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A Blue Hawaiian Eco-Star explores Kauai's astonishing Waimea Canyon, the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific."

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One Good Turn: Blue Hawaiian puts a new spin on environmental responsibility

By Rita Goldman

May 12, 2003

No Ka Oi Maui Magazine CoverI settle into the roomy seat beside our pilot, connect my lap and shoulder harnesses, and don the headset that muffles the sound of the rotors. What comes over the headphones provokes a grin: Bobby McFerrin's laid-back "Don't Worry, Be Happy." I'm about to lift off on my first helicopter ride in more than 20 years. Could there be a more appropriate message?
Any flight that requires a confession of weight by each of the passengers does not ordinarily inspire confidence in yours truly. But as we rise effortlessly from the tarmac, I feel safe and secure. Don't you worry, Bobby. We're still hovering over Kahului Heliport, and already I'm happy.

But then, I've rigged the odds in my favor. Blue Hawaiian Helicopters has a reputation for great service. When Hollywood comes to Hawaii to film as it did for Jurassic Park, Crimson Tide, Pearl Harbor, Honeymoon in Vegas, George of the Jungle, and Six Days, Seven Nights - Blue Hawaiian gets tapped for aerial photography.

And this craft, the ECO-Star, is the quietest, safest touring helicopter in the world.

Our pilot, Captain Patrick Boyle, is a 21-year veteran of the skies and a man who could have made a career in radio. His delivery is friendly and flawless, his knowledge of the regions we're about to visit seemingly limitless. His only in-flight rules: Don't smoke, and don't get out.

We cruise along the windward coast at 115 knots (roughly 125 miles an hour), 2,000 feet above sea level, and approach the West Maui Mountains, which Captain Boyle identifies by the Hawaiian name, Mauna Kahalawai, "the meeting place of waters." Our first descent takes us into Waihe'e Valley. As we dip among precipitous cliffs, leaving civilization behind, the soundtrack changes. Over the headphones, Hawaiian voices chant to primal drums that blend with the rhythmic throb of the rotors, transforming our whirlybird into a time machine. We privileged few are seeing what these islands must have looked like millennia ago, before the coming of man.

Captain Boyle's voice segues in, drawing our attention to ribbons of water coursing down the cliffs, and to the fact that, unlike your garden-variety waterfall, these aren't spilling from some high mountain pool, but from holes in the face of the rock. Mist and rain precipitate on these slopes and percolate down through the rock, collecting in ancient lava tubes and pouring from the openings where molten lava once flowed. "The Hawaiians called this the 'Wall of Tears,'" says Boyle. "These falls are said to be the tears of the warriors killed by Kamehameha's armies."

He recounts the story of Kahekili, Maui's last chief, whose warriors fled into Iao Valley, valiant, but no match for the Big Island chief, who had availed himself of European firearms and war strategies. Kahekili's men died up here in such great numbers that -Iao Stream was clogged with their bodies, and the waters ran red with their blood - which is how the town of Wailuku got its name.

We ascend a ridge, and Boyle points out Eke Crater, a nature preserve. On this summit, and nowhere else in the world, grow miniature ahinahina, cousins to Haleakala's silverswords.

We swoop and hover amid peaks and valleys, through ancient and recent history. Here is Honok¯ohau Valley, its 3,500-foot waterfall the tallest on Maui. Nearby is one of the falls used in the filming of Jurassic Park. Boyle talks about the ditch that was dug by hand and dynamite in the early part of the last century, to carry water from Honok¯ohau Valley to the pineapple and sugar fields of West Maui. As he says this, we rise over a last ridge, and see Kapalua sprawling below us: pineapple fields, the world-renowned Plantation Golf Course, the marine preserve of Honolua Bay, tranquil and blue as lapis lazuli.

Then it's out over the Pailolo Channel, past Elephant Rock, to Moloka'i. We hug the windward coast, home of the tallest sea cliffs in the world, and gaze upon valleys verdant and inviting, but accessible only by water or air. "Some folks get dropped off by boat and hike back into these valleys," says Boyle. "But they don't get this view."

Further down the coast, we encounter a broad, flat peninsula: Kalaupapa, Hawaii's infamous leper colony. Boyle tells us how, a century and a half ago, victims of Hansen's Disease were quarantined here, living a brief, desperate existence, until Father Damien arrived and built a hospital, a church, a school.

As we soar over Molokai's narrow interior, the ecology alters dramatically. Almost at once, the lush green slopes yield to an arid landscape and sparse vegetation. "What you're seeing," says Captain Boyle, "is a cloud shadow." The prevailing trade winds come in from the northeast, bringing low-flying clouds that travel undisturbed until they bump into the islands. As they rise to get over the mountains, the air cools, and the water precipitates out. By the time the cloud reaches the leeward coast, there's not much moisture left.

