Hawaiis Back yard
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi
Blue Hawaiian's Eco-Star
raises the bar for
elite tour helicopters
It's the stallion of the skies -- sleek, handsome, powerful, the leader of the herd in helicopter technology.
Study the statistics on the new Eco-Star, the first helicopter specifically designed for air touring, and you can't help but be impressed.
It offers bucket seats for every passenger and 23 percent more cabin space than the A-Star, currently the most popular tour helicopter in America. Its raised rear seating and wrap-around glass cockpit are ideal for sightseeing, and its redesigned skids and larger vertical stabilizer ensure a smoother ride. Most helicopter noise comes from the tail rotor blades. Eco-Star's fenestron or "fan in fin" replaces the conventional tail rotor.
This unique design positions 10 rotor blades asymmetrically at different intervals and encloses them, resulting in a ride 50 percent quieter than the A-Star. The fenestron also uses 25 percent less horsepower.
Four years in the making, the environmentally friendly Eco-Star is an aircraft for the 21st century, and Blue Hawaiian Helicopters is the only air tour operator in the state currently flying it. Dave and Patti Chevalier, founders of Blue Hawaiian, were members of a United States task force that collaborated with American Eurocopter, one of the world's leading helicopter manufacturers, to develop the state-of-the-art whirlybird.
Never before had tour operators worked so closely with aviation engineers to create a new product.
Noise was a key issue. Because their tours fly over national parks and other pristine wilderness areas in the Islands, Blue Hawaiian and its peers had faced increased scrutiny from the Federal Aviation Administration, National Park Service and environmentalists. Even though their tours didn't disturb nature to the extent of contact activities such as hiking, biking and horseback riding, the air tour companies realized the need to introduce a chopper that was significantly quieter than any in service at the time.
Dave Chevalier, a veteran helicopter pilot, remembers the day in November 1999, when he and Patti examined the Eco-Star prototype and observed a test flight at American Eurocopter's factory in Marignane, France. "That was, without question, the most exciting day of my career in aviation," recalls Dave. "All the ideas and development talks, the planning and consultation, had actually evolved into a magnificent aircraft that was everything we could have hoped for. I can still feel the excitement and wonder of seeing what was only a dream just 24 months before, come true!"
COURTESY BLUE HAWAIIAN HELICOPTERS
Blue Hawaiian Helicopters were part of a national task force that helped engineer new quieter helicopters geared toward preserving the peace when flying over isolated wilderness.
EVEN BEFORE the prototype was ready, the Chevaliers had written firm orders for the Eco-Star, with a base price is $1.65 million.
Additional features raised the price of Blue Hawaiian's model to $1.8 million. These include air-conditioning; premium sound and headset systems; a flotation device for emergency water landings; four video cameras to record passengers' actual flight; and an Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System that enables pilots to determine their distance above land in case of fog, darkness, heavy rain and other conditions affecting visibility.
The world's first Eco-Star, with seating for six passengers, was delivered to Blue Hawaiian in July 2001. The company has since acquired four more and plans to increase its fleet to 10 by 2004. Three Eco-Stars are in service on Maui, and two are on the Big Island. Customers can choose between the A-Star, which also seats six passengers, and the Eco-Star, for all of Blue Hawaiian's tours (Eco-Star flights cost about 20 to 25 percent more). Either way, they're guaranteed an exhilarating ride.
"The only way to see the striking contrasts between the dry and barren leeward side of the Big Island and the wet rain forests of the windward side is by helicopter," says Blue Hawaiian's vice president, Dave Griffin, who oversees the Big Island operations. "Add the activity of Kilauea Volcano, with the landscape changing hourly, along with the towering waterfalls of the Kohala Mountains, and you have the most awe-inspiring flight on the planet. The Eco-Star does this with less impact on people and wildlife than any other form of transportation."
BLUE HAWAIIAN'S Big Island Spectacular showcases the best of the Big Island. Exact flight patterns change according to weather conditions and passenger preferences, but a typical route heads from Waikoloa Heliport through the central part of the Big Island to the flanks of Mauna Loa on the way to the Volcano region.
"We explore from sea level up to the Puu Oo vent if conditions allow us," says Griffin. "We look for activity throughout this area, including lava flows and steam vents."
The helicopter lands at Hilo International Airport, where passengers disembark and enjoy a 15-minute break. The return trip passes over Hilo Bay, the verdant Hamakua Coast and the Kohala Mountains, where magnificent bird's-eye views of lush valleys and cascading waterfalls unfold.
"Eco-Star makes this incredible journey even more memorable," according to Dave Chevalier.
"I've flown many helicopters during my 30-plus-year career, and as far as comfort, stability, engine efficiency and field of vision are concerned, there hasn't been anything like it in the skies before. Eco-Star is going to completely revolutionize the air touring industry."
>> Big Island Spectacular, departing from Waikoloa Heliport; $410 per person (Eco-Star) and $340 per person (A-Star) for two hours.
Blue Hawaiian on the Big Island
>> Kohala Coast Adventure, departing from Waikoloa, soaring over sea cliffs, waterfalls, remnants of ancient Hawaiian settlements and the beautiful valleys of the Kohala Mountains; $210 per person (Eco-Star) and $175 per person (A-Star) for the 45- to 50-minute tour.
>> Circle of Fire tour of the Volcano area, departing from Hilo International Airport; $200 per person (Eco-Star) and $165 per person (A-Star) for the 45- to 50-minute tour.
Kamaaina receive a 25 percent discount. Children ages 2 and older are required to sit in their own seat (full fare applies). Kids under 2 can sit on their parent's lap at no charge.
>> Times: Blue Hawaiian offers non-scheduled "on demand" air charters.
>> Phone: 961-5600 on the Big Island; (800) 786-2583 from the other islands
>> Web site: www.bluehawaiian.com
>> Note: Blue Hawaiian also operates out of Kahului Heliport on Maui. Call for details about these tours, as well as private charters.
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer
and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.