(Video follows at end of post)
I was glad I was alone, because I was alarmingly uptight as I drove my way to Lihue Airport for my 11am “No Doors” Helicopter Tour, tossing around all the possible outcomes.
First, there were the practical concerns: Will I be too gripped with nerves to enjoy myself in the air? Will the views of Kauai be worth the money I’m spending?
And there were the more irrational fears: What if my seat belt snaps loose and I fall out? Will we smash into the side of a volcano? What if the pilot slumps forward with chest pains and I have to land the chopper myself?
And then there was just vanity: What if everyone else is laughing and high-fiving while I sit frozen, bug-eyed and gape-mouthed; the only coward on board, the designated Don Knotts?
Then I’m belted in. And the helicopter bursts off the planet and rocks and banks its way straight into the air. And the Earth drops out from beneath me. I lean my head out the giant hole to my right, where there’s normally a door, and look down. The ground folds up before my eyes. It’s pulling away so fast I almost feel like waving good-bye to it. And all the worries I had in the car are gone, not because I’m suddenly at peace with the situation, but because my thoughts have collapsed into a puddle of pure baby babble.
My left hand is clutched around the bottom of my seat cushion and my right hand is hooked so tightly through the hand strap above I can feel my own fingernails cutting into me. I can momentarily release one hand or the other, but not both at the same time. The temperature has dropped thirty degrees in the air and we’re surging through the skies at nearly a hundred miles an hour. I feel like my glasses are going to be ripped right off my face. My eyes are full of water, and my ears are full of wind and the piercing whip of the chopper blades above my head. I am no longer worried about crashing. I’m positive I’ll die of pure fright first.
To the pilot and the three other passengers on the plane, I wonder if I look like I’m holding it together. And then I realize I don’t exactly hear anyone else yelling “Yippee!” and making giddy engine noises with their lips. Everyone is silent. We can each push a button in front of us and communicate through our headsets, but so far no one has tried it.
I slide my foot across the floor just to the edge of the copter. Green trees below zip by so fast they look like their painted tops are smearing into one another. I tip my foot out into the open air, and the cold grabs it straight through my sock. Then I lift my leg and extend my foot all the way out. The pressure of the wind shoves it right back in. I was told during the safety meeting not to put my hands or legs outside the helicopter, so by doing so, I’ve just convinced myself I have a measure of control over my situation.
The girl next to me is named Heather. Heather already has both hands around her camera, snapping pictures out the other side of the helicopter. So I decide I can do the same. I take a picture, then flip a switch with my thumbnail and take ten seconds of video. Then I drop the camera back around my neck, and quickly return my hands to the seat cushion and the hand strap. In between when my hands are momentarily free, I feel my body at the complete mercy of the aircraft, as it banks between two towering walls of mountain, and then blasts free, straight out over the open Pacific. I’m thinking about all the other options in the “Adventures” section of my guide book: kayaking, horseback riding, snuba, spas, tennis. But I chose this, the one activity I had to bully myself into doing, over the course of an entire week, day after day. “You’re not leaving this island until you take a no-doors helicopter tour,” I told myself. “You’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t.” Heather stops from picture-snapping, turns to me and smiles madly.
And over the ocean, the climate begins to shift. It’s closer to “merely cool” than “frigid.” My body adopts a shaky ease and I slip my hand out of the upper strap. The husband half of the couple in the front seat pushes his button and everyone hears, “Are those whales?” And down below us on our right, there’s a trio of humpbacks arriving for vacation in the warm, shallow Hawaiian waters. My God’s-eye view of their graceful arcing between air and ocean is inspiring. To the right of them is a pod of dolphins darting into the sky and splashing back down on their sides. And to my right is the Na Pali Coast. The cliffs rise as high as four thousand feet in front of my eyes. They’re colored bright green mixed with torchy orange and red. It’s magnificent. It completely deletes the fear from my body.
For the next hour, our pilot Jason flies us through lush, tropical valleys and circles over waterfalls that plunge thousands of feet down against the sides of razor-sheer cliffs. We zoom over the enormous Waimea Canyon, covering what seems to be an endless expanse from the ground in only a few minutes by air.
Andrew Doughty in The Ultimate Kauai Guide Book wrote this: “Going to Kauai without taking a helicopter trip is like going to see the Sistine Chapel and not looking up.”
Heather and I are now best friends, partners in danger. She presses down her button and says, “Jason, when do we start the barrel rolls?” I press down my button and proclaim, “The back row is united in this request!” But helicopters don’t do barrel rolls. They’ll slice the passengers to ribbons. It doesn’t matter. I pressed the button and spoke up, and that was brave, even if I only did it once.
When we landed and wobbled back to the van, I passed the next four tourists ready to take our spots. They were trying hard to look carefree, I could tell. One of them yelled over to me, “How was it?” and the rest silently fixed on me, eagerly awaiting re-assurance. “You’ll see for yourself,” I told them and strutted away, the cool cat. “You just slung off a major fear!” I told myself. “You can take life by the throat. There’s no stopping you now.”
On the way home, a grasshopper flew into the car and landed on my neck. I screamed and nearly drove into a coconut tree.
Jack Harter Helicopters Website – Click Here