"You look at any of the Hawaiian Islands," he adds. "It's the same."

By now we've reached Molokai's southern coast, with its scallop of shallow ponds enclosed by rock walls. The technology of these ancient Hawaiian fishponds is elegant in its simplicity: a sluice gate, or m¯ak¯ah¯a, admitted small fish into the ponds, where food awaited in ample supply. Undesirable fish were culled, and the rest soon grew too large to squeeze through the narrow slats of the gate, and remained in the pond until they were harvested for the ali'i (chiefs).

Our ECO-Star swings back out over the channel, now, towards Maui, and I realize that the soundtrack has changed from haunting chants and drums to contemporary Hawaiian songs. We glide past Lahaina, where a cruise ship and a Navy submarine lie at anchor, and smaller craft carry other adventurers into channel waters for parasailing, deep-sea fishing and snorkeling. We round the West Maui Mountains by the southern route, and wend our way back across the Central Valley, lifted by the strains of Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's haunting rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Below us lies a patchwork of cane fields combed by "cane haul" roads where enormous yellow plantation trucks rumble, lifting clouds of dust in their wake.

Our landing is as imperceptible as our liftoff. I realize, as we are given the okay to unbuckle and disembark, that I've viewed these past 60 minutes with a sense of unreality. The cozy bucket seats, the wraparound windows, the air-conditioned comfort, the Bose headphones with the musical score, have created a movie-theater ambiance. It's a far cry from the noisy, vibrating chopper I had flown in decades ago.

In those days, helicopter tours were just starting to take off as an effortless and exciting way to view the island, and pilots sometimes displayed a Wild West mentality. On my first flight, with a different company, we had swooped into Haleakala Crater and buzzed the cinder cones, with their swirling colors of rust, black and gray; then stopped for a picnic beside a waterfall in Kipahulu - a spot that, for ecological reasons, was officially off-limits to humans.

By the mid-1980s, that kind of hot-dogging had begun to make enemies, both in the National Park Service, and in Maui communities whose serenity was disturbed by the constant aerial cacophony.

That was also about the time a couple of Midwesterners named Dave and Patti Chevalier arrived in Hawai'i. A tour pilot, Dave had joined the Army at 18 and flown Hueys in Vietnam. He earned a degree in political economics from the University of Wisconsin, but kept flying, logging tens of thousands of hours. He met Patti on a blind date, while she was a university student, and he was flying a Hughes 500C between Guam and Samoa as a tuna spotter. A year later they married.

In 1985 they moved to Maui, and Dave landed a job with Kaua'i-based South Seas Helicopters. "I started in February," he recalls. "By June I knew I wanted my own company." The owner of South Seas said, "Don't go into competition with me. Buy the business from me and call it South Seas Maui."

When the licensing rights ended four years later, the Chevaliers needed a new company name. "Patti thought that our customers would remember the color of the helicopter better than the name of the company they'd flown with, and that it would be a good idea to have the color in our name." Their first helicopters were blue; hence Blue Hawaiian.

From the start, the Chevaliers focused on quality. Blue Hawaiian was the first company in the nation to receive TOPS certification. (TOPS stands for "Tour Operators Program of Safety," whose standards go above and beyond those of the FAA.) The Chevaliers stocked their fleet with A-Stars, still the most popular touring helicopter in the world, and recruited the best tour pilots in the state, most of whom, like Dave, had trained with the military. And the Chevaliers emphasized customer service.

It still wasn't good enough.

Maui was experiencing a population boom. As residential communities spread across the island, complaints about noise grew. The state's helicopter tour companies formed the Helicopter Environmental Liaison Office (HELO) to resolve the problem.

"We went to public meetings in Hana, Lahaina, Pukalani . . . all over the island," says Dave. "We listened to people, and there was a lot of anger. We set ourselves limits: we'd fly no lower than 8,500 feet above the crater, so as not hurt the wilderness experience for hikers. When Don Reeser [superintendent of Haleakala National Park] asked the helicopter companies to stay outside the crater, we complied.

"We've worked steadily through the years to alleviate our impact, but there's only so much you can do with noisy aircraft. You can fly higher, or stay further away. The only real solution would be a quieter helicopter."

By then Dave was serving as chairman of the Helicopter Tour Operators Committee of the Washington, D.C.-based Helicopter Association International. "We resolved to visit all the manufacturers and lobby for quieter technology, but we didn't get what we needed."

Then in 1996, in France, they found a taker.

"American Eurocopter asked us what we wanted. We said, 'A quieter machine.' They said, "What do you want to pay for it?"

