Steel Birds

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.

 

Even a basic helicopter is a mind-bogglingly complicated machine. Shortly after my flight with Joe Allen, I arranged a meeting with Mike Klink, a young instructor at Mauna Loa Helicopters, to learn how they work. Klink is as amazed as I am. “I can’t believe a human being had the time to figure all this out,” he says, as he describes the helicopter’s control systems.

Flying involves both hands and both feet. Pedals at the pilot’s feet control the tail rotor, which he uses to pivot the helicopter left or right. The main rotor, which pilots refer to as the “disk,” is controlled by the pilot’s hands. With his left hand, he moves a lever called the collective up or down to make the helicopter climb or descend. A twist throttle at the end of the collective lets the pilot adjust the engine speed. In his right hand, the pilot holds the cyclic, a joystick that sits between his knees. He controls the direction and speed of flight by pushing the cyclic in the direction he wants to go.

According to Klink, learning to fly from point A to point B is relatively simple. Hovering is the bugaboo for new pilots. A steady hover, the maneuver that distinguishes helicopters, requires rapid and minute adjustments of all the controls at once. Experienced pilots describe it as learning to juggle while riding a unicycle. It can take days of failure and humiliation before the student reaches his first hover. Then, it arrives suddenly, like satori. Only after learning to hover does the real fun start.

Although the skies above Hawai‘i are thick with helicopters—with the lumbering military birds and scores of tour craft on their bus runs around the islands—it’s the private helicopter pilots who seem to have the most fun flying in Hawai‘i. As a group, they’re affluent and have the time and inclination to get the most out of their toys. They fly where and how and when they want. They’re also an eccentric group.

John Pitre, the artist and inventor, keeps his helicopter in the T-Hangars at the end of the runway at Honolulu International Airport. I recently visited him there to talk about flying in Hawai‘i and to take a ride in his helicopter, an R-44 Clipper. Like most private pilots, Pitre has an informal attitude. He greeted me in the parking lot in a black T-shirt and shorts and sneakers. He wears his hair pulled back in a ponytail.

Helicopter pilots, no matter how unconventional, are scrupulous about safety. Pitre was no different. We checked the oil and the transmission fluid. We sampled the fuel at three points in the fuel system. We checked to make sure all the panels on the fuselage and the fuel cap were on tight. He took special pains to show me the electrical system, testing the warning lights one at a time to make sure they worked. Only then were we set to fly.

It’s easy to spot Pitre’s helicopter; it’s the one with floats. Because so much flying here is over water, many helicopters in Hawai‘i have long, thin tubes mounted on the skids that the pilot can inflate in case of an emergency. But Pitre has his big white floats permanently mounted in place of skids. It gives him a sense of confidence and lets him go places that other pilots would find uncomfortable.

The day we flew, the weather was strange, with Kona winds sometimes giving way to trades. To the east and west, showers blurred the skies. Offshore, a dense column of rain blocked the sun. “Let’s go through the Pali pass and see how it looks over there,” Pitre said. When the tower gave him clearance to fly past the highway (what’s called the Freeway Approach), he gently pulled the collective and we rose and sailed off over Ke‘ehi Lagoon. In the harbor below, I watched the yachts swing at anchor. Here and there a submerged boat hung on its mooring. We paused over a clear spot in the harbor.

“Here,” Pitre said, “I’ll show you how we do an autorotation.” This is the procedure pilots use in an engine failure. Surprisingly, even though helicopters can’t glide to earth like airplanes can, they’re still relatively safe in this kind of emergency. The wind generated by falling still drives the rotor blades, giving the pilot full control as he comes down. Pitre demonstrated it for me. He killed the throttle so we lost engine power; and, as we began to fall, he flared the nose of the ship up so that the air passing over the blades kept them spinning and generating lift. We descended gently, never losing control. Near the water, he gave the throttle a twist, and we rose off again under power. “There,” he said, “now you’ve crashed.”

Helicopter pilots like to call their ships “magic carpets,” and that’s the sensation of flying. The motion seems so antithetical to what we call flight. It’s more of a simple swoosh through space. “I like to fly at low speed,” Pitre said as we passed into the confines of Nu‘uanu valley. “We’re just nibbling along at seventy-five or seventy-eight knots. The engine’s in pure idle. There’s no rush or worry. If we have a problem, we stop; we back up. That’s why helicopters are the best of the small, light aircraft.”

We dawdled in Nu‘uanu, pausing to gaze down into the valley. “Somewhere down there is my daughter’s house,” he said. “I look for it every time, but I’ve never seen it.” I peered down into the forest from 500 feet up, looking for the glint of the falls at Jackass Ginger. We scoped out the mansions in their old estates. As Pitre gradually pulled up on the collective, we rose toward the gap at the Pali Lookout. Then, just as suddenly as that time with Joe Allen, we burst forth onto the Windward side and hung improbably before those sheer, pleated cliffs.

