditions—and the only one they trusted. But his helicopter didn’t evoke much confidence: It was just a small four-seater with no doors. And Allen was a soft-voiced man who joked easily with the biologists, but didn’t show outward signs of his years of experience.
After taking a moment to explain the safety procedures to me (stay low and in front of the helicopter so the pilot can see you; avoid the tail-rotor) we all strapped in and Allen fired up the engines. Then he slowly wound up the RPMs and we rose out of the clearing, hovered for a moment, then turned toward the mountains and floated away.
Our destination was a ridge-top at the back of Halawa Valley, and we sped there over the densely forested Ko‘olau Watershed. Below us, I watched the succession of green ridges and valleys. I saw the long, snaking trail that climbs Waimano Ridge. I saw the streams twinkle in their dells. And, level with the inaccessible hanging valleys, I saw the profusion of plants known nowhere else in the world.
A helicopter flies in an in-between world. Higher than the treetops or the buildings or the mountains, yet lower and more intimate than an airplane. Even hovering a few feet off the ground is a novel view. Flying in the mountains, I felt simultaneously above and below and among them. I felt giddy, like I was flying for the first time.
We flew on a diagonal course, climbing steadily over the leeward ridges toward the Ko‘olau crest. On foot, the long climb up these ridges ends with a spectacular view of the windward side. The sheer cliffs of the Pali bring you up short and take away your breath. In a helicopter, the effect is magnified. Instead of creeping up to the edge and pausing, Joe launched the helicopter right over it into the vast, empty space beyond. Then he veered west and hurtled along the vertiginous crest toward our destination.
Up on the Pali, the wind blew fiercely. When we arrived at the biologists’ worksite—several small clearings surrounding a high promontory—it became clear we wouldn’t be able to land there; we bounced too much in the wind to set the helicopter down safely. After several passes, Allen decided to drop us where the wind was calmer, a couple hundred yards down a ridge. We plummeted there in a down draft, but Allen wheeled around into the wind at the last moment, ]settling the helicopter onto a clearing on a ridge not much wider than the skids. Climbing out, I was glad for the little metal footsteps. We scurried forward and waited there in front of the helicopter as Allen carefully lifted off, peeled away and flew out of sight down the mountain.