Molten lava inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park — I could see a river of flame below me, a glowing red lava tube that sliced across the jagged black landscape of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The seething, molten rock was so close I could feel the heat and smell the sulfur. Nearby, a stand of eucalyptus trees erupted in flames as lava touched it.
I was whirling above Kilauea — one of the most active volcanoes in the world — in a helicopter that had no door. In the seat in front of me sat a pilot and a Times photographer, who leaned precariously out of the cabin of the chopper to shoot pictures.
Not your everyday tour of a national park.
When I planned this visit, I thought I'd hike a bit and be able to watch lava sizzle into the sea. Or perhaps I would take a boat trip to see it. But Kilauea didn't cooperate. The lava flow is constantly changing, park rangers said when I visited last month; at that time it was difficult to see the flaming rock from ground level or from the sea.
A helicopter tour became the logical choice. Our tour, called "Doors Off — Feel the Heat," takes that choice a step farther. Any thrill seeker can try it.
"It's like being in an elevator going up with no doors on it," said Rob Payesko of Paradise Helicopters, which offers the tour. Payesko says the tour has "a little bit extra."
"You're already flying in a helicopter, which is exciting. You're flying over a volcano, which is also exciting. When you add the doors-off option, you can feel the wind and the heat from the lava. Suddenly, it's not like watching a movie: It's like being in it."
The tour flies daily out of Hilo and costs $226.31 ( 876-7472, http://www.paradisecopters.com; it's the company's most popular tour.
Not everyone approves, however. Patti Chevalier, president of Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, one of the largest chopper tour companies on the islands, thinks the doors-off trip might be too risky for some tourists.
"We want to show people what a great form of transportation helicopters are. We don't want to promote the helicopter as a thrill ride," she said.
Counters Payesko: "I took my 74-year-old mother and 6-year-old son on a doors-off tour, and both of them loved it. It doesn't rate high on the daredevil scale, but it does rate high on the experiential scale."
The only thing that's certain about Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is that nothing is certain. Scientists are never sure what volcanoes will do.
The Big Island has five volcanoes: One is extinct, one is dormant, three are active, although only Kilauea has erupted in the past 25 years. But it's been busy, with eruptions taking place since 1983. In February, a new crater formed at the summit, sending an ash-laden plume high into the sky. In another area of the park, the East Rift Zone, lava is flowing toward the ocean, although it in not currently reaching the water.
For more information, call (808) 985-6000 or see http://www.nps.gov/havo.