Beyond the well-traveled paths of Hawaii lies a world sealed off from easy human access by near-vertical cliffs and other forbidding geography. Few visitors see the most spectacular scenery these islands have to offer, yet exotic Hawaii can easily be viewed from light planes. Here you’ll find the north shore of Molokai, with its jungle valleys and 3,000-foot sea cliffs, complete with waterfalls. Sculpted mountains of Kauai’s Na Pali Coast resemble a land that time forgot. Volcanoes on the Big Island produce fountains of orange lava at random intervals. A flight adventure in Hawaii offers the potential for combining a comfortable U.S. resort experience with rare views of such natural wonders.
Obstacles exist, of course. First you need to rent a plane and get checked out. To find a rental, contact one of the FBOs listed in the Hawaii FBOs sidebar, or check out the FBO directory including available aircraft on the Flying Hawaii website. If flying from busy Honolulu International is not to your liking, planes are also available on Maui and on the Big Island of Hawaii. Pay particular attention to the company’s minimum flight time per day requirements and to the availability of life rafts in the planes. It’s best to schedule the checkout and trip near the beginning of your vacation, so that if weather interferes with your plans, you have time to reschedule. Also, if your biennial flight review is coming due, ask about using your checkout flight for both purposes.
Your next concern will most likely be about over-water flying. Routes between all major islands except Kauai can be flown within 13 miles of land at all times. When ditchings are necessary in Hawaiian waters, occupants emerge safely approximately 90% of the time. To keep things in perspective, these are probably better odds than a forced landing in mountainous terrain. You can improve your safety through conservative fuel management, by reaching your destination at least two hours before sunset, and by using a unique flight-following flight plan. Light twins are also sometimes available as rentals.
One substantial obstacle to a flight adventure in Hawaii is competition from alluring beaches and other non-flying activities. Visitors can enjoy a satisfying vacation without ever venturing near a light plane primarily because they have no idea what they are missing. The trick is to describe your trip to traveling companions as a flight adventure right from the beginning.
Two pieces of information explain much of what you need to know. First, consider the effect of moist trade winds blowing from the northeast. Their strength is typically about 15 knots, with higher gusts. Hawaii’s terrain is rugged, and when winds blow over the islands, turbulence extends to the south and west.
As trade winds pass over the islands, air rises and cools, which sometimes causes rain to fall. When especially moist air passes through the islands, rain showers may be intense enough to discourage flight along the windward shores of the islands.
Since rain falls mostly along the northern and eastern sides of islands, remarkable climate differences develop. North shores typically support lush foliage, yet leeward sides of islands may be desert dry. Thus, north shores are a favored route because of smooth air and tropical foliage. South shores make a good Plan B for times when rain showers reduce visibility on the windward sides of islands.
Sometimes, especially in winter, winds will blow from the southwest. These breezes are known as Kona winds. Rain showers will be more common on south shores at such times, and turbulence moves to northern shores. Some of the best and worst weather in Hawaii is associated with Kona winds.
The second piece of information in the weather/geography picture is that the island chain stretches from southeast to northwest, progressing from youngest to oldest. A still-growing island such as Hawaii will have tall peaks and minimal erosion. Islands at the northwestern end, such as Kauai, exhibit smaller mountains that have been heavily sculpted by water erosion. These variations in mountain height and erosion produce different sightseeing conditions.
The Big Island offers extremes in climate and geography. While the northern coastline, Hilo, and the Kilauea Volcano area experience overcast skies with some rain showers and gusty trade winds, Kona residents may enjoy light breezes with blue sky. Two volcanic peaks, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, each nearly 14,000 feet high, account for such climate. Aircraft can be rented on the moist side of the island at Hilo International Airport (ITO), or on the dry southwest side at Kona International/Keahole Airport (KOA).
