Hawai'i - The Big Island
A little flight to a big island
Tuesday, February 28
The fourth and last big "chunk" of our Hawaiian trip was now upon us. The island of Hawai'i itself, more commonly known as "The Big Island", was to be our land of exploration for the next five days. We had big plans to see some volcanic activity, climb a really big mountain, and maybe see some sights that were more cultural than physical.
First, though, we had to get there. That meant - as it almost always does in the Hawaiian Islands - a plane ride. In the pre-trip planning, I had worked to make this flight a bit more interesting, by opting for one of the really small inter-island carriers - Pacific Wings. They fly a small fleet of unpressurized, single-engined turboprop planes, and that sounded like a fun experience in its own right - small, slow, and low - and probably really good for taking pictures.
Maui Commuter Terminal
Our Pacific Wings flight had a very early departure time - 6:50am - so we were up very early for the drive to the airport. After dropping off the rental car, we hurried over to the main air terminal, where a fair number of people were already preparing to check-in to the larger carriers' flights. No Pacific Wings to be found, though.
A helpful gate agent pointed over to a spot away in the far corner of the airport - a spot right around the corner from where we dropped off the rental car. "The commuter terminal, that's what you want". So, back we went across the airport and an expanse of parking lot, over to a small and very quiet little buildiing with a single long counter. There it was - the Pacific Wings check-in counter. And no counter agent - or any other agent - around. There was, however, a single direct-line phone on the counter. Presumeably, for situations such as this.
I picked up the phone's handset. An agent (at a call center in Arizona, no less) answered. She told us that yes, soon the pilot would be arriving to check us in and bring us to the plane. The pilot, huh? Small operation!
Our Grand Caravan
After all of our rushing, there was nothing else for us to do but stand around and wait. A few other people (presumably passengers also on our flight) trickled in, then, at about 30 minutes before departure time (the web site said to check-in one hour prior), a 25-ish-year-old looking young man in a crisp white flight uniform showed up with a coffee, stepped up to the counter, and started the check-in process. Yup, that was our guy!
The check-in process was quick, fast, and very different than a standard airline check-in: the focus was on weight, not on security. What was the weight of our bags, and what was the weight of our persons. No luggage tags, no scans, no checking for liquids, sharp objects - none of that. In minutes, we were led through the commuter terminal building out a back door and onto the tarmac, where a couple of happily-painted Cessna 208B Grand Caravans awaited. The young man switched roles from check-in counter to loading agent, and directed us straight into the small door at the back of the plane. Ten minutes this all took: the shortest counter-to-boarding time I've ever experienced!
The Cessna Grand Caravan is able to carry up to 14 passengers; this one seemed configured for a maximum of nine, and today there were six of us. It has an unpressurized cabin, which meant that we probably weren't going to go any higher than 10,000 feet. I hoped that our course would bring us somewhere near the flanks of Haleakala.
A little cabin
With boarding done, our loading agent once again switched roles to Captain, and climbed into the cockpit. It looked like he was going to fly solo. Surprising - even on small planes, I had thought that a co-pilot was required. This Pacific Wings company sure squeezes a lot out of one employee!
This sort of plane does not have a separate cockpit, so we got a full view of the proceedings. Our pilot immediately got to initiating the plane's startup procedure, and soon the single Pratt & Whitney turboprop was emitting a rising pitch. This was going to be a fun flight.
Prep for takeoff
There was no other ground or air traffic at Kahului at this point in time, and soon we were taxiing out onto runway five. A few seconds later, it was powerup for takeoff.
Banking over Maui
As you might expect from such a low-speed, lightly-loaded aircraft, we were airborne in what seemed like seconds. We executed a bank to the right and flew over Maui's "Valley". Haleakala was off to our left and the fields of farms slid by beneath. The big windows and the ability to look out in all directions made it easy to take pictures.
Central Maui Farmland
The pilot followed a course along a well-defined flightpath (which you could see on his nav instruments). Unfortunately (although sensibly), this path went around the lower western tip of Haleakala, and we didn't get any sort good view into the main crater (in which we had spent several days backpacking a few days ago). I did manage to get a few shots of Haleakala's southern slopes, although the sun had not risen quite enough to fully illuminate the peak - meaning much of the scene was still in the shade.
The Big Island - Our destination
Haleakala's Southern Slopes
En-route to the Big Island
But enough of Haleakala and Maui; our destination was the Big Island, and looking ahead from our nearly 10,000-foot flight level, we could see the high, broad triangular shapes of the Big Island's big volcanoes ahead. In a few days, we would be on top of one of those peaks - and higher than in the plane in which we were now flying!
Cruising to the Big Island
Even in a slower plane like this Cessna, the flight to the Big Island only takes about forty minutes, and soon the pilot was descending towards Kona airport on the west coast. I've always enjoyed the opportunity to watch landings, and this was a front-row seat!
Under clear but hazy skies, we touched down at the Kona airport shortly after a quarter after seven. In minutes we were parked in front of the commuter terminal. No luggage carousel on this flight: our bags were taken out of the hold and placed onto the tarmac next to the plane. Self-service! In all seriousness, though, that plane ride was a welcome change from the highly processed and time-consuming experience you inevitably get on a larger commercial flight.
Arriving on the Big Island
Interactive Trackmap - flight from Maui to Big Island - double-click map to expand