Thursday, July 24, 2014

Air Volcano

A few months ago we had the opportunity to fly to the Grand Canyon via a helicopter. It was a cool experience and I'm happy we did that instead of spending 16 hours on a bus. But there was one thing that frustrated me. I never got really great pictures.

Part of it is I'm using much simpler photo gear these days. Instead of dragging around a heavy DSLR and multiple lenses, I'm using one of those mini-Olympus cameras with interchangable lenses. A lot lighter, a lot simpler and with pretty close to DSLR photo quality. But that doesn't help with window glare. That's what I got a ton of when shooting the canyon. I looked at the photos later, and there were a lot of reflections and weird glare. It drove me nuts.

So before coming to Hawaii I read that you could do helicopter tours of a volcano on the Big Island with the doors off. It was a little more expensive, and obviously there's a bit more risk, but I would get much better photos this time around.

There's logic for you, right there...

However, the odds were not looking good of that tour happening. Rain, rain and more rain. Most of the helicopter tours for that week had been cancelled. Still, I took a stab in the dark, called the company and booked for Friday. After that, all you could do was hope.

Turns out, dumb luck works in your favour sometimes. After five days of rain, Friday was sunny and clear. One of the staff told me it was the only day in the last week all their flights managed to get out.

So we jaunt back into Hilo from the village of Volcano (I kept wondering what the insurance rates must be like when you live in a place called Volcano, and living so near something that could go boom at inconvenient moments). We were in a 5-person helicopter - the pilot, a couple from Houston, and Cathy and I.

So we're loaded into the helicopter. Cathy and I are in the two seats in the back. Now, when we flew from Vegas to the Grand Canyon, they strapped us in so tight you had to work pretty hard to get out of the seatbelt. It was a 5-point harness. That was with doors on. With doors off, I was figuring we'd get something even more elaborate.

What we got was a car seatbelt. Oh, it went over the shoulder. So, you know, it wasn't just a lapbelt. But basically I was getting the same level of restraint and safety protection flying in an open helicopter 3,000 feet in the air over an active volcano as I do when driving to NorthMart. Less, actually. My car has airbags. 

In my excitement, this fact did not dawn on me until we were five minutes into the flight and the pilot banked sharply for the first time. That's when it kind of hit me exactly what I had gotten myself into.

So after two minutes of mentally going "ohfuckohfuckohfuckohfuck" I managed to calm down a bit. There was a hand strap in front of me, so I grabbed that. Because, logically, if the seatbelt gives way, me clutching that strap was totally going to save my life. You grasp at logic where you can.

Thankfully, doing something moderate-to-high on the stupid scale disappears as you approach the volcano. I mean, yes, it's got steam and lava and it will certainly kill you, but odds are if something bad is going to happen, it's not going to be the volcano that does you in. And really, it's an active volcano. And we're flying over it.

That is pretty cool, no matter what was you cut it.

Alas, it is not, as some of the brochures would have you believe, you skimming over the top of fast moving rivers of lava. Right now the peak is mostly steam...there are lava tubes, and in the breaks you can catch a glimpse of lava streaming down from the peak. It's cool and all, but not Hollywood blockbuster cool.

All around you can also see the results of decades of volcanic activity and what it has done to the area. One fishing village, which was destroyed decades ago, has rebuilt on top of the cooled volcanic rock.

That says something about humanity. Not sure what, but it says something.

The pilot, to her credit, was pretty good. Both sides of the helicopter got a chance to see the volcano.  And you never lose track of the fact that you are flying over a volcano and really, how many people get to do soemthing like that?

There's a second part of the trip, where you get to flying over some of the rainforests on the island, and over some of the waterfalls just north of Hilo. Which is nice and all, but Pele is the main attraction to the flight.

Then, after 45 minutes, you're done and back on Earth. Would I still do it knowing what I know about the seatbelts? Probably.

That says something about me. Not sure what, but it says something...

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