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A Passion for Perfection

by Paul Wood

The following cover story first appeared in "Rotor Magazine" in winter 1997-98. Some facts have been updated since the original publication. Reprinted with permission.

Rotor Magazine cover

The visitor industry has no higher mark of success than the International Star Diamond Award for Outstanding Quality and Service, given sparingly by the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences to the select best — a few ultra-deluxe resorts, the rare outstanding restaurant. Only one activity company in the world is so honored, and that’s Maui-based Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, which has received the prestigious recognition every year since 1995.

Frommer’s Guide to Hawaii calls them “the Cadillac of helicopter tour companies,” and bestows on them their rare “recommended” stamp of approval. Hollywood film-makers and television producers depend on them to fly their aerial photography crews; Island Business Magazine gave its 1996 “Entrepreneur of the Year” award to owners David and Patricia Chevalier. By demanding the best in every aspect of its operation, Blue Hawaiian has managed to set the standard for helicopter touring not only in the Pacific, but also, increasingly, for the industry world-wide.

So who are these relentless masters of perfection? As it turns out - two nice people from Green Bay, Wisconsin , who just want to do their best.

Rising Stars

Dave and Patti Chevalier came to Maui in 1984. Patti taught social studies in the local high school. Dave, a former scout pilot with pilot-in-command (PIC) hours logged in, Central America , and across the mainland, went to work as a pilot for South Sea Helicopters. When the chance arose to buy the business, Dave invested a nest-egg built over his years of contract work.

Suddenly they were players in Hawaii ’s competitive and rapidly growing air tour industry. The Chevaliers began with one four-passenger Jet Ranger, six employees, and no experience running a business. Today, 15 years later, Blue Hawaiian dominates the skyways, flying more than 140,000 passengers a year out of three bases, one on Maui and two on the Big Island of Hawaii. Their flight territory, covered in a dozen different tour options, includes two national parks, live volcanic eruptions, the biggest mountains, the tallest waterfalls, and the largest rainforest in the state. They employ 130 full-time and 10 part-time staffers, including 33 pilots, all of whom are high-time experts, and virtually all of whom are military-trained, decorated veterans. The ever-growing fleet now comprises 15 new or late-model American Eurocopter helicopters – six AS350 BAs, and nine of the more-powerful AS350 B2s.

Patti attributes this steady success to her husband. “He has a strong character and great adaptability,” she says. But Dave deflects the compliment. “We never planned to be the largest helicopter tour company in Hawaii ,” he says. “Our driving force was to be the best. " 

Flying Classrooms

The feeling of quality permeates Blue Hawaiian’s modern, spacious passenger terminal at Kahului Heliport, designed by Dave himself and constructed in 1995 at a cost of $1.2 million. If passengers enter with apprehensions, their concerns are dispelled quickly. An energetic young staff greets arrivers, confirms bookings, and commences their brisk and witty orientation routine with such efficiency that tourists scarcely have time to study the walls lined with framed documents — awards and certificates attesting to the company’s numerous achievements and outstanding safety record.

Assisted by the staff, passengers climb into their waiting A-Star’s luxurious seats, belt up, and slip on Bose Electronic Noise-Canceling headsets. Instantly, the passengers hear a carefully-selected CD soundtrack; over which the pilot’s voice is close, clear, and reassuring.

Flight narration is almost continuous, sprinkled with amusing anecdotes — from the force it takes to crack a macadamia nut (300 pounds per square inch) to the use of sea-spray as an indicator of wind’s direction. As the A-Star whisks along North Molokai ’s shoreline, the pilot describes the sundering of the earth that created the tallest sea cliffs in the world, and passengers imagine the 1,000-foot tidal wave that resulted.

A custom, four-camera video system records all of this. The Chevaliers spent three years developing their system, abandoning several early configurations as they followed new developments in technology. They settled on three-CCD chip cameras, including a “lipstick tube” unit in the cabin, controlled by a digital switching system. The color liquid-crystal display monitor is flush-mounted in the instrument panel without any displacement of critical flight instruments.

Purchase of the in-flight video is optional, but well worth it. Within minutes of their gentle touchdown after the tour, passengers are handed their high-fidelity video record of what many have called “a spiritual experience.” Blue Hawaiian introduced in-flight video in 1993, and all their competitors have since followed suit.

