Civil Aviation

SEP 29 2011
Civil Aviation >> Mauna Loa Helicopters, Hawaii

When visiting the island of Kauai, you will struggle to avoid seeing a large number of helicopters. The island has some of the most dramatic scenery of the Hawaiian chain and has developed a strong business flying tourists around to experience the many different scenic areas, some of which can only easily be seen from the air.

One of the operators that provide this service is Mauna Loa Helicopters. However, unlike the other tour providers, there is more to Mauna Loa than just pleasure flying. Mauna Loa's primary business is flight training, and the tourism flying is only a relatively recent addition to its operations. The company was originally founded at Kona on the Big Island, hence the name of the volcano as the company title. It provides flying training for rotary wing students of all levels.

Steady expansion of the business means that it now has three locations across the islands at which training is provided. The main office is still at the Kona location, an additional facility is located at Honolulu and the Kauai facility was the one I visited. The training processes and safety systems are common across all locations but each place brings different training opportunities.

Kauai has a very diverse selection of training environments from rain forests to mountain tops and steep canyons. However, it has very little controlled airspace. Honolulu, on the other hand, has a busy international airport and can provide just such an environment. Therefore, students will be able to move between facilities depending on what skills they need. Training can be everything from private pilots through instructor ratings to more complex skills such as long lining and even night vision goggle (NVG) training, which has recently been added.

The training fleet is all Robinson with a selection of R22s and R44s available for use. The majority of the fleet is made up of R22s while the R44s are equipped for instrument flight training (and a couple have NVG compatible lighting for the aforementioned NVG training).

The total company staff is approximately 30 people spread across the three sites. There is a strong culture of developing people from within that means that the instructors are all graduates of the school and so know how to instruct the way Mauna Loa likes to operate and are well trained in Hawaii’s conditions.

Approximately 20 to 30 students will go through the training program in a given year. Planning training programs is greatly aided by the weather conditions in the Hawaiian chain. There is a high level of predictability of the weather and it is rare to lose more than about seven days of flying a year as a result of bad weather. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t bad weather but it tends to be more predictable and not last long. Despite the relative closeness to the equator, the temperatures are not too high meaning that aircraft performance is rarely a problem.

Interestingly, while all of the operations at Lihue are from the airport, the companies tend to be based elsewhere in the town. They have offices in various locations not too far from the airport and shuttle their passengers down to the flights. There is not a great amount of space at the airport to have offices and the airport does not appear to be keen for that to happen anyway. While the majority of airport movements are provided by the sightseeing flights, perhaps they are tolerated more than welcomed.

With the strength of the pleasure flying business, Mauna Loa Helicopters appears to have added significantly to its business. The flying training will remain the main part of the business with future expansion plans already in development but with the added revenue pleasure flying brings, the company should have a strong future.

The flying school distinguishes itself particularly in that it is an accredited flight school. One of only three in the United States, this means the training program has gone through an evaluation process to determine how well it is planned and run. This process is normally undertaken by universities so it was a learning experience for both Mauna Loa and also for the accreditation team since they were not used to dealing with a flying training program. The whole road to gaining accreditation took five years.

Beyond the accreditation, Mauna Loa is the only flight school in the country that can offer federal student financial aid. This program allows students to apply for federal support for their training in the same way that they can for university education. That took an additional two or three years to achieve but provides an obvious extra benefit to the potential students and has consequently been helpful to the school as student numbers have dipped as a result of the economic downturn. For international students, the school is one of the few that can offer an F-1 visa. This will allow graduates to gain practical experience as flight instructors in the US once their training is complete and before they head back to their home country.

With such a well developed flying school, the transition to undertaking pleasure flying may seem a little unusual. The Kauai facility is the only one that currently undertakes this flying since the island is the best suited to helicopter tours. Given the large number of operators already running services, it would appear to be a competitive market to enter.

The success of the service has been down the differences it offers from the majority of operators. All of the other operators utilize turbine powered helicopters with EC130s, AStars (AS350s) and Hughes 500s covering the flightline. The higher capacity of those airframes is exploited with some of them configured to carry six passengers. Mauna Loa offers something a little more personal and also has the option of flying with the doors off. Only one other operator has that as an option.

Door off flying certainly makes for a more personal experience. Staring straight out at the amazing scenery with nothing in between is a great feeling and, if you are a photographer, a huge benefit when avoiding reflections or even door/window frames. Since the aircraft is smaller, you can plan to have the flight to yourself and not have to share the experience with whoever else may have booked at the same time as you.

For the photographers amongst you, they do offer a photo tour option which is a per-hour use of the aircraft to go where you choose. The island operators all conform to some basic operating principles with a one-way system around the island utilized to avoid conflict issues. However, within that model, there is a lot of flexibility to spend more or less time at certain locations. There is plenty to see!

Kauai is a regular location for film work. One of the first spots you will see from the air is the Jurassic Falls. These are the falls that were the backdrop in Jurassic Park, so I suspect that is not their original name! The Waimea Canyon is also known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific and it provides some stunning scenery and wonderful waterfalls. The Na Pali coast is on the northwest side of the island and is largely inaccessible unless you want to hike a long way or take a boat. A helicopter provides an excellent vantage point. A final stop on the tour will be the Wai'ale'ale Crater. The remnants of the volcano that originally formed Kauai, this is the wettest place on the planet with over 450 inches of rain a year. It is a rare day when the top of the crater is not shrouded in cloud, and the crater itself is both enormous and lush with foliage – plus more waterfalls than you can count given the near constant rain.

It is then a short run back to the helicopter field at Lihue, the island’s main airport. All of the tour operators run their services from a field adjacent to the main airport operating area. Mauna Loa is the only one to also operate from the main airfield since the training program is run from there. However, the sightseeing flights share the field with the other operators.

Despite the strong competition between them, there is camaraderie between the crews themselves. The Mauna Loa pilots that provide the sightseeing flights are graduates of its own training program and instructors that have many hours on the island. They are, therefore, very experienced in all that island flying involves. Indeed, almost all of the operators providing pleasure flights currently employ at least one graduate of the Mauna Loa program.

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