One of the great ironies of Kauai is that much of its lush, verdant beauty can’t be seen by conventional means, whether by car, foot, or mule. Not only is a large chunk of the island privately owned, but many areas are simply inaccessible, too difficult to get to by any means other than an arduous jungle trek with a machete in hand. The ecological damage caused by such actions is a concern to many Hawaiians, which has given rise to a rather large industry in scenic helicopter tours. There are at least six companies offering tours, running several times a day. If not for the fact that most of the locations they frequent are remote, the buzz of them would be incessant.
In my investigation of interesting things to do on Kauai, I started toying with the idea of taking a jaunt in a helicopter. I had never been in one, and had always thought they looked like a fun way to fly, not to mention a great way to view some stunning scenery. As a child, I had spent countless hours creating LEGO helicopters, carefully engineering them with increasing strength, testing their durability by observing how well they could withstand being dropped from various heights. Much to the envy of my friends, I became the master of the invincible LEGO chopper, with the propeller blades usually being the only casualty. Although not always aesthetic masterpieces, they were able to withstand the assaults and trials of an eight-year-old me. I had a lonely childhood.
It seems that some of that skill and real-world testing would have come in handy for the people designing actual helicopters. There is something unsettling about driving along and noticing a crumpled heap of metal in a field next to the highway, as it dawns on you that you are looking at what once was a helicopter.
We came upon the scene less than an hour after the crash. The police were ushering the traffic through, trying to keep the cars moving, but people are inevitably curious about disaster, and as always, wanted to slow down and have a look. Some, I believe, were wondering if they could help in some way, or had concern for whether anyone may be injured, while others might have felt the need to see things ‘in the flesh.’ So much of what we see of the world these days is through TV or the internet, so when something real is happening, we want to experience it, as it reminds us that we are alive, and (hopefully) makes us grateful for that fact. Our taste for grim spectacle might be no more than an opportunity to validate our existence.
This was a tragedy of bizarre proportions, as the six passengers on the chopper were made up of three couples, all on romantic getaways. Each couple lost one spouse. I remembered back to our arrival in Honolulu, reading a newspaper headline about a helicopter crash on Kauai, and politicians applauding an upcoming aviation safety review of the industry. It seems to me that when this sort of tragedy happens, immediate action should be taken, all flights should be grounded, and all choppers given a thorough inspection. But bureaucracy marches to the beat of its own drum, especially in Hawaii, where the profits of the tourist trade trump all else.
I started to have doubts about going up in a helicopter, but the thought crossed my mind that statistically speaking, the safest time to go up would be immediately following a crash. This is, of course, an incorrect assumption, like the false belief that getting heads on a coin toss ten times in a row increases the chances of tails on the next toss. It doesn’t. The odds are always 50/50 for each toss.
I discussed this with Theresa, and we concluded that maybe there were other reasons why we might want to avoid an aerial tour of the island. Helicopters consume a fair amount of fuel, so even if you are not damaging the land itself, you are still contributing to climate change, not mention noise pollution. Was seeing the remote beauty of the island worth it? All the brochures seemed to say so, but it was their bread and butter, after all.
Several days later, we visited Lumahai beach. It was a day of monster swells, and we had been watching a surf competition in nearby Hanalei. We were tiring of the spectacle, and honestly, without high powered binoculars or a zoom lens, there is little to see at a surfing match. Lumahai is known as the second most dangerous beach on Kauai, with waves up to 12 feet tall crashing right on the shore, often in layered curls. I was mesmerized by the intensity of the waves, and the roar was loud enough to make conversation difficult. Theresa, Violet and I spent some time there, getting pictures and video footage, while standing at the top of the dune that marks the upper level of the shore break.
Throughout the time we were there, we found ourselves becoming annoyed with the helicopters constantly buzzing overhead. They flew quite low to the beach, probably trying to capture the view that made Lumahai famous in the classic movie ‘South Pacific’. I couldn’t resist yelling “Don’t you crash on us!” at the helicopters, confident that the statistics made that highly improbable.
The next day, I read in the newspaper that the government had approved a bill to regulate helicopter safety in Hawaii more stringently. The bill was set to go into effect in in several months’ time. Better late than never, I reasoned. That afternoon, while discussing the issue with a friend, he informed me that another helicopter had crashed, just a couple of miles up the road from Lumahai. Odds be damned, I’d put my trust in my LEGO helicopters over the real thing any day. I decided I was quite content viewing whatever I could of Kauai from the safety of the ground.