“The helicopter is just the vehicle,” says former schoolteacher Patti Chevalier. “We’re a tour company, and our aim is education.” To achieve their aim, they brought in Hawaii expert George Kanahele, who labeled their tours “flying classrooms” and helped them develop a program in Hawaiian history, culture, language, wildlife, and geology. In addition, every Blue Hawaiian pilot is a State of Hawaii Certified Tour Guide.

Safety First

While Patti minds the visitor experience, Dave is driven to perpetuate his company’s safety record, which is an outstanding one since the day Blue Hawaiian began operations — more than 150,000 flight hours ago. “We have a moral responsibility to the public,” he says, “to afford them the highest possible level of dedication to safety.”

His front line in fulfilling this responsibility is his team of pilots, the most experienced in the state. Pilot-In-Charge histories for this group range between 7,000 and 20,000 hours, the average being 12,000 hours. All pilots are required to go through annual factory recurrency training, in which they review manuals and charts and practice touchdown auto-rotations and other emergency procedures.

Blue Hawaiian’s mechanics, too, go through recurrency training. Dave’s ground crew maintains an FAA-certified Part 145 repair station, a factory-authorized service center for both American Eurocopter and Turbomeca Engine Corporation with the largest spare parts inventory in the Pacific Rim. “We’re extremely fortunate to have attracted some of the most talented and dedicated helicopter mechanics in the business,” says Dave. “I have tremendous respect and admiration for the job that these guys do.” For the past three years, Blue Hawaiian has received the Federal Aviation Administration’s Diamond Award for Maintenance Training, the highest recognition bestowed by the FAA.

To make sure the men in the hangar can do their job, the company relies on a fleet-wide Altair Health Usage Monitoring (HUMS) system. Computers monitor each flight, watching for any variable that exceeds operating parameters. Results are checked daily with the office’s computer program.

Pilot performance is checked by means of the same videos carried home by passengers. Each quarter, tapes are randomly selected for evaluation. Pilots receive ratings according to parameters like overall safety, respect for noise-abatement regulations, and attitude toward safety as expressed in the narration.

Blue Hawaiian also maintains a state-of-the-art computerized customer feedback system, with terminals in each of their three operations centers.

Leading the Industry

Dave Chevalier’s work to improve helicopter safety has placed him on the founding board of the Tour Operator Program of Safety (TOPS). This national organization, now four years old, has developed guidelines for helicopter safety that exceed FAR Part 135 standards. Companies that seek TOPS certification must submit to a stringent independent audit of their operations every other year and perform an internal audit in alternate years. Blue Hawaiian was the first tour company in the entire to secure a TOPS certification. “Safety is one area where we will never compete,” says Dave, expressing one of the cornerstones of the TOPS program. “The biggest outfits share their safety materials, techniques and expertise with the smallest mom-and-pop company — free.”

In fact, Dave’s drive has drawn him into industry-wide service on many fronts. This ranges from a seat on the FAA’s Aviation Rules Advisory Committee (ARAC) to the role of aviation officer for the County of Maui ’s Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT). Through DMAT’s efforts, Maui helicopter tour operators have pledged to put at least five helicopters in the air within 15 minutes of any local disaster.

Bringing the Helicopter Into its Own

The company’s reputation for both quality and safety has attracted the attention of Hollywood . Blue Hawaiian has become the helicopter company of choice for big-budget film-makers, including Steven Spielberg. Dave’s pilots supplied all the aerial photography work for “Jurassic Park” and its sequel “The Lost World,” not to mention “Flight of the Intruder,” “Crimson Tide,” and “Honeymoon in Vegas.” Recently Blue Hawaiian worked behind the scenes on “George of the Jungle,” the Harrison Ford comedy “Six Days, Seven Nights,” and Disney’s new epic, “ Pearl Harbor ."

There is, in fact, something Spielberg-like about the Chevaliers’ own ambition for the helicopter tour industry. Says Patti, “We want people to forget they’re even in a helicopter. Ninety-eight percent of our customers have never been in a helicopter. We start them off correctly, with a safe and pleasant experience. The air tourism industry is going to bring the helicopter into its own.”