By Helicopter in Hawaii

A couple of weeks before our “once-in-a-lifetime” mother/daughter trip to Hawaii, I spoke with a producer from a prominent travel website. She was feeling me out for a project, the nature of which was not immediately disclosed. I’d mentioned that I would be going to Honolulu with my nineteen-year-old daughter, who is bicultural, deaf, and uses a wheelchair.

“What are you planning on doing while you’re there?” she asked.

“Shopping, maybe? And we’ll probably visit Pearl Harbor. And maybe swimming with dolphins?” I thought that last bit sounded exciting. But when the producer finally explained that she was looking for subjects for a new travel show, I wished that I’d come up with more visually exciting options – parasailing, perhaps. Swimming with sharks!

We weren’t chosen for the TV show, but it was just as well. I didn’t really want to be filmed in a bathing suit, and parasailing didn’t seem to be an option for wheelchair users. Swimming with sharks was out, too, because my daughter would probably struggle with snorkeling. But there was another activity that seemed bound to thrill – the open door helicopter ride.

I dashed off a quick note to Magnum Helicopters, explaining my daughter’s physical condition. She was capable of climbing stairs while hanging on to a railing, but she couldn’t walk unaided. “No problem,” they replied. I signed us up.

The tour company sent a van to pick us up at our hotel. The driver, an affable Asian-American named Steven, seemed surprised that my daughter was in a wheelchair, He hadn’t gotten the memo, it turned out, but he quickly adapted. After spending so much time in risk-averse, rules-oriented Japan, where my daughter had been denied access to even a make-up job at a theme park because of her wheelchair, his easy-going attitude was refreshing.

After getting my daughter on board, secured and settled in, we went to a couple of other hotels to pick up the rest of the passengers. There were eight of us in total, all American, hailing from Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Japan.

When we arrived at the airport, Steven explained the protocols. We weren’t allowed to bring anything loose, like handbags or keys, but we could purchase transparent cellphone holders, which would enable us to take photos. Also, we weren’t to go near the rear propellers.

He divided us into two groups. The first group got onto one helicopter. My daughter and I waited with another couple to board the second. I’d paid a little extra money for premium seats, which meant we would be sitting in front with the pilot with the better view. The other couple would be seated behind us.

“We’re going to put your daughter on the outside,” Steven said. “Is she okay with that?”

“She’ll love it,” I assured him, thinking of how she’d been thrilled by the Stratosphere, a thrilling ride at the top of a tall building in Las Vegas.

“And one more thing,” Steven added. “There will two rods by her feet. Those control the helicopter, so tell her not to touch them.”

An alarm bell went off in my head. Due to her cerebral palsy, my daughter could not completely control her legs. Sometimes, like when she was startled, her entire body reacted, However, my daughter was short, and maybe her feet wouldn’t reach all the way to the floor. I nodded. “Sure thing.”

When the second helicopter was ready, Steven led us onto the tarmac. I climbed in next to the pilot, Nathan. It was quite snug.

“Hi there,” he said. “I’ll be steering with my right hand, so try not to lean on my shoulder.”

“Okay,” I replied. I noted, as my daughter settled in next to me, that her feet were perilously close to the rods. For safety’s sake, I threw one leg over my daughter’s legs as ballast. Meanwhile, I was careful not to lean on our pilot’s arm.

We ascended. Nathan narrated, his voice coming through the headphones that we all wore. There, down below, was Waikiki, and Diamond Head. He said that an earlier group had spotted whales offshore. I searched the waves, snapping photos as we went.

The wind whooshed into the cockpit. Although my daughter is more fearless than most, and although she as was strapped in securely, she clung desperately to my right arm. The lack of a door was more disconcerting for her than I had expected.

In addition to Nathan’s comments to us, we could hear him communicating with the other pilot. About ten minutes into our flight, the other pilot reported that he would be making a “preventative landing.” Wha-a-a-t? Did the other helicopter experience engine trouble? Had someone leaned on the pilot’s arm, or bumped the rods on the floor? Had someone had a panic attack? I wondered what had happened, but I thought it bad form to ask. Making sure once again that my daughter’s legs were securely anchored by mine, I shook thoughts of doom and disaster from my head and concentrated once again on the beautiful blues of the ocean and the rippling green volcanoes below.

We continued through the sky, passing a waterfall, and later, Pearl Harbor and the monument dedicated to the U.S.S. Arizona, which still, all these years later, they say, leaks oil.

At last, we circled back to the airport. After we got off the helicopter, we posed for photos. My hair was messy, but I felt exhilarated.

Impressed by my daughter’s bravery, Steven asked if he could give her a hug. Then he showed us photos of his most recent appearance on a television show filmed in Hawaii. His character had died in the last episode.

Someone explained that the van that had picked us up that morning had gone to pick up the others, from wherever their “preventative landing” had taken them. We would be going back to our hotel by Uber.

“How was it?” I asked my daughter, a bit worried that she was now traumatized for life.

“Good!” she replied, thumbs up. Later, she would reiterate that the open door helicopter ride had been the best part of our trip.

Published in Travel


  1. Thanks for the story, I really enjoyed it. I’ve never been in a helicopter. For some reason they just look wrong without a fixed wing! Like a bumble bee they just don’t look like they should fly.
    We once had a hot air balloon make a “preventative landing” in our front yard. I don’t know if they ran out of time or out of gas.
    It would be interesting to know why the other helicopter made it’s “preventative landing.” And, did they get a reduced rate for a shorter trip?!

  2. Five years ago we were on the big island of Hawaii and took the Blue Hawaiian helicopter ride over the active volcanoes and more. Their helicopters are larger with side doors that close. Which, of course, is more comforting as you fly over vents where you are seeing glowing red magma below!
    They had a special conveyor belt style lift that took me from my wheelchair on the tarmac up to the cabin – where I could slide across to my seat. – Very disability friendly!
    My whole family loved the experience and also agreed that it was the highlight of our whole trip.

    1. That is so cool! If you have any pictures, please share them! (Though, I don’t think you can share them in a comment, so maybe you can start a post in the Hawaii Discussion forum)

          1. I posted a discussion with a picture on the Hawaii forum. Please let me know if you have any additional questions about it!

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