Sunday, May 04, 2014

Flying Over a Live Active Volcano

An experience of a lifetime, flying over a live active volcano may sound like a ridiculously unsafe thing to do, but hundreds of people do this every single day in the Big Island in Hawaii.  They are actually made of 5 active volcanoes altogether and the one currently erupting is Kilauea Volcano.  I just had to add this to my list of thrill activities to do before I die.

I decided to take the helicopter tour, another first for me.  This is my first time to ride of a helicopter, add in with doors off and over a live active volcano!  What else can one ask for, for a once in a lifetime experience?  Although excited, I have always been a bit wary of my height phobia but surprisingly, I was not at all worried during the whole ride.  It probably helped that I had shoulder straps too in addition to the waste belts since I was sitting on the right front side of the helicopter.  There is probably only one tiny second when I first looked directly below me through the open door when the chopper was turning right that I had a slight phobia attack, probably because of the strong winds too, but succeeding looks were not a problem.  I even wanted to sit facing the side if I could instead to get a better glimpse of things but the type of chopper we had, had seats all facing front.

During the orientation, we were surprised to see a lot of people at the airport, and even more surprised to see that they didn't have anything else aside from their shorts, sleeveless shirts and slippers.  And here we were, looking like idiots with our long sleeve shirts, closed shoes and even a jacket in warm tropical Hawaii.  But it turned out we were the smart ones.  The couple that rode with us was not prepared since they didn't know about the doors off option.  Apparently, they booked at the last minute, so they weren't given a choice, so they had to put doors on their seats.  Even if they wanted to pay extra, they staff wouldn't allow them up cause they said they will freeze without the proper clothing.  So our chopper was half doors off, hahaha!  Luckily they have those easily removable and reattachable doors. But it didn't matter to us cause we were in front anyways and still had the full experience of doors off.

Doors off Helicopter with the doors left behind

Nothing much to prepare except for simply following the staffs' instructions upon sitting and getting off.  Prior to boarding, we were weighed at check-in and a computer computes our weights and determines where we should sit in the 5-seater Hughes 500 chopper.  I was the heavier of the two of us and thus, I got to sit on the right front seat instead of the center front seat, one of those benefits of being chubby, haha!  Lucky for me as I was nearest the door, but it would have been a disaster if my height-phobia had acted up.  We had two-way radios too where we could talk to our pilot Pete and other passengers, but I realized it wasn't that easy since the wind was blowing hard and created too much static.  Having to juggle with my camera, pushing the button to talk to him, and covering my mouth to talk into the mic, was just a hassle.  He was quite helpful anyway in providing the narration and pointed things out to us during the 50 minute flight.

All strapped in and ready to go
And we're off!

The take off was surprisingly smooth, and felt like we were just hovering above the ground.  I didn't even feel the lift up from the ground, nor the landing at the end and the change in altitude was not abrupt either.  Hmmm, I could get used to this! ;-)

It's a totally different experience as you can see everything from a different perspective than we're used to, and from different angles.  The most unique one was to look straight down below cause we don't get to do that normally.  Even riding a plane or looking down from a high-rise structure offers a different perspective, sort of a top view out the side but not exactly directly top view, except maybe for the new glass bottom platforms, like those in Grand Canyon or the Alps and Google Earth, where you can look straight down.

Before reaching the lava fields, we flew through lush green rainforests.  It was just a breathtaking experience.  It's amazing how dense the forests are.  I could imagine myself diving into a giant broccoli as I zoom in to look closer.

Passed by many broccoli-looking fields!

The wind was strong and we had to keep our arms and cameras inside the helicopter otherwise, it may just flick to the back, hurt yourself and get your camera damaged.  I forgot a couple of times especially when I wanted to point something out to my cousin, but luckily I was slow to stretch out my arms and camera and could immediately retract them when I felt the winds pulling my arms like a doll.

It was actually hard to take photos, contrary to what I expected because of the strong wind and I couldn't stretch my camera, which was a DSLR, outside the chopper.  So I just kept shooting as much as I can, hoping to get some good shots.  My flip screen turned out to be quite useful, and I was able to get photos and videos with the camera just laying on my leg for more stability.
Dried lava or at least it seems like it!