We looked north, and Pitre scowled at the rain ahead of us. It was raining over Waimanalo, too. “Let me show you something else then,” Pitre said, swinging the cyclic right. Suddenly, we swerved away from the mountains, toward Kane‘ohe Bay. Out over the middle of the bay, Pitre brought us to a hover, his right hand twitching on the cyclic. Then he gradually eased down the collective and we wafted gently to the surface of the sea. The floats settled on the water so easily that I didn’t feel us land.

“That’s what floats can do for you,” Pitre said. “I like to fly low so I can see things. Other pilots would be nervous to fly so low. But, with these, I have that extra layer of security.” Once again, he pulled the collective and as we rose, he gave us a quick pedal turn, and we shot off toward the Pali again.

Pitre is enthusiastic about his helicopter, and he gave me the cook’s tour. We ferried over the heights of Tantalus. We swept past the hotels and beaches of Waikiki. We zoomed triumphantly over the breakers of Kahala and Diamond Head, eliciting waves from surfers in the line-up.

From Koko Head, we traced the tumultuous Ka Iwi coast. By this time, it was dusk and Hanauma Bay had emptied; Pitre hovered over the ridge so we could gaze down on the reef. Atop Koko Head Crater—where hikers stood on the platform and waved in awe—we approached an old radio station with a dilapidated heliport attached. It was too fragile for us to land, but Pitre hovered over it to show how it was used. “That’s called a ‘pinnacle landing,’” he said as we veered off toward the cliffs of Makapu‘u. Once there, we slowed to an idle to avoid the flocks of tropic-birds and noddies that nest there. Sidling past the lighthouse, we watched the sea beat against the rocks, 300 feet below. Then, still careful of the birds, we slowly rounded Rabbit Island. Although I have swum and surfed and hiked this coast, this was my first glimpse of the broad ledge that protects its seaward side. Big swells crested there and washed over the ledge ferociously. “You may never see this again,” Pitre said.

As we approached the hang-glider cliffs behind Makapu‘u Beach, Pitre pointed out another hazard. Cables hung, almost invisible, high between two peaks. “You’ve got to be alert up here,” he said. “The rule of thumb is: Always head toward the towers. Because they never string the wires straight up to heaven.” I watched the thoughtless coordination of feet and hands as Pitre swung the cyclic left, pulled the collective and brought us over the tower. From there, we could see the lights of Honolulu winking on in the twilight. We flew back in silence.

One bright afternoon in February, I hopped a ride with a Coast Guard chopper on a routine cruise around O‘ahu. The experience was eye-opening. Flying with civilians didn’t call for any special equipment beyond a helmet and radio. To take a Coast Guard flight, I donned a fire-resistant flight suit, fire-resistant leather gloves, a “Mae West” life jacket, and a wide harness around my waist so that I could clip myself securely to the bright orange helicopter.

Before the flight, Danny Rees, the flight mechanic, gave me a safety briefing. (The Coast Guard is unique among the services in requiring the mechanics to fly regular shifts in the helicopters they service, surmising perhaps that this will inspire greater attention to detail.) Despite all the protective gear, Rees was emphatic about the safety of helicopters. “I feel safer flying in one of these than I do driving my truck,” he said.

After my briefing, we were joined by the pilot, Cmdr. Donald Dyer, and his co-pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Steve Detton. Rees made sure I was properly strapped into the far back, where the rescue swimmer usually sits. With Rees strapped into the gunner’s seat, Dyer fired up the engines and we taxied out to the runway. Once he had clearance from the tower, Dyer brought us to a low hover, then peeled out over the ocean.

We flew low along the Wai‘anae coast, looking for swimmers or boaters in trouble. At Ko Olina, we paused to circle the Pro Bowl practice fields and ogle the yachts in the marina. Then we patrolled the beaches of Wai‘anae, surveying the camps of homeless and the surfers lining up on the break. The great leeward valleys of Wai‘anae and Makua reached off to our left. Then we rounded the headland of Ka‘ena Point, braided with four-wheel drive tracks, and began the run up the North Shore.

The surf was up. No kiteboarders braved the waters of Mokule‘ia. Great, frothy breakers washed over the hard shelf there. Rees spotted a monk seal sunning on the beach and we circled back to make sure it wasn’t injured. Then we ran low down the beach, over Hale‘iwa, Waimea, Pipeline and Sunset. From 200 feet even big surf looks small. But a contest was on at Pipeline, and Dyer slowly circled the event, tipping way over to improve the view. There were crowds of spectators on the beach. Jet skis towed the surfers into the waves on the outer break and foam churned the inshore waters.

From the North Shore, we flew over the West Loch of Pearl Harbor. Here, we slowed to a crawl and Rees opened the door of the helicopter to take a picture of the mothballed fleet below us. Over Honolulu Harbor, I slid forward and clipped into the gunner’s spot. I was sitting there when we reached Diamond Head Lighthouse, where we waggled our figurative wings at the station crew. Then, as we returned along Waikiki Beach, the door open, I sat cross-legged on the floor of the helicopter, with my notebook flapping furiously in the breeze. Even the Coasties have fun.

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.

 

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