Thomas McKenzie
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Helicopter Joe


Several months ago, my in-laws brought my family along with them on their annual vacation trip to Hawaii. We stayed for a week on the north shore of Kauai. I can not begin to describe the beauty of this island. It was truly "breathtaking."

My mother-in-law's birthday happened to fall on one of the days we were there. I suggested we all take a helicopter ride to celebrate. Neither my wife nor her husband wanted to go, so J-- (my mother-in-law) and I went over to the Princeville airport and signed up.

Along with four other tourists, we spent an amazing hour being flown all over the island. We went into a dormant volcano, flew in the "wettest spot on earth," saw rainforests and canyons and cliffs and islands. It was fantastic, though I did start to get motion sick by the end.

Our pilot was a guy who they call "Helicopter Joe." Joe flew in Vietnam, and had been a life-flight pilot after that. Now he was spending the rest of his life in "the most beautiful place on earth." He seemed very competent, and he was funny, considerate, and knowledgeable.

J-- called last week with some sad news. There was a helicopter crash on Kauai. Joe, our pilot, had died, along with some of his passengers. I went on-line to check into it, and saw his picture. The one I have above is the picture I took of him inside the copter.

While on-line, I found pictures of the crashed vehicle. As all aircraft, it had call letters on the side of it. I then went and looked at a picture I had taken of our helicopter that day. Yep, same craft.

I then read this in an AP report: "Federal Aviation Administration records show that the chopper that crashed was built in 1979, and had a turbo-shaft engine. The copter's current airworthiness certificate was issued in 1994."

That did not make me feel very secure. Am I to understand from this that the FAA had not certified this thing in 13 years?

It is sad that Joe is dead. I would say "he died doing what he loved," but I am confident he did not want to go down with a copter full of tourists. He seemed to be the kind of person who cared very deeply about what he was doing.

All that said, this thing kind of freaked me out. Was it a near death experience? No, of course not. I have had plenty of those in my car! This was more of a "give you shivers and make you think" sort of experience. It reminded me of the risks that we take all the time, that you never know what might happen.

I was in no way prepared to die the day I flew in that helicopter. Well, I was spiritually prepared. But I did not want to die. I want to live a long time, and be with my wife for many years. I want to experience life, enjoy my friends, and especially see my children grow up. I am not afraid to die, but I am certainly glad that Joe's helicopter did not go down with me in it.

Why did those people die and not me? No way to know. I am truly sorry for them, and their families. But, I am glad it wasn't me.

Anyway. Goodbye, Helicopter Joe.

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