The strong cold wind made us forget that we are on top of a live active volcano, until we see the steam coming out of the ground.  It could be deceiving as the color of the lava turns black on top and fresh green trees have sprouted out.  But when I looked closely at the trees, and I can see their trunks and branches dried up from the heat below.  The magma at Kilauea could go up to about 2200 degrees F where rocks melt, glowing orange lava flows more than 1600 degrees F, dark red lava at 895 degrees F and the cooler lava could be as low as 570 degrees F, just like our oven.
Steam coming out of the live volcano

The color of the lava fields seem to turn from dull black to shiny black and instead of dried up lava, I could see molten lava everywhere.  The Kilauea is said to have basalt, which is a type of lava that is dark in color, and thus, we could see a sea of black lava fields everywhere.  Look closely, we could see dark red spots that turn out to be magma under the black exterior.  Then suddenly, fiery red spots reveal themselves.  According to our pilot Pete, the morning showed signs of new lava forming and it was still trying to spring out, so we could only see small areas of glowing lava.

It was also interesting to see different formations from the lava like the one below.  It appears they actually have a name for this type of lava, pahoehoe (pronounced "pa hoy hoy") which are smoother flat surfaces created by smooth slow flows of lava, and where one could still walk on after it cools down.  The other type is called a'a which are rockier surfaces formed by faster and multiple flows and sometimes cause cracks in the crust and will be difficult to step or walk on.  The pahoehoe can be smooth, billowy and ropey.  In the photo below, you can see all three. 
Molten Lava Flows with tiny new lava (red spots)
Fiery red lava!!

Mauna Loa which is Hawaii's largest volcano wasn't visible due to the heavy fog but we flew over the area around Kilauea which was the area that is currently erupting, and saw lots of lava fields and volcanic craters.

Lighter brown lava here represents newer lava flows
Getting to the higher peaks
Getting to the higher peaks

One of the volcano craters
One of the volcano craters
One of the volcano craters

Vents cracking the land open and new orange magma appearing from below

Highest Peak

Volcanoes are not new to me, but this is probably the first time I've learned so much more about them.  My first knowledge of volcanic eruptions was Mount St. Helens, and it introduced me to the world of National Geography where I saw photos of the eruption.  I live in a country with lots of volcanoes and a decade after Mount St. Helens, our own Mount Pinatubo erupted.  We live more than 50 miles of the volcano, but we experienced major earthquakes and several inches of ash fall in the city and were enveloped in a cloud of darkness. Just recently, I hiked to the crater which is now filled with an elegant emerald green pool of water.  And not to forget our active Mount Mayon which boasts of its perfect cone shaped peak, a place I could only read about when I was a kid.  I was luck to be able to finally visit it twice in the past few years.  And now, Kilauea!

"In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks."
- John Muir

Patchy clouds over the rainforests and communities near the volcano!

At times, it feels surreal to see all these things together: a live active erupting volcano against the lush greeneries and communities that go on with their daily lives.  But it's a way of life!  When I visited our own active volcano back home, I was told of stories where men would sit around with their beers at night, despite warnings of a possible major eruption, looking out in the darkness and paying tribute to the powerful volcano.  This reminds me of the story here of Jack Thompson, who survived more than 30 years of near misses and whose house was the last one standing, till it was overtaken by lava in 2012.
Macadamia Fields (squared areas)
Black circles are water storages for rainwater collection, most of these rural communities don't have pipe in water supply
Tropical Rainforests
Hilo urban communities and Hilo coasts
Cruise ship at the Hilo Port
One of the falls from the flowing Wailuku River 
The 80-foot Rainbow Falls (unfortunately no rainbow at the time we visited, but it known for the rainbows that form from the mists)
Top View of Rainbow Falls, with water flowing from the Wailuku River
Hilo Seaport and Airport
Cruise ship at the Hilo Port
Naniloa Resort, Hilo Hawaiian Hotel and Coconut Island (left to right) and Banyan Golf Course
Top View of the Pride of America cruise ship and port
Hilo coastline
Is that a spot of rain?
Direct Top View of Reeds Bay
Hilo Airport
Time to go back
Hilo Airport Control Tower
Hilo Airport Helicopter Landing Area
Time to say goodbye!  Doors being taken off from the back seats, amazing to see flexibility and ease of removing and reattaching the doors
Mission Accomplished!  With Pete, our pilot!
This experience wasn't just all about adventure and education, it reminded me that there's something bigger than us, bigger than we can ever imagine in this earth, and it's nature's forces!  Even in this modern world where all the high-technology has an answer to almost every problem, nature as deceivingly gentle as it seems, still places a strong powerful hand on everything and no technology out there can match it.  In one sweep of her arms or even a cough she makes, everything worldly that man have built and worshipped could disappear in a whim.  While we continue to appreciate and learn about the natural environment we live in, we should also not forget to take care of it!

“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed ... so that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it.”
— Wallace Stegner

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