Hawaii by Cessna; Inter-island travel from a goat's-eye-view

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Any airline passenger who has ever been lulled to sleep by what I call pilot's patter -- invariably spoken in the West Virginia drawl described by Tom Wolfe in his new book, "The Right Stuff" -- is in for a happy awakening on Royal Hawaiian Air Service, a scrappy little 14-Cessna outfit that serves some of the remotest corners of the Hawaiian Islands.

Royal Hawaiian pilots, 37 in all, would be downright insulted to see one of their passengers fall asleep during their brief flights to airfields on Molokai, Lanai, Maui, Hawaii, and Oahu. Not that you'd be able to doze off in the midst of the fact-filled and often comical in-flight lectures. Explaining the workings of the twin-engine plane before taking off from Molokai to Oahu one breezy afternoon, Captain Nichols flapped a seat-pocket card over his head and said, "This is your air-conditioning system."

Flying at altitudes of 1,000 to 3,000 feet, Royal Hawaiian is that much closer to the scenery than are the jets of Aloha Airlines and Hawaiian Air, the two inter-island rivals that fly to the larger airports throughout the Hiwaiian chain. Royal Hawaiian pilots will dip to 1,000 feet or less if they have an entertaining sight to show off -- a remote waterfall or a cliff-hanging mountain goat. Dropping down on the approach to Honolulu, Captain Nichols pointed to a black serpent inching its way through the green shallows. It was a US submarine entering the Pearl Harbor- channel.

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Royal Hawaiian was born 15 years ago, but it didn't begin to flourish until the early '70s. "We don't advertise -- our pilots are our promoters and ambassadors," said Robert D. Haws, the company president. Royal Hawaiian's is a rare success saga in the annals of inter-island transportation. Plane, boat, ferries, and hydrofoil businesses have floundered through the years. On my last visit I was sorry to learn that SeaFlite, a struggling hydrofoil service that had tried to take on the two jet airlines and Royal Hawaiian, had collapsed.

That left Hawaii once again without inter- island surface travel. In the 1920s there was regular boat service, although the novelist Frances Parkinson Keyes almost wished she hadn't taken it from oahu to the Big Island of Hawaii. Writing in the December 1925 issue of Good Housekeeping, she described the Oahu- Hawaii crossing as her most horrible night at sei, the boat vibrating wildly. But the turbulent journey didn't end when she stepped ashore at Hilo. On the drive from Hilo to the volcanoes -- today a smooth, ginger-scented road -- she encountered such large potholes that she decided "my enthusiasm for craters was all gone before I reached my destination."

Just the other day I learned with pleasure that a form of inter-island boat travel is about to be reinstalled. Carras Lines, which formerly owned the Daphne and the Danae and sailed in other seas, has changed its corporate name to Royal Hawaiian Cruise Lines, sold the two ships, bought the old Monterey, and is planning to Pacific schedule to begin this spring.

Once owned by the Matson Company and a common sight in Hawaiian waters for almost three decades, the Monterey has lately been lying low in San Francisco Harbor while regular California-Hawaii service has become nonexistent. Royal Hawaiian