Volcano National Park



September 2017



L to R, me, Erika, and Geoff with Matt in the cockpit


Along with my son Geoff Wilson and granddaughter Erika Larsen I went for a helicopter ride over the Volcano National Park on the Big Island -Hawai’i. We went with the doors removed from the helicopter so we could have unrestricted views with our cameras. Our flight left Hilo International Airport late on the afternoon as shadows lengthened across the ground. The Kilauea volcano hasn’t been dramatically active and spewing out geysers of magma lately but molten lava has continued flowing since the last major event in 1983. Our late afternoon trip made seeing, and photographing, the lava much easier.


A’a Lava from Kilauea Volcano

Just minutes after takeoff we got our first glimpse of the 570 square miles of lava that has flowed from Kilauea since the current eruption cycle began on January 3, 1983, covering about 14 percent of the Big Island land surface. Matt, our pilot, told us the Hawai’ians have two words for lava flowing on the surface: A’a and Pahoeoe. This picture is the first type characterized by very rough top surfaces. I’ll point out Pahoeoe lava in later pictures. Pillow is the much less exotic name for lava flowing underwater.



 People living in the town of Kanapala watched as the lava inched its way toward them until finally, in 1986, it began forging its way through the town — destroying anything in its path. Including the oldest Hawai’ian temple on the island. By the time she reached the sea Pele, Hawai’i’s volcano goddess, destroyed more than 200 houses and buildings and still marches into the sea. (Photos from US Geologic Survey)






Magma pressure under the lake of lava in the main Kilauea caldera forced open another crater (below, top) named Pu’u O’o. Matt made left and right circles around the crater to let us get pictures from both sides of the aircraft. Below that is my best shot of an eruption off to the side of the main Pu’u O’o crater:IMG_5260

After circling a few times, Matt turned and headed toward the coastline. We got glimpses of more lava along the way. These were taken over Pahoeoe type lava. Matt called this first one a “skylight” where a small hole in the crust collapsed revealing lava flowing beneath the surface. Look very close near the center of the photo for a tiny bright spot.

In the picture on the left a large surge has pushed lave up and over the surface. Note the yellow at the top changing to redder orange at the bottom of the flow indicating temperature difference — hotter at the top. Also interesting are the ripples ‘frozen’ in the surface of the Pahoeoe, particularly at the top just right of center. In the picture below several breaks in the surface reveal a steady flow of lave toward the ocean. Using Photoshop’s magnifying glass, I can count 14 distinct cracks – including the four apparent ones.


When Matt turned and pointed the ‘copter toward the coastline we could see a column of steam rising into the air. Minutes later we crossed the cliffs to get our first sight of lava flowing into the water. It was apparent to me that behind the huge steam plume must be a tremendous river of molten rock spilling out. Notice the surf line near the upper right of the picture and the roiling water in the lower left. Those are the demarcation between land and sea.IMG_5316
We saw only hints of what was going on behind the main steam plume. I’m sure it was much more than is visible in the picture below. The bright spot near the middle of the picture is only a hint.


Notice the surf line on the right, near the middle. The tendrils of steam in the foreground are from lava still cooling well below the surface of the ocean — visible through Hawi’i’s crystal clear water.

All too soon Matt turned and headed back to the airport. Did we miss anything? We saw A’a and Pahoeoe, saw lava bubbling to the surface at Pu’u O’o crater, traced along a lava flow to see cracks where the lava flowed under the surface, and watched molten rock spill into the ocean. I’m calling the trip a success. I think we saw it all.

When you plan your trip to the “Big Island,” make sure you set aside one full half-day to visit the Volcano Nat’l Park on Hawai’i. Spend a few hours at the park visitor center and Jaggar Museum. Take the crater rim drive to see activities like the Steam Vent Bluff and the myriad vents, and the Thurston lava tube. Those are where you will find tons of information about Kilauea… and Pele, the goddess of fire, lightning, wind and volcanoes and the creator of the Hawaiian Islands.

Then, for a thrilling adventure, take a late afternoon flight with Paradise Helicopters out of the Hilo International Airport. And be sure to do it – – –