There are few things as sweet as sweeping across the Central Isthmus from the south in a commercial airliner. The sea-to-sea green of the cane fields, spotting Makawao and Pukalani up the hill, watching the glint from ant-streams of cars - all signal home at last.
There are three ways to view our island home: from the sea, on the ground and from the air. The sea view is limited to coastlines and the mountains rising in the background. The ground view depends on your location. In Central Maui, it's dominated by Haleakala, the mountains of the moon and the ocean's blue bookends.
Tour helicopters give the most comprehensive look and will change your basic understanding of the island's geology forever. It's obvious that Maui's violent, volcanic past has been mellowed by millions of years of erosion. The land has passively accepted the power of water flowing from mountaintop to the sea.
Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than between Wailuku and Lahaina. At the very top sits Puu Kukui, one of the wettest spots on Earth. The 5,788-foot peak sheds its rainfall down long-established waterways that continue to chew into soft volcanic rock.
Seeing the valleys and sharp-edge ridges is impressive but fails to engage emotions the way being in those valleys would inspire. The Federal Aviation Administration requires helicopter pilots to maintain a minimum altitude to prevent flying into solid clouds. The distance above the land reduces the views into a kind of television show, interesting and engaging but hardly the kind of "religious" experience enjoyed by looking down into Haleakala's crater. And, there's no sensation of speed.
It's said that in the 1960s, an Aloha 737 was carrying a load of travel writers. The pilot decided to give them a thrill. He flew the jet down Iao Valley, below the tops of surrounding peaks. The FAA was less than understanding.
On most any day in the early 1970s, there would be a lineup of Riley Skyliners on the side of Kahului Airport. Hawaii Air Tours Service specialized in one-day, around-the-islands flights. The 17 passengers on each of the dumpy-looking twin-engine planes would be whisked off to Iao Valley or maybe up to the top of Haleakala and then back to the airport for takeoff and the next island on the schedule.
In 1918, Tom Gunn flew a biplane to Maui, landing in a field between Spreckelsville and today's airport. He had planned to fly a "hydroplane," but something forced him to switch to the land plane. Three lucky Mauians were given rides and got a resident's first look at the island from the air. If they kept their eyes open. Flying in those days was a fraught adventure.
During World War II, the Navy and Army Air Corps established a series of short stretches of more or less level ground to be used by aviators who couldn't make it back to Puunene. As late as the 1970s, at least one airfield existed high on Haleakala.
Maui Ag Co., later absorbed by Maui Land & Pineapple Co. and Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., was among the first to put airplanes to work. In 1947, Maui Ag had fixed-wing aircraft dusting fields with herbicides and pesticides. Three decades later, the HC&S job was being handled by helicopters. Looking like dragon flies, the clear-bubble copters would sweep back and forth, often in the fields alongside lower Haleakala Highway. No one thought much about the dangers of spreading poisons.
Today, there is a small flight of civilian aircraft parked on the far side of Kahului Airport. Learn to fly. Commute to other islands on your own schedule, weather permitting.
Today, the busiest aircraft on the island are helicopters, flying tourists, making water drops on fires, carrying the critically ill from remote locations, lifting things like air conditioners to the tops of buildings and, at one time, even rounding up mostly wild cattle.
At the time, it was common for a cattle-raiser to lease hardscrabble state land, put a few calves in and then come back a couple of years later to harvest whatever beef had been grown. In some cases, cattle were lassoed from the air and lifted to trucks down below.
Feet on the ground? Surely. An occasional boat ride? Depends on your stomach. Up in the air? That's the most unique. Those who get queasy should take appropriate precautions. Take your pick of ways to see Maui.
* Ron Youngblood is a former staff writer for The Maui News. His email address is email@example.com.