Flying over an active volcano: Booking a helicopter ride in Hawai’i

Hawaii is, without exaggeration, one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever visited. From the lush rainforests, to the incredible volcanoes, to the endless beaches, to the rugged mountainsides affording gorgeous lookout points and intense hikes, this region of the world has something to offer for everybody. We did have one experience that stood out as a highlight of our trip (with difficulty though, since there’s so much to see!) and that was flying over the most active volcano on the Big Island in Hawaii: the awe-inspiring Kilauea. We visited the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, drove the 19 mile Chain of Craters Road, and walked the path of the steam vents active to this day.

Kilauea Iki from Jaggar Museum
Kilauea from the Jaggar Museum Overlook at sunrise. This was an incredible experience, our first time watching an active volcano in all its glory. Watching the lava spit and dance was mesmerizing to say the least.
Pauahi crater, hawaii national volcanoes park
Pauahi crater, just one of the craters on the 19 mile Chain of Craters Road. It last erupted in 1979, and is 300 feet wide and up to 500 feet deep.

We hiked the 8 miles one-way trail to watch lava spill and surge into the ocean from ‘Apua Point in the Puna region.

Puna hike 8 miles
This is as far as you can get once you hike (or rather, walk, or bike) the long trail to see the lava spit out into the ocean. It’s an incredible sight.

And still there was nothing like flying over the active Kilauea caldera from above – in a no-doors helicopter no less! Here’s our video to give you an idea of why this is a must-do experience when you visit Hawaii.

Do: Book your helicopter ride on the Big Island

We researched long and hard beforehand on which islands to visit when planning our visit to Hawaii. We decided on Oahu (where we landed) and Big Island based on the fact that we prefer more active holidays: we appreciate our beaches but need to get in those hikes, rainforests, and waterfalls as much as possible as well. Mauna Kea and the Hawai’I Volcanoes National Park was definitely the deciding factor in us choosing to visit the Big Island versus the more famous Maui and Kauai. It is worth noting that we also prefer to visit less touristy areas (even at a destination like Hawaii!) and we found that the Big Island was relatively less familiar to tour companies etc. than Maui (at least at the moment!) If you want to have a more authentic experience in Hawaii, staying away from the big hotel esplanades, and experiencing a bio-diversity rarely (if ever) seen before, visit the Big Island (and stay in Hilo, not Kona – but more about that later! Follow us for our guide to where to stay on the Big Island and more, coming soon!)

David Okita helicopter ride Big Island Hawaii
And this is why you should book your helicopter ride on the Big Island

The Big Island is really a phenomenal place on which to do a helicopter ride. In addition to flying over exquisite blue waters and lush greenery, there’s the incredible volcanic caldera of Kilauea which is really, really a must-see.

Kilauea Hawaii Big Island
Yeah, you can’t miss out on this…
David Okita helicopter ride Big Island Hawaii
Did I mention it was an unforgettable experience?
David Okita helicopter ride Big Island Hawaii
The slow-hardening, moving magma is more silver in color (more red at night!) as it moves over the darker, hardened magma

Do: Shop around

All that being said, helicopter rides can run upwards of $400 for a one hour tour per person in Hawaii. I know, crazy right?! We found a company that does a one hour tour for US$800… no way can a couple on a budget afford that! (Note that they were for the same tour we took: flying over Kilauea and the rainforests). But Hawaii is full of hidden gems: we found David Okita, a private, experienced, local pilot who does one hour tours over Kilauea for US$189* per person. While it is pricier than the usual excursions we take, we decided to go for this once in a lifetime opportunity and it was definitely worth it.

David Okita helicopter ride in Hawaii
David’s helicopter, fit for the pilot + 4 passengers (2 at the back, 2 in front). This ensures everyone gets a window seat, essentially! Note that there are no doors – it’s AMAZING.

David provides high quality service for a fraction of the price offered by larger companies such as Blue Hawaiian Helicopters. He was informative, prompt in answering our questions beforehand, and we felt more comfortable flying with a local versus a larger company. If David doesn’t work out, Safari Helicopters is also another option offering the same tour for the same price of US$189. We decided to go with David since he was a local, and operated with four passengers instead of six, so that we could all be guaranteed a window seat.

Helicopter ride on the Big Island
Before takeoff: you could say we were excited! David’s getting everything ready. There were 2 more passengers at the back, everyone can hear each other and communicate via the headsets.

Do: Plan ahead

Every company schedules their tours with more than at least two passengers on their flight roster. In order to ensure that you can get a flight, call/book online ahead and check for availability of flights on a desired date. You can contact David directly to make your reservation at +1-808-937-3022. You can also make your reservation at Safari Helicopters if you prefer here.