If viewing Kilauea Volcano is your top priority, then Hilo Airport is the best point of departure. From the ramp of the Hilo FBO, you can see the volcano area when weather is satisfactory. Rising terrain, frequent low ceilings and low visibility, as well as lots of helicopter traffic make Kilauea the most challenging of all Hawaii landmarks to view from above. For this reason, many visiting pilots choose to bring an instructor along, rather than spending time and money on a checkout flight. The instructor can make numerous radio calls alerting helicopter and fixed wing traffic to your whereabouts, and he’ll likely offer insights about the volcanoes as well. For example, sometimes when Kilauea is not sending out fountains of lava (which it has not for some years now), it still may be oozing lava downhill through lava tubes just below the surface. In other areas, lava may slowly be advancing across open terrain, as in events that unfolded during 2014, when a small settlement first came under threat by slow-moving lava. A trained eye can show you where to look.
Most visitors to the island of Hawaii find Kona Airport to be a more convenient departure point. One popular tour progresses north from Kona, along the coastline. Clear water and a lack of wind make this a good location for spotting whales during winter and spring months. If ceilings permit, consider a shortcut routing near Waimea-Kohala Airport (MUE). Here you’ll view grasslands more typical of Texas. If the shortcut is unavailable, follow the coastline in a clockwise direction.
During trade wind conditions, you’ll notice the wind line as you approach Kawaihae. South of your location, the sea is calm. To the north, the ocean is streaked with northeast trade winds no longer blocked by Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. You’ll get a rough ride for a few minutes crossing this area, so give passengers a briefing ahead of time. Upolu Airport (UPP) is at the tip of Upolu Point. You can land here, but be ready for a bumpy approach and gusty crosswinds.
The northern coast of the Big Island is known as the Hamakua Coast. Steep-sided Waipio Valley reaches back into the island along the 20-degree radial of Kamuela VOR. It was in this vicinity that the great King Kamehameha enjoyed his first victories over rival kings, victories that would eventually lead to a unified Hawaiian Islands. From above, Waipio looks little changed from the days of the kings.
It is tempting to turn up one of the many canyons that have been formed by eons of rainwater running down the slopes of the great volcano Mauna Kea. Many of the canyons are lined with waterfalls. Remember, however, that it is not uncommon for clouds to form rather suddenly on this windward side of the island, as moist air rises and condenses. You could find yourself over rising terrain and a lowering ceiling much faster than you might expect.
Much of the coastline still contains remnants of cane fields that grew here until recently. Look for old sugar mills along the coast, as well. As you near Hilo, Akaka Falls is tucked into a gully, so look carefully. Remember that the FAA requests pilots to maintain at least 2,000 feet AGL over the nearby Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge. Contact Hilo approach on 119.7 MHz and overfly Rainbow Falls. If weather permits, you may wish to continue to the Kilauea Volcano area. If weather is discouraging, consider landing at Hilo to refuel. Hawaii weather can change quickly, so a weather-improvement stop is often worthwhile.
Experienced tour pilots avoid talking up the Kilauea Volcano before reaching it, since weather may spoil your plans. Hopefully, you’ve studied the area ahead of time and programmed a personal GPS. A local CFI can also give you tips.
After touring Hilo and Kilauea, you have a choice of continuing clockwise around the southern end of the island by following the main highway or retracing your route from the flight over. The southern routing is longer and not as scenic, but it does reveal lava flows and black sand beaches.
Big Island pilots who wish to visit another island often choose a flight to Hana, Maui. This trip makes a great overnight flight. Proceed to Upolu Point from either Kona or Hilo, then head offshore to the small town of Kipahulu, Maui. Nearby you’ll see natural pools that are big enough to swim in. The island here is covered in lush greenery. Follow the shoreline northeast to Hana (HNM).
These islands are the most popular in the chain for air touring, both because of their proximity to one another, and because of terrific scenery. Planes can be rented from Honolulu International (HNL) on Oahu, or from Kahului Airport (OGG) on Maui.
