I've taken helicopter tours on all of the major Hawaiian Islands and even taken a flight over the island of Moloka'i. Each island is so different and you really can appreciate that difference from the air. Most of Kauai can only be seen from the air and a helicopter provides the best views of Waimea Canyon, the Na Pali Coast and Mount Wai'ale'ale. A flight over the Island of Hawaii, the Big Island, offers a once in a lifetime chance to fly over active lava flows. On Maui, a flight over Haleakala makes you dream that you're actually flying over the surface of the moon.
I took a helicopter tour on Oahu several years ago. It departed from Turtle Bay on the North Shore and provided great views of the world famous North Shore beaches and the eastern shore of the island, but I've always longed to fly over the southern part of Oahu, over Honolulu, Waikiki, and Pearl Harbor.
Early in 2012, I was invited by P.J. O'Reilly of Makani Kai Helicopters to take a flight with them from Honolulu International Airport. When I was planning a visit for February, I made it a point to contact P.J. and arrange for a tour.
Some General Thoughts on Helicopter Tours
Before I continue, let me share a couple of thoughts on tour selection and helicopter tours in general. I always suggest that if you decide to take a helicopter tour, take the longest tour that is offered. Every company has a tour that they identify as their best tour. Cost wise it's more economical. A 60-minute flight does not cost twice the amount of a 30-minute flight and you'll see a lot more.
Also, the weather in Hawaii is always changeable. Companies will not fly in bad weather and most will not fly if the weather is such that they don't think you'll enjoy the flight. That being said, it's not unusual to encounter a period of rain during your flight, especially over the mountains and depending on the activity of the volcano on Hawaii Island, it can be hazy for days at a time. In Hawaii it's called VOG (volcanic smog).
Free Transportation From Waikiki
One of my favorite things about Makani Kai Helicopters is that they offer free transportation to and from your hotel in Waikiki. Any visitor who has had to battle traffic between the airport and Waikiki will understand how great a stress reliever this service is!
Right on time, the company mini-bus arrived and the driver, Val Kalaoa, Sr. introduced himself. Val is the perfect guy to do this job, which he clearly loves. He is warm, friendly and talkative. Val's background is amazing. He's a former high school golf champion and US Army veteran. Following the service he worked 27 years for Dole Pineapple until the cannery closed in 1996. He's the father of 6 and grandfather of 13.
Makani Kai's Facility
Makani Kai has a beautiful, modern facility located on the outskirts on Honolulu International Airport. The 8,000 square foot facility has a large lobby/waiting area with flat screen televisions, comfortable seating, a retail area, ADA-accessible restrooms, a conference room, full kitchen as well as hanger and maintenance area. It even has a 300-gallon salt water aquarium!
Outside, Makani Kai has 28,000 square feet of ramp space where they keep their Eurocopter jet turbine, six passenger helicopters and their charter aircraft including a vintage WWII Navy SNJ (AT-6).
In addition to their helicopter tours, Makani Kai offers charter air service, airplane flights to and tours of Kalaupapa, Moloka'i, and flights in the WWII aircraft.
On arrival at their facility, I was greeted by P.J. who introduced me to my tour pilot, Eiki Miyasato, a native of Okinawa who has lived in Hawaii since 1972 and worked for Makani Kai since 1991.
P.J. explained that my flight would be a bit extended since we would be flying from the airport, west to the Ko Olina Resort to pickup additional passengers. I'd actually have a special treat since the tour would take me over Pearl Harbor three times, which was fine with me. Basically, my tour was their Ko Olina Circle Island Spectacular Tour which is the same as the Ali'i Sacred Falls Tour - only with a different point of departure.
Ko Olina Circle Island Spectacular Tour
Once we departed Ko Olina, our flight took us over Pearl Harbor, the airport, downtown Honolulu and Waikiki. We'd flew past Diamond Head over to the southeast coast of Oahu home to Hanauma Bay, Sandy Beach, Makapu'u and then up the eastern shore over Kailua, Kaneohe and then inland to Sacred Falls.
Sacred Falls State Park was once a popular weekend destination for locals until it was closed due to a landslide in 1999 which killed eight people and injured many more. From Sacred Falls we flew to the North Shore past Turtle Bay and over a number of the popular North Shore beaches.
As we approached Haleiwa we turned south and flew over Central Oahu with its every dwindling number of pineapple fields. We flew right over the Dole Plantation where, for the first time, I saw it's famous "Pineapple Garden Maze."
We then flew over the Waianae Mountains to Oahu's leeward or western shore and headed back to the Ko Olina Resort where the other passengers exited, except for one who was headed to the airport for a flight home to Chicago. Her luggage had been safely stored onboard when we first picked her up about an hour earlier.
You can view a slideshow of 45 photos that I took on my tour.
Observations from My Flight
I really enjoyed my experience with Makani Kai Helicopters. Their staff is top notch and their facility is the best I've seen for any helicopter company in Hawaii. I especially enjoyed seeing many areas of the island that I had never before seen from the air.
The weather on the day of my flight was not ideal. It was rainy and a bit hazy. As a photo journalist they was not the best conditions for taking good photos, but I did get some nice photos, especially of Pearl Harbor and Waikiki.
I was seated in the left rear seat of the helicopter, so I did miss a number of points of interest that were to the right during the flight. Unfortunately, the pilot could not constantly rotate the helicopter to show everyone all that we passed by. This is a common complaint of visitors who take helicopter tours, but there is unfortunately no easy way to deal with this.
Makani Kai, however, does offer a limited number of "first class" seats on each flight that ensures that you'll be seated up front with the pilot. This enables those guests to see most of everything on the flight. It's about a $40-$50 extra charge per customer, but probably well worth the added expense.
Makani Kai Helicopters does not offer a "doors off" option. "Doors off" flights are ideal for photographers since you don't have to deal with the glare from the helicopter windows. Whether or not to offer these types of flights varies widely from company to company and island to island.
Finally, while I had headphones and could hear what the pilot was saying, I did not have any way to communicate back to him and ask him any questions. This is something that I would strongly suggest be incorporated into their helicopters.
For Additional Information
Makani Kai Helicopters offers a number of tour options including combination tours in partnership with several other activity companies on Oahu. They also offer booking arrangement with Sunshine Helicopters which offers tours on Kauai, Maui and Hawaii Island. They also offer combination charter air and helicopter tours on Hawaii Island from their base on Oahu. For more information, visit their website.