It was just over a month ago that Hawaii’s Kilauea began to significantly and seriously erupt. Seeing the early images was of course devastating as lava flows carved right through towns — places I’ve spent time, had adventures in, and that are just a few quick turns from where members of my family have a place of their own. But amidst the devastation is also an incredible natural sight and one I most certainly wanted to experience for myself, one which you are very likely considering right now as well I imagine.
The Volcano Experience – By Air
The Big Island has been a part of my life for most of my life and I’ve been lucky to visit the volcano many times and see the lava on a few of those. I’ve explored it by foot, by bike, even by lava boat but never from the sky. Incredible as those sights have been, I can tell you now that right now, a lava helicopter tour is a must do.
Why should you take a helicopter tour of the volcano now you ask? I give you three reasons:
- It’s how you can see it. Direct access to the surface flows are of course highly limited right now given the impact to the local communities and dangers of a highly active volcano (to be clear, visiting Hawaii is all good, I’m talking danger if you’re right by the eruption.)
- There’s no faster way in. If your wallet can handle a second tour and your stomach can take the rough seas, a lava boat tour is absolutely worth taking too but the helicopter, it gets you right there in a zip.
- The scale of it all. All the photos in the world can’t provide the incredible feeling of seeing eruptions shoot hundreds of feet into the air (well below you still) and seeing lava flows that that go on and on. Above all else, the air is the only way understand just how massive this all is.
Obviously, this is not a cheap undertaking at $200 – $300+ but come on, you’re already flying to Hawaii and it’s not as if this is an everyday occurrence here.
Now that you’re hopefully hooked on the idea, let’s talk about the tour and the options.
Helicopter Lava Tour Companies
As far as I know, there are three operators on the Big Island who provide air tours of the volcano and current lava eruptions: Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, Safari Helicopters and Paradise Helicopters. (If I missed anyone, leave a comment!)
I’ve flown Blue Hawaiian long, long ago when there were no eruptions but did have a great tour all around the Big Island which was a serious nod in their favor. Safari on the other hand is the cheapest route for seeing the volcano currently (with a very nice looking offering on their website too.) But only Paradise offered a doors-off flight.
Doors-off means roaring wind with nothing between you and the ground which is either mildly terrifying or super cool (this!!) But more than that, it means no window to reflect against photos and since I was lugging a large camera out, that was an absolute must for me. That’s probably why so many of the volcano photographers fly them (also that they’re awesome.)
Then again, if you’re not looking for that experience (but really, it is awesome!), all three companies have doors on flights.
Beyond doors, there are of course differences in prices and tour routes to consider. The most cost-effective flights for each company depart right out of the Hilo Airport though Paradise and Blue Hawaiian will also take you on a far larger (and more spendy) tour of the volcano and island starting out of Kona. There may be upgrades for the type of helicopter too though I didn’t experience any hard sells or pushes in the least.
And oh, as you’d expect, these tours are rather popular, so space is limited. Book now.
The Paradise Helicopters Experience
My experience started just a few days before my actual flight and before I’d even booked a trip to Hawaii its self. After scouring the web for basically what I just told you above, I called Paradise Helicopters, snagged one of their last spots for the weekend in a doors-off tour and was on my way.
Driving up to the Hilo airport, getting to the tour could not be easier. Flights depart right out of the airport and it’s a small airport which means you can park only a few dozen yards from the gate at that (add about $5 for parking costs.)
After checking in at their desk, the representatives directed enough people to fill three helicopters into a small room where they sell souvenir merchandise and play videos of their tours. Before heading into the air, there’s a safety briefing covering the helicopter operations / places to stay away from, buckling in, life vests, airport security, and all that jazz. Relax, they do this every day though if you are going doors-off, know that you can’t take anything that could fly off with you so straps on all cameras (they had them for phones.)
Once briefed, t’s just a quick walk literally right onto the airport runway where the staff guides everyone out into their helicopter individually (seats were pre-sorted by the staff for weight I assume). Each passenger also gets a headset to drown out the intense noise (made more intense when you don’t have doors) and to let everyone on the flight talk to the captain and each other. It’s a slick setup.
Just a few minutes later, we were in the air and headed off on the very short ride to the volcano area. Along the way, the flight passes over the city of Hilo, past the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut farms and towards the outskirts Hilo and then the volcano. Our pilot handled both flying and playing tour guide for the 45 minute trip and you can tell they do this a log as he had plenty of fun facts all ride long plus encouraged us to chime in with questions of our own.
With the current eruptions and rapid changes necessitating potential evacuations, tours are restricted to staying above 3,000’ right now which seems far up but I assure you, it’s plenty close to see it all – provided that the sky is clear that is. As our pilot circled around and around, it was all right there: the massive, glowing flows heading towards the ocean, bubbling lava pools, and fissures spewing out huge amounts of lava well into the air. To say it was incredible is an understatement.
After 15-20 minutes at the lava, we headed to the coast to see the ocean entry (now much larger) and get a sense of the scale of the eruption from further back. A brief pass by the flows again on the way back seemed like the end but that’s not the case.
Passing back over Hilo, the Paradise Helicopters tour has a bonus with a view of an incredible, multi-step waterfall outside of Hilo. It’s a complete 180 from the lava and was the perfect way to balance out the experience before returning to the airport and heading back to our cars with great memories and some rather nice photos if I can rate myself.
All said, Paradise Helicopters put on one hell of a show. You don’t need fancy buildings or massive setups for this. The staff rocks, the process was well run, and the view, I’d have gone again if they had another seat open that day.
Flight Timing & Photography
I’m not an expert on aerial photography in the least but with many local photographers using Paradise Helicopters, they seem to get a constant vote. Unfortunately, I did not have a lot of choice in flight times and the view mid-day was great with plenty of light to shoot super fast but not the full glow of the morning or evening. Something to consider.
As for gear, you can’t change anything around flying without a door, so I brought two bodies, one with my Canon 17-40 f/4 to get wide views and the other with a Canon 70-200 f/4 IS to get into the action. I liked the dual approach though it did keep me busy. If I could change anything, it would have been to go with a 70-300 instead for a few closer moments given the air space restrictions but the photos were exactly what I wanted to bring home.
Trip Details & Current Volcano Helicopter Tours:
- Adventure: Hawaii Volcano Helicopter Tour
- Rating: 5 out of 5 – This is an absolute must do!
- Who this is for: Travelers who want a great view & like a little wind in their face (or not)
- Who this is not for: Anyone terrified of heights or without a few extra bucks
- Cost: $200 – $350 / person based on the tour
- Crowds: Busy! Book as soon as you know your travel dates
- Starting Point: The Hilo Airport
- Trip length: 45 minute ride, 2 hour total adventure
- Equipment required: A light jacket & your camera
- Helicopter Tour Operators