on February 28, 2008
Alex Air calls its helicopters the Alex Air “Birds of Paradise” and they truly are. Before we left home we never considered doing a helicopter tour, but after my wife and I attended the Expedia welcome breakfast our first morning on Maui, we decided that a helicopter tour was on of the things that we wanted to do while on the island. We had learned that it was the only way to see the largest of the waterfalls and decided to give it a try. We asked the Expedia booking agent at our condo to find a tour for us that met three important criteria. First the company had to have a good safety record, second we wanted a company that had a good customer service reputation, and finally, since we hadn’t really budgeted for something as expensive as an aerial tour, we wanted something that we could afford. We were told that all the tour operators had a good safety record and that all offered excellent customer service so the major factor for us, since we’d not planned to spend the money required for a helicopter tour, would be the price. This third factor was complicated by my weight, at the time I weighed over 250 pounds and all the helicopter tour providers charged an additional fee for persons who exceed that weight. Helicopters can only lift a certain amount of weight on each flight and transporting passengers who weigh in excess of 250 pounds means that they have to transport one less person on the flight than usual and they charge extra to recoup the loss of that additional fare. The Expedia agent said that most of the companies require passengers exceeding the weight limit to pay the full price of a second fare but that she would make some phone calls and see what she could do. She told us to go enjoy our day and then return to her booth in the evening and she would present us with the options available. In the evening, when we returned, she said that she had arranged for us to fly with Alex Air. They (at least at the time) only required that persons who weighed over the 250 pound limit but less than 300 pounds pay one and a half times the normal fare not double the fare as many of the tour operators required. She also told us that if we’d attend a two hour time share sales presentation that we could get a $115 discount to apply to any tour that we wished so we agreed. (Normally I hate going to time share presentations but there really were no high pressure tactics, we attended the presentation, told the sales person no thank you, and they validated our discount certificate with no pressure or hassle). With that discount, we ended up paying $200 per person for both the helicopter tour and a sunset cocktail cruise on the Pacific Whale Foundations catamaran. The following morning we arrived at the heliport at the Kahului Airport and checked in for our flight. The FAA requires that pilots have accurate weight and balance information on file so when you book your flight and they ask you what you weigh, don’t fudge your weight, the first thing that you get to do when you check in is step on a set of scales. A sign located by the scales warns that if your weight is significantly different from what you told them when you booked, you may be denied boarding for your flight. After checking in and getting weighed, we were taken to a comfortable lounge area where we watched a film about safety and emergency procedures, basically a safety briefing specific to helicopter similar to what you experience on a commercial airplane. We were given an inflatable lifebelt which regulations require all passengers to wear then waited on a comfortable deck for our “bird of paradise” to return from the flight that it was on. After the Alex Air A-Star aircraft returned and offloaded its passengers, we were escorted to our seats and strapped in by the person that had done our safety briefing. We met our pilot Chris and the two other passengers accompanying us then we were on our way. My wife had never flown in a helicopter so she was apprehensive as we lifted off and headed to the east but she quickly relaxed and enjoyed the view as much as I did. We climbed away from the airport over massive fields of sugar cane as we climbed toward the summit of Haleakala. We climbed over the low clouds surrounding the summit and over the summit itself which provided spectacular views of the crater and surrounding landscape. Our pilot was obviously a very competent pilot and an excellent tour guide as well. Throughout our flight he pointed out landmarks and talked about the history and geology of the island. As we descended over the southern flank of Haleakala we were treated to spectacular views of the rain forest, the coast, and dramatic waterfalls. We flew over the seven sacred pools and the town of Hana as we swung around the east end of Maui. The big island of Hawaii was visible in the distance as we flew over the summit of Haleakala. As we came around the north side of Haleakala, we were treated to beautiful views of the really tall waterfalls, many of them over 1,000 feet tall. We returned to the heliport and after landing we were assisted out of the aircraft by one of the Alex Air employees. She took our picture in front of the helicopter before escorting us back into the building. Alex Air, as well as most of the other helicopter tour operators offers several flights ranging in duration from about 30 minutes to over an hour. We had booked the 45 minute eastern Maui tour of Haleakala and Hana but our flight actually lasted almost an hour. The helicopter tour ended up being one of the highlights of our visit to Maui and we were both very glad that we did the tour. We were also glad that we chose Alex Air. They were professional yet courteous and helpful. One advantage of this operator was that they used headsets that allowed you to talk to the other passengers as well as to the pilot so we were able to ask questions about what we were seeing and about the operation of the helicopter. The only negative thing about our entire tour was that the two other passengers ask so many questions about how a helicopter works and flying that the pilot didn’t have a chance to describe what we were seeing in the detail that I would have liked. Here are a few suggestions to make your trip more enjoyable. If you want to take pictures from the helicopter, dress in dark clothing as light colored clothes cause a reflection on the cockpit windows which will show up in your photos. I would also book your flight for late morning as we were told that clouds often interfere with the view earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon. If you are prone to motion sickness take something long enough before you arrive for it to have a chance to work. However, my number one suggestion is that whatever else you do on your visit to Maui, definitely book a helicopter tour. This is one of the most specatacular ways to experience the natural beauty of Maui. Booking a flight is easy. If you don’t want to use a booking agent like we did, you can call Alex Air direct at 808-871-0792 or visit their web site at http://www.helitour.com/. The web site is a great place to learn more about the tours that they offer, the history of the company, and there are even some internet special rates if you choose to book directly with them.
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