It was not long after Kilauea started erupting inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the night of Dec. 20 that the phone lines at Paradise Helicopters began lighting up.
The morning after the eruption, hotel concierges began ringing the Kona-based company about charters, knowing that, at a time when social distancing and other health protocols limit activities, a chance to see a volcano spilling over with lava would be a memorable experience for guests.
Soon, tourists who happened to be on the island of Hawaii as the holidays approached began calling in to book tours, as well. In the first week after Kilauea began erupting, Paradise lifted off for 132 tours. Compare that with November, when the company ran just 45 tours for the entire month, according to marketing director Alicia Nagel.
While the company has been able to keep its pilots working through the pandemic for the most part with business-to-business work and federal aid, the surge in action as a difficult 2020 closes has been a welcome boost. So far, the volcanic activity has been contained inside the park, offering a geological spectacle without any significant current risk of damage to homes or businesses.
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"The timing with the festive season couldn't be better. It's like a Christmas miracle from Pele," Nagel said, referring to the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanoes who legend says lives in and influences Kilauea. "It gives us a chance to showcase our island, and we're just so appreciative following the downturn this year."
There is no telling how long the activity will continue, but the company is working to ease FAA flight restrictions to get tours closer to the action before it does dissipate. Currently, flights are not allowed within a three-mile radius of the crater, and flights can go no lower than 9,000 feet above sea level in the area. Paradise Helicopters owner and pilot Cal Dorn feels the restrictions are overly cautious and that it is possible to get spectators closer to the crater safely and provide a better experience.
"Considering visitors can walk to within a mile of the eruption, I would like to be able to fly closer than three miles so that our guests can safely experience this current activity," he said.
Paradise Helicopters is the only Big Island company to offer door-off tours that make it easier to get unobstructed photographs and views. Their standard tours can seat up to six passengers, while charter flights on Bell 430 twin-engine helicopters can take up to seven guests.
The activity at Kilauea is currently contained within a closed area at Halemaumau, the summit crater, where two vents spewing molten rock are feeding a rising lava lake. The area has been closed since 2007 due to instability. The park is open 24 hours a day and has seen a "sharp increase in visitation," since the volcanic activity started, according to a National Park Service release. Inside the park, vantage points for viewing the new eruption include Wahinekapu (Steaming Bluff), Kilauea Overlook, Keanakakoi, Waldron Ledge and other overlooks along Crater Rim Trail.
Kilauea last erupted in early May 2018, when magma drained from the chamber beneath Halemaumau Crater at the Kilauea summit. Hundreds of homes and other structures were destroyed by lava flows, towering columns of ash rose into the air, and there were more than 60,000 strong earthquakes with activity ending in September of that year.