The island of Oahu makes an interesting tour in itself. On the ground at Honolulu International, you’ll need a clearance into the Class B airspace before takeoff. Fly a counter-clockwise circle around the island during trade wind conditions so as to avoid offshore routings. Monitor 122.85 MHz for traffic. Volcanic Punchbowl Crater and Diamond Head, together with Honolulu Harbor and Waikiki, keep the city portion of the sightseeing lively. Along windward Oahu, view lush, water-sculpted cliff sides similar to what can be found on Kauai. During winter, huge surf sometimes breaks along the north shore in the vicinity of Sunset Beach and Waimea. As you approach Dillingham Airfield (HDH), monitor Unicom on 123.0 MHz for intensive parachute activity. You might even bring a picnic lunch to munch on while enjoying the gliders and parachutes from the ground at Dillingham Airfield. Note the Restricted Areas south of Dillingham, which begin at 9,000 feet MSL. When returning to Honolulu, overfly Wheeler Air Base to avoid turbulence and jet arrival routes. This is another tour on which many pilots choose to bring an instructor. An extra pilot can really lessen the communications workload. You’ll need a clearance to re-enter the Class B airspace.
Maui also offers plenty of aerial sightseeing. The trick here is avoiding turbulence. Kahului Airport lies between the West Maui Mountains and mighty Haleakala. Trade winds accelerate as they squeeze through Maui’s central valley, and turbulence can be intense to the south near McGregor Point. One popular route is to depart Kahului to the northeast and proceed along the coastline to Kipahulu and return. The former whaling town of Lahaina makes an interesting sight from above, but, once again, a flight north of the mountains will usually yield a smoother flight in reaching this destination. During winter and spring months, clear blue sea to the south and west of Lahaina provides the best whale watching in Hawaii. Humpback whales mate and give birth in these waters, and they put on quite a show with their leaps and fin slaps. Keep at least a thousand feet away from the whales to comply with marine mammal protection laws.
It would be a shame to tour only Oahu or Maui, though. In so doing, you would pass up one of the crown jewels of air touring, the north shore of Molokai. Monitor 121.95 MHz for aerial tour traffic. Traveling east from Honolulu, a visitor to Molokai will overfly Kalaupapa Peninsula. Only a narrow mule path connects the peninsula with the rest of the island. Look carefully and you can discern the trail switching back and forth down the cliff side. It was on Kalaupapa where people with leprosy were banished in earlier years. The church of famed priest Father Damien can still be spotted along the eastern side of the peninsula.
Three valleys lead into Molokai’s interior. They grow narrower and the terrain rises the farther inland they go, so they are unsafe to enter in fixed-wing aircraft. Just east of Kalaupapa, two small islands break the surface of the water. You may remember this location as Isla Sorna from the opening scenes of the movie Jurassic Park III.
As you fly east, the cliffs reach higher until they extend above 3,000 feet. After a heavy rain, as many as 100 waterfalls streak down the cliff side, but in drier conditions, plan on viewing only the larger falls at the east end of the island. Kahiwa Falls is the longest waterfall in Hawaii; you’ll need to be east of the falls before it becomes visible up a short valley, so look back over your shoulder when approaching the end of the north shore. Halawa Valley marks the corner of the island, and don’t miss the falls and pools at the head of this valley.
When planning a flight that includes Molokai, include the north shore of this island on your outbound leg. That way, if weather prevents its viewing, you have a second chance to catch it on your way back. For variety on the return trip, you can overfly fishponds of south shore Molokai or Shipwreck Beach on Lanai’s north shore. Neither of these routings can compete in beauty with the north shore of Molokai, however.
Many pilots consider Kauai to be the most beautiful of the islands. An over-water passage of some 63 nm is necessary from Oahu. You’ll lose sight of land en route, so this is not a comfortable crossing for those new to over-water flying.
Our tour begins above the sunny southern beaches of the Poipu Resort area. Monitor 127.05 MHz for high volume aerial tour traffic. A quick flight west leads to Port Allen Airport (PAK), where you can land and enjoy a short walk to a good swimming beach. Fly farther northwest and you reach Waimea, site of Captain Cook’s first contact in Hawaii. Follow the Waimea River northbound. The surrounding canyon broadens and becomes known as “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” Huge quantities of rainfall over Kauai’s interior have created this colorful maze of streams and canyons. If weather permits, overfly the northern edge of the main canyon and descend above the Na Pali Coast. If ceilings prevent such a routing, retrace your route back down the canyon, contact Barking Sands Tower at 126.2 MHz and ask permission to transit their traffic area and nearby restricted airspace.
