John Corboy is one of a small group of pilots who live on Moloka‘i but commute regularly to O‘ahu. For Corboy, living on Moloka‘i allows him to have more space and privacy than he could in Honolulu. It’s a lifestyle made possible by the helicopter.
“On Monday, I fly over to Honolulu and get my work done,” he says of his usual routine. “Then, on Thursday, I fly back. Usually, I carry groceries and supplies back with me. We can’t always get good fresh vegetables on Moloka‘i. My wife hates the city. She says, ‘You go ahead and get that out of your system and I’ll wait here for you.’ She can do whatever it is she does while I’m gone—garden in the nude or whatever. Then, when I come back with groceries and flowers, she’s always glad to see me.”
There are few official controls on the movement of helicopters. One regulation requires them to stay 500 feet above densely populated areas. But all pilots know that real regulation is done “by complaint.” Corboy normally only flies in and out of his Moloka‘i home just twice a week. “Once,” he said, “I checked with the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] to see at what point they investigate. They asked me how many events I had—meaning take-offs and landings. I told them ‘about eight.’ They said, ‘We wouldn’t bother to look into eight events a day.’ And I told them, ‘No, eight a month.’”
Corboy was eager to show me the advantages of commuting by helicopter; so, one Thursday afternoon before his usual trip back to Moloka‘i, I met him down at the airport. Like most private pilots here, Corboy flies an R-44 Clipper, which he leases rather than owning outright. When I arrived, he was loading it with groceries and a garden hose. He wore blue athletic shorts and an old aloha shirt with tattered boat shoes and support hose. Like Pitre, Corboy also wore his hair in a ponytail. He was the picture of informality.
While he figured out how to fit all his supplies into the back seats, I looked around. This was helicopter central for Honolulu. All the tour birds are parked in rows here. TV’s Channel 8’s traffic helicopter shuttles through between flights. Pacific Helicopter’s Honolulu offices are here, too, and Joe Allen’s little red MD-500 is often parked by their hangar. The Honolulu Police and the Fire departments keep their birds in hangars around the corner. And, far in the back, four little R-22s are lined up in front of Mauna Loa’s pilot training school. There’s a steady stream of student pilots ferrying between the hangars.
Finally, Corboy finished loading and going through his checklists. Once we were strapped in, he revved the engine and we flew away over Honolulu Harbor. It was a peculiar view of the harbor, flying slowly through at crane height. Once, we had to veer aside to avoid a Matson container ship backing into its berth. Up ahead, we passed the Kaiwo Maru—a Japanese tall ship—tied alongside at the wharf. Then, dead ahead of us, loomed the Queen Mary II—the world’s largest ocean liner—twenty stories tall. We coasted past, eye-level with the bridge.
We crossed the Moloka‘i Channel at 130 knots, and only 500 feet off the water. In the distance, I thought I saw whales, but Corboy made straight for the coast. Once we reached Moloka‘i, he called his wife on the radio to let her know we were coming. We followed the south shore over the fishponds and the mud flats. We flew over old plantations and craggy gorges. Then, up ahead, we saw the blue-tiled roof of Corboy’s home, sidled up to the edge of a deep ravine. His heliport was right next door.
Although the estate wasn’t ostentatious, it still felt a little like Oz approaching this way. Corboy eased the collective and gently tweaked the cyclic as we glided in over the trees. “That’s the beauty of a helicopter,” Corboy said as we touched down. “This is the magic carpet that makes it possible.” The trip took thirty minutes from door to door.
I didn’t stay. Friends and family quickly unloaded the chopper so Corboy could take me on the quick hop back to the Moloka‘i Airport. But Corboy had one more surprise before dropping me off. Instead of heading straight back to the airport, he veered again out to sea. And there, just south of Moloka‘i, we chanced upon a pod of whales making their way languorously east. We admired them from a respectful distance. “Sometimes,” Corboy said, “they’ll kind of roll over on their side—so they can look at you—and slowly wave their flipper at you.”
Corboy dropped me in a grassy field beside the drowsy terminal at the Moloka‘i Airport. He didn’t shut down, so we shook hands as best we could, then I waited by the fence for him to leave. I watched as he waved once, pulled up on the collective, and rose into the air, like Sinbad on his magic carpet. Then he did a pedal turn,
and sailed toward home. HH