Flying Without Wings

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Maui Helicopter Lesson
Pilot and machine become one with this kind of flying, lifting straight up, dropping straight down, hanging in the sky and rotating slowly, or hovering six inches off the ground. It’s like being in a dragonfly, and addictive.

After the lesson in the hangar, it’s out to the tarmac to make friends with the R44, which the Morans roll out while photographer Mike Neubauer and I high-five each other for lucking out on this assignment. Together Nick and I go over the aircraft from stem to stern with our checklist. Fuel is clear, there are no leaks in the engine compartment, the rotors look smooth and clean, the airbags for a water landing are on the R44’s skids, and the weather, unusually calm after yesterday’s heavy rains and wind, is flawless. I am going to get to do what I have wanted to do since that first helicopter flight in 1995: ask a million questions, tap on dials, and just . . . point my craft at something and go there. Like magic. Like a hummingbird. Like a pilot.

Mike and Magen clamber into the back seats, pilot and student strap on our headsets, Nick has a chat with the control tower, and then he beams his grin at me under aviator shades. “Ready?” I’ve been ready for twenty-four years! Switches are flipped, dials come to life, the big blades above us go WHUP WHUP WHUP WHUP, and I get the honor of yelling “CLEAR” as loud as I can out of the open door. “That’s the best part,” Nick hollers over the din, and we lift, hover, and shoot forward and up. Because I have very little piloting experience, I’ll be doing only what I feel comfortable doing today. Even so, my palms are sweaty and my heart is in my ears as we bank and climb.

Maui Helicopter Lesson

I’d asked for a flight up the windward coast towards Hāna, as the surf is huge today and the waterfalls probably all plump from yesterday’s rains. Nick cedes me control of the cyclic and suggests heading for “Giggle Hill” to begin. I aim us east, towards the Fourth Marine Division Memorial Park in Ha‘ikū. (The division stationed here during World War II, and the hill, Kauhikoa, was a popular meeting spot for marines and local girls; hence the nickname Giggle Hill.) I rest my hand lightly on the student-side collective and feel him fine-tuning our flight. My feet are on the pedals on my side of the cockpit, and with all of my four limbs on the controls, I can sense how Nick is nearly integrated into the machine, using feedback to fly with his whole body.

From Ha‘ikū we head east in search of waterfalls, and my predictions were correct: this side of the volcano is ribboned with silver streams rushing full and fast, leaping and sheeting down rock faces in their hurry to the sea. We spend some time turning and turning again high in the air near the tops of lacy falls, feeling the spray drift into our faces. For this part of the flight I gladly cede control to Nick and soak up the views. We swoop down the valley to the ocean, greens and blues blurring together above and below.

As we turn north to make the return flight to Kahului, Nick lets me take back control of the cyclic, and we glide along at 1,500 feet with frothing seas and big surf on our right, freshly washed forest slopes to our left. Since I get to choose, we’re flying right above the seam of the cliff and sea boundary for maximum visual drama. I’m still nervous, and careful, but I’m also so stoked that I’m nearly floating in my seat. As Pā‘ia and Baldwin Beach roll by below and the airport control tower materializes ahead, I realize that my flight is coming to a close just as I’m getting the hang of it.

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