Career change leads to higher ground


POSTED: Sunday, November 08, 2009

Bruce Coulombe and his wife, Ellen, the owners of Wings Over Kauai, are flying high. Since they started their aerial tour company five years ago, they say their revenues have grown more than 25 percent annually, even in the current recession.

They attribute their success to enthusiastic customers who are spreading the word that Wings Over Kauai is truly something special in the air. In fact, some of the best reviews are coming from people who had never before flown in a small plane.

Said Coulombe, “;I love taking them to experience the thrill of soaring 1,500 feet above Kauai's incredible landscape in a Cessna for the very first time!”;

Coulombe was earning his Ph.D. in agricultural sciences at Virginia Tech when he bought his first plane in 1984, six months after receiving his private pilot certificate (he also now holds a commercial pilot certificate and is a certified flight instructor). Flying has been his passion since he was a young boy, so he didn't think twice about selling his Saab sedan for $15,000 to buy a two-seat Cessna 152.

He and Ellen married a year later and flew to the Bahamas in that small plane for a two-week honeymoon. “;We camped on beaches next to the small coral runways in the Exuma islands,”; Coulombe recalled. “;It was a great adventure!”;





        Flying offers a different perspective of the Garden Island:

Meet at: Lihue Airport Commuter Terminal


Time: Every 90 minutes daily, beginning at 9:30 a.m. The best time to fly is between 9:30 a.m. and 2 p.m.


Tours: Two tours are offered: Pali Mist (60 minutes, $100) and Grand Deluxe (70 minutes, $130). A kamaaina rate of $117 is offered for the Grand Deluxe tour. Children age 2 through 13 get a 25 percent discount. Kids under 2 fly free. Passengers wishing to ride solo can do so for the Pali Mist tour; cost is $180.


Phone: 635-0815


E-mail: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


Web site: www.wingsoverkauai.com


Notes: Tour routes are approximate; the flight path may change at the discretion of the pilot, depending on weather conditions, compliance with FAA regulations and other factors. Up to three passengers can be accommodated on each tour. The combined weight of the passengers must not exceed 560 pounds. Bring your camera! If you want to open a window during the flight for picture taking, it can get a bit chilly, so you might want to wear a long-sleeved shirt or sweater. Passengers take incredible photos during the tours, and are encouraged to post them in the gallery on the company's Web site. Monthly winners receive a Wings Over Kauai T-shirt and are automatically entered in the Photo of the Year contest. The Photo of the Year winner, announced in December, receives a gift certificate for two for the Grand Deluxe Tour, which can be used on the next visit or shared with friends. Wings Over Kauai is the only airplane operator on Kauai offering flight instruction. Call for details.




After he got his doctoral degree, Coulombe worked as a plant breeder and research geneticist, developing new cultivars of corn, cotton and soybeans for companies on the mainland. In 1995 the firm he was working for in Mississippi downsized, and he lost his job. Syngenta Seeds offered him a position either in Grand Island, Neb., or Kauai.

“;They sent me, Ellen and our two kids to Kauai and put us up for a week at Waimea Plantation Cottages so we could decide if it was the right place for us to move,”; Coulombe recalled. “;It was an easy choice. We've been here ever since.”;

When his work with Syngenta and Pioneer Hi-Bred International ended in 2004, he decided to make a career change. By then he had upgraded to a four-seat Cessna 172 Skyhawk, in which he and Ellen had flown with friends many times. “;They really enjoyed flight-seeing,”; he said, “;and we thought we could try running our own tour business.”;

Launching Wings Over Kauai, Coulombe said, “;was the best decision we ever made. We're literally a mom-and-pop operation. Ellen takes reservations, handles payment and does the bookkeeping. I get to fly—my first love—all day long and bring great pleasure to others at the same time.”;

Coulombe's tours are educational and personalized; except for the sonorous background music that plays throughout the flights, nothing is prerecorded. To ensure his narration is factual, he has conducted research on the ecology, geology, botany and legends of Kauai. As an agronomist, he also can field any questions passengers might have about Hawaii's crops and soils.

The Skyhawk meets all FAA safety requirements and cruises up to 115 miles per hour. Every passenger has a window seat, which reveals fabulous panoramas from takeoff to touchdown.

The scenic rewards might include 200-foot Manawaiopuna Falls in Hanapepe Valley, which awed viewers of the Hollywood blockbuster “;Jurassic Park”;; Kipu Kai, the gorgeous beach shown in “;Six Days Seven Nights,”; starring Harrison Ford; and spectacular Waimea Canyon, which Mark Twain nicknamed the “;Grand Canyon of the Pacific.”;

Among other sights, Coulombe's passengers also have snapped amazing photos of the Na Pali Coast, Hanalei Bay, Wailua River and lush Mount Waialeale. Starting this month, they'll be able to spot pods of humpback whales, which migrate to Hawaii each winter to breed and bear their young.

According to Coulombe, many guests start their tour feeling nervous about flying, tired from their hectic vacation schedule or skeptical about whether they made the right recreational choice. Then they find themselves soaring over the magnificent ocean, canyons, valleys and forests.

“;They get goose bumps,”; Coulombe said. “;Sometimes they're so captivated by the views, they're at a loss for words. There are only so many ways you can rephrase the description 'Wow!'”;

One of the benefits of Wings Over Kauai's tours is that they're private, usually accommodating just one family or couple. This allows for some flexibility, so if guests would like to adjust the itinerary, Coulombe can oblige, if time and weather conditions permit.

“;Some of the most beautiful areas of Kauai can only be seen from the air,”; he said. “;Wings Over Kauai gives you a front-row seat to all those majestic treasures.”;

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Bulletin have won multiple Society of American Travel Writers awards.