Do: Ask questions

There are a few things you should make sure of before you confirm your helicopter trip:

  • Are there headsets included? (Most operations do include this, but it’s good to check ahead)
  • Is it a no-door helicopter ride? We loved the no-doors helicopter ride that David offers, but of course it may not be everyone’s cup of tea! Check ahead to make sure you make the right reservation for you.
  • Is the actual helicopter ride one hour long – not including the check-in and briefing time?
  • What exactly will the ride cover? Different companies have different packages.
  • If you don’t have a car (which we highly recommend you do!), will they provide transport? How will you get to the airport?
  • Is it a six passenger or four passenger helicopter ride? If it is a six passenger ride, there is a chance that you will have a middle seat during your flight.
Helicopter ride on the Big Island
Flying with David: he was secure, safe, and informative.

More information if you book a tour with David Okita:

David operates out of Hilo airport, as do most helicopter carriers on the Big Island. We strongly recommend you stay in Hilo for at least a majority of your trip to the Big Island unless you prefer to stay at more established hotel chains and prefer the beach more to exploring rainforests etc.

There will be a small tax addition to your US$189 flight, which you will pay in full after the ride. Credit cards are accepted.

Feel free to ask David questions before and during the flight. He is very helpful and was a delight during our trip.

David also schedules his rides when there is less activity by the larger companies such as Blue Hawaiian, so you have the “airspace to yourself,” so to say, to make a few circles and trips around the Kilauea caldera. He’s a careful pilot who makes a slow ascent, so if you’re nervous, we assure you, once you’re in the air, you won’t even feel it! I was at the edge of my seat (literally), trying to enjoy as much of the experience as possible!

Helicopter ride with David Okita Hawaii
See my feet? This is how close we get to the crater! You can feel the heat emanating from below. It was in a word, incredible.

Do: Remember that helicopter rides can disturb nature

Taking helicopter rides isn’t the most eco-friendly activity, as the sound of the helicopters does disturb wildlife in the area. It is good to keep that in mind when booking specific agents to take your trip. David was very mindful of his piloting behavior on the wildlife in the area.

Do: Wear lots of sunscreen!

This is something, funnily enough, we didn’t really pay attention to when we took our trip. Christian lathered up as usual but don’t underestimate the strength of the sun as you go up; I returned with a terrible sunburn on my nose that wouldn’t go away for days! Make sure you put on plenty of sunscreen before your trip (regardless of your skin tone… I almost never burn! ;))

David Okita helicopter ride Big Island Hawaii
When we returned: a little messy, a little burnt, and extremely exhilarated.
David Okita helicopter ride Big Island Hawaii
Finishing off the trip

If you’re thinking of booking a trip to Hawaii: do it! Visit the Big Island (guide coming soon, follow us so you don’t miss it!), and don’t forget to budget in enough time to explore the underrated Oahu either! (Guide coming soon). Book a helicopter ride over the incredible Kilauea for what is (without exaggeration) an experience of a lifetime.

An overview of our journey in photos:

David Okita helicopter ride Big Island Hawaii
Taking off from Hilo airport
David Okita helicopter ride Big Island Hawaii
Flying over Hilo enroute to Kilauea

David Okita helicopter ride Big Island Hawaii

Approaching the Kilauea shield volcano region. You can see that there are forests around the periphery of the hardened lava flows.

David Okita helicopter ride Big Island Hawaii
People choose to live on the hardened lava flows, despite the risk of an eruption. In case of any eruption, they are usually informed beforehand, giving them enough time to evacuate. You can see these small, mobile settlements as when you hike/walk/bike the Puna coast to watch the lava spill into the ocean. Kilauea is sacred to the Hawaiian people so controlling eruptions is not allowed.
David Okita helicopter ride Big Island Hawaii
Approaching the crater
David Okita helicopter ride Big Island Hawaii
Flying over the crater
David Okita helicopter ride Big Island Hawaii
Yup, you get pretty close!

David Okita helicopter ride Big Island Hawaii David Okita helicopter ride Big Island Hawaii

David Okita helicopter ride Big Island Hawaii
Not caught in the shot here is the lava spilling into the ocean. It was an incredible sight, 

David Okita helicopter ride Big Island Hawaii

This is the Puna coast trail as seen from above. We walked the 8 miles the day before our helicopter ride and it was extremely interesting have witnessed both perspectives.

David Okita helicopter ride Big Island Hawaii
Heading back. New life springs from old.
David Okita helicopter ride Big Island Hawaii
Thanks to David Okita for an incredible experience. You think Hawaii couldn’t be any more amazing, and then you take this trip…

*Please note that prices may change without notice/over time.

Taken a helicopter ride on the Big Island? Planning one? We’d love to hear about your experiences! Share your stories with us below!

As always, be a conscious traveler: Take nothing, and leave nothing behind. Be conscious, be welcome! Read more about Conscious Travel here.

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Flying over an active volcano in Hawaii

Flying over an active volcano in Hawaii

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