The Na Pali Coast presents what may be the most otherworldly landscape you’ll ever see. Heavily eroded cliffs, protected beaches, natural arches, and tropical foliage produce the feel of a prehistoric land. Just about the only sign of civilization is the narrow Kalalau trail snaking along the cliff side. Slow your plane down to give your passengers more time to savor this section of Kauai.
Hanalei Bay, the Hanalei River, and vast fields of taro mark your return to civilization. Unfortunately, private Princeville Airport is not open to visiting aircraft. Abeam Princeville, look for the waterfall seemingly flowing right out of the clouds. Past Kilauea lighthouse you may wish to cut inland a bit on your way to Lihue Airport (LIH) in order to view several large waterfalls, one of which was used for the opening scenes of the television series “Fantasy Island.”
Hawaii’s weather and abundance of ocean have resulted in the creation of special flight procedures. Most light planes that fly over the islands do so for sightseeing, and fly relatively low, and the FARs do not specify altitudes to fly when you are VFR at or below 3,000 feet AGL. To help avoid collisions between aircraft, Hawaiian pilots have agreed upon their own rules. For flights below 3,000 feet MSL, eastbound aircraft will cruise at 500, 1,500 or 2,500 feet MSL. Westbound flights level at 1,000, 2,000, or 3,000 feet MSL. Here’s how to remember it: You know the FAA’s lowest specified VFR cruising altitude is eastbound at 3,500 feet MSL. Deduct 500 feet for westbound (3,000), another 500 feet for eastbound (2,500) and so on. Pilots alert other en route traffic to their location via radio calls on a common frequency.
Instead of filing a standard VFR flight plan, you can call FSS and file a “VFR Island Reporting Flight Plan,” in which you make position reports to FSS at designated locations. Once aloft, activate your flight plan with FSS and inform them of your off time. FSS will then let you know which checkpoint to report next. FSS keeps track of your location and will inform you of NOTAMs or significant weather changes. You can perform touch-and-goes at airports along your route so long as you inform FSS, but no complete stops. If you fail to make a report, search operations are launched quickly, usually within 15 minutes of an overdue report. If your destination has a control tower, close your flight plan prior to contacting the tower. The advantage to an island flight plan is that, should you have to ditch or make another type of emergency landing, a search will be initiated more quickly than on a standard flight plan. The disadvantage is that if you have a radio failure and can’t make your report, you’ll have to land quickly and call FSS (or perhaps use your cell phone) so they don’t initiate an unnecessary search. Instructors typically cover all these procedures in a checkout flight. The more you know about them ahead of time, however, the better you’ll retain the information.
Anderson Aviation, Inc., 808-833-5899
George’s Aviation Services, 808-834-2120 or 866-834-2120
Kaimana Aviation, 808-836-1031 or 877-316-2261
Moore Air, 808-833-5628
Washin Air, 808-836-3539
Maui Aviators, 808-871-6990 or 877–FLY-MAUI
Hawaii Flight Academy (Hilo and Kona), 808-961-5140
Tropic Bird Flight Service (Kona), (808) 895-4753
Most of us became pilots to extend our horizons, to experience new sights and sensations. Who hasn’t dreamed of exploring a tropical paradise from aloft? Learn Hawaii’s peculiar aeronautical customs, check out in a rental plane, exercise good judgment in the air, and you will be amply rewarded. Simply put, Hawaii’s attractions for visiting pilots are best described by the Hawaiian phrase no ka oi (none better).
Peter Forman is a part-time resident of the islands and the author of Flying Hawaii, A Pilot’s Guide to the Islands. His website offers additional Hawaii air touring suggestions.