It was the kind of question that could give a tour operator butterflies. At $1.8 million apiece, the fully equipped ECO-Star would cost nearly twice as much as the A-Stars used by 90 percent of the world's tour companies. "It's a case of diminishing returns," Dave explains. "You can get a big reduction in noise for relatively little money, but after that, it costs more and more to achieve less and less. We were asking for a helicopter that was 50 percent quieter."

Eurocopter was willing to invest in the design attempt, if the tour companies evinced an equal commitment. Blue Hawaiian and three other companies from New York, the Grand Canyon and Alaska agreed upfront to purchase a total of 10 of the new helicopters - four years before the first ECO-Star rolled off the production line.

So how do you make a helicopter 50 percent quieter? The first step is to get rid of the tail rotor, where most of the noise comes from. (Helicopters get their lift and power from the main, overhead rotor; the tail rotor serves to stabilize torque, so the body of the aircraft doesn't follow the main rotor into a spin.) Eurocopter replaced the conventional tail rotor with a "fan and fin" system of 10 small, asymmetrically spaced blades enclosed in a frame. The fan-and-fin system dramatically minimizes noise, and incidentally is safer because it's enclosed.

The next step was incorporating FADEC, which stands for "fully authorized digital electronic control." Translation: a state-of-the-art fuel system that gives the helicopter all the rpms needed for takeoff and landing, then automatically reduces rpms for normal cruising. "You can't slow the rotor safely without FADEC," says Dave. "With it, you've got a much quieter, much more efficient engine."

The ECO-Star has a host of systems that talk to one another, back each other up, and make the pilot's job infinitely easier. The Chevaliers also wanted to make it safer to navigate inside Maui's steep mountain valleys.

"Tour pilots aren't supposed to fly into clouds, smoke or other conditions that limit visibility," says Dave, "but sometimes it can't be helped. Honeywell had just developed a ground proximity warning system for helicopters, and had terrain-mapping data, but it wasn't sensitive enough to pick up satellite signals in Maui's valley terrain. Garmin, a leading manufacturer of ground GPS, had a system that would do the job."

Blue Hawaiian brought the two companies together, then brought them to Maui and test-flew their integrated systems inside the valleys. The systems "worked wonderfully," says Patti Chevalier. "We're proud of the fact that we were their launch customer."

Blue Hawaiian had committed to purchasing the world's first ECO-Star, but that quieter, safer ride would come at a formidable cost: $1.8 million fully loaded. The Chevaliers would have to price their ECO-Star tours about 20 percent higher than normal. What would convince passengers to pay the higher price?

"We told Eurocopter we wanted even more space and comfort than the A-Star," says Dave. "They listened. They gave us 23 percent more cabin space, more shoulder room, better visibility. Bucket seats instead of bench seats. Air conditioning and Bose headsets. Four video cameras, one mounted on the nose of the chopper, one on either side and one in the cabin." Customers can purchase a video of their specific flight, complete with soundtrack.

"There's no question that for half our guests, price is a critical issue," Dave admits. "We have the A-Stars, whose tours are priced comparably to other companies. But we encourage our guests to choose the ECO-Star."

Their customers must be listening. In September 2002, Pacific Business News ranked Blue Hawaiian the largest and most profitable helicopter tour company in the state. "We don't pay the biggest commissions," Dave says. "You can pay the activity centers more and get their business, but if you're not profitable, that is a dead-end street. We concentrate on customer service in every aspect, and people demand to fly with us. I think we have raised the bar both here on Maui and on the Big Island [where Blue Hawaiian has two bases of operation]."

Indeed, Blue Hawaiian's success has as much to do with corporate philosophy as it does with the latest wow in whirlybirds.

"Our management perspective" says Dave. "It's an inverted triangle. I used to be the president, and below me was the person who would do what I said and try to please me. And everyone below him would do the same. Our guests got the short shrift. Now we work for the people in the trenches. Our employees are not looking to please the managers, but our guests. I don't run the company. They do. I'm here to give them support."

"We do think of the people who fly with us as our guests, rather than simply customers," says Patti. "Our tours are flying classrooms. Our pilots get intensive training, and guests can purchase a video of their flight, with accurate historical and cultural information. That's hugely important. It makes me feel so good about what we do."

"Our strength is our people," Dave adds. "Our maintenance staff is world-renowned. We're the only air tour operator that is a factory maintenance center. These guys are head and shoulders above the usual guys on maintenance. We recognize that, give them the support they need, and get out of their way. Half of our guys have a Blue Hawaiian tattoo!"

Six ECO-Stars fly the Blue Hawaiian logo these days; nobody else in the state has yet made that investment. Dave Chevalier is hoping that will change. "We're a small island," he says. "We've got to be socially responsible."