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Hawaii Helicopter Tour over a Volcano (doors off!)

If you’re looking to see Hawaii from a different perspective, why not opt for a helicopter tour?

We took a Hawaiian cruise on Grand Princess and pre-planned a helicopter tour as an independent shore excursion for our stop on Hawaii, also know as the Big Island.

Which Hawaiian island is best for a helicopter tour?

If you’re looking for a mix of beautiful scenery and the chance to fly over a volcano, the Big Island is a great choice. You can expect to see lava fields and a volcano. The helicopter will fly over rainforest and you have the opportunity to see natural waterfalls from a bird’s eye view.

Getting There

The cruise ship port of Hilo is close to Hilo International Airport where Paradise Helicopters is based. This is a short 10-minute taxi ride away and taxis can be picked up in front of the cruise terminal.

Once you arrive at the small airport, the Paradise Helicopters check-in desk is on the left of you as you walk into the main entrance. Check-in is one hour before the flight.

‘Feel the Heat’ Hawaii Helicopter Tour

Before the cruise, a helicopter ride had been recommended to us and after a bit of research we came across a special helicopter tour by Paradise Helicopters called ‘Feel the Heat’. The unique experience involved the doors of the helicopter being removed so that you could do exactly that: feel the heat of the volcano as you fly over!

We were a bit worried initially but how could we pass up an opportunity like this? It’s one thing to see a volcano from the air but this way we could also experience it. We decided to book the 40-minute Doors Off Lava and Waterfalls tour with Paradise Helicopters. At around $250 per person it was an expensive excursion but we decided that it was something we’d regret if we didn’t do.

Helicopter Tour Preparations

We were advised to wear closed toe shoes and bring a lightweight jumper or cardigan because despite the promise of ‘feeling the heat’ from the volcano, it could get a little chilly. Sunglasses were also recommended.

When we arrived at the check-in desk at Hilo International Airport, we were greeted and were able to settle our balance. We were told that there was another couple who would be joining us for our flight. We were weighed individually as this determined where we would sit in the helicopter. As it was only half way through the cruise I was relieved that I wasn’t carrying too much ‘excess baggage’ (so to speak).

The check-in deck for Paradise Helicopters

There was a little time to wait so we took a stroll around the airport and browsed some of the shops. There was one kiosk that sold beautiful fresh flowers that could be custom made into Hawaiian Leis.

Turtle sculpture at Hilo International Airport

When it was time for our flight, we had a short safety briefing and were fitted with personal floatation devices around our waists, ear defenders and a microphone headset. We were able to take our camera and Go Pro with us because they had wrist straps. You don’t want to be dropping your camera in a helicopter with no doors!

Things were getting real and as we were escorted out to the tarmac. We were surprised at how small the helicopter looked. Fortunately, we had been allocated the front two seats, whereas the couple who we were sharing the flight were in the rear seats. We watched as the doors on the front of the helicopter were literally removed right in front of our eyes – there was no going back now!

helicopter hilo doors off
Ready for our helicopter ride

Take Off

As were clambered into the helicopter, we were introduced to our pilot, Rob. I sat in the centre seat next to the pilot and Craig sat next to me, adjacent to the open door. These were excellent seats as we had an almost 180 degree view. This also gave us the opportunity to see up close how the helicopter is controlled. There were lots of dials and buttons in front of me, which I was very conscious of. The last thing I wanted to do was accidentally nudge a button!

helicopter Hawaii
The helicopter controls were right in front of me!

Once were were buckled in, Pilot Rob explained exactly what was going to happen and the route we’d be taking. What was so surprising, was how smoothly we set off and how quickly we reached height without even noticing. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel scared at all despite being quite high above the ground and the doors missing.

The pilot was really helpful at explaining where we were and things to look out for. He’d been a helicopter pilot for quite a while, which put my mind at ease. I was so engrossed with the breathtaking views, the thought of being so high didn’t bother me at all.

Hawaii helicopter ride
A view from the helicopter

Hawaii Lava Fields

We soon came across the lava fields. We saw trees and patches of land that had been engulfed and cut off by the lava. The lava was graphite grey in colour, smooth in appearance. Metallic slicks of newer lava flow rested on the top in places.

lava field helicopter Hawaii
Lava field
new lava helicopter Hawaii
Newer lava that had cooled was metallic and smooth

As we crossed over the vast lava fields, we spotted a few plumes of smoke where the lava was still hot and slowly spreading to new areas. It was clear that there was still fresh lava in these parts.

Hawaii helicopter ride lava
Smoke from fresh lava

This is when we started feeling warm air and it was quite a comfortable temperature.

Hawaii helicopter tour over a volcano

We spotted the volcano up ahead and made our way over and around it. Rob, the pilot, took plenty of time to circle the volcano. This gave us all a chance to see the volcano from different angles. It felt quite surreal that we were this close to a volcano and able to see the constant plumes of smoke emanating from it’s crater. We had a unique view inside the volcano as we flew directly over it.

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Volcano crater
smoke volcano helicopter Hawaii
The helicopter flew over the volcano
volcano crater Hawaii helicopter ride
The view inside the volcano crater from the helicopter

We flew a figure of eight around the volcano to get a great experience of the volcano from every side.

volcano helicopter ride Hawaii
The helicopter flew around and over the volcano for great views

Once we’d left the volcano behind us we certainly noticed a drop in temperature. That’s when we really appreciated how much heat was coming from the volcano.

We headed over a lush, green rainforest area, which was a stark contrast to the lava fields. It looked dense and untouched; showing a different side to Hawaii. This was Wailuku River State Park.

The helicopter made a special trip over the waterfalls for a fantastic perspective of them. Rainbow Falls is 80 feet high but it looked so tiny from our helicopter. It cascades over a lava cave.

Hawaii rainbow falls helicopter
Rainbow Falls from our helicopter

A little further on we were able to spot our cruise ship in the distance.

Hawaii helicopter ride cruise
We spotted our cruise ship from the helicopter

Is a Hawaii helicopter tour worth the money?

Our Hawaii helicopter tour was an incredible experience that we will never forget. It was my first time in a helicopter, which made it even more exciting. The opportunity to see the island from above was a brilliant way to see so much in a short space of time so it’s a good choice if you’re on a cruise and have limited time.

The helicopter tour was the most expensive excursion we took on our trip but I don’t regret spending the money for one moment. I would have regretted it more if we’d decided not to book the helicopter tour. To see the volcano from above was definitely a wow moment. Having the doors off enabled us to feel the warmth rising from the crater but it wasn’t unbearable. There is no need to worry that things may get too hot!

How much should you tip for a Hawaii helicopter tour?

It’s recommended that you tip around $20 per person for a Hawaii helicopter tour.

Are helicopter tour dangerous?

You have to understand that with all modes of transport there’s always a certain degree of risk. Some helicopter accidents have occurred due to difficult weather conditions. It’s always best to look at the helicopter tour company’s reputation and reviews when researching your excursion.

Paradise Helicopters state on its website that their helicopter pilots must complete annual training and all have passed the F.A.A. flight test. In 2018, Paradise Helicopters became the only helicopter tour operator in Hawaii to have earned the highest level of registration available from the International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations (IS-BAO™).

“Throughout our more than two decades in operation, Paradise has been committed to ensuring the highest safety and operational standards in the world. IS-BAO Stage Three registration includes requirements that surpass both Tour Operators Program of Safety (TOPS) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations.”

Calvin Dorn, CEO of Paradise Helicopters.

Despite being sat in a helicopter with no doors I felt completely safe. We we securely fastened into our seats, we had an experienced and knowledgeable pilot and the process was reassuringly organised in a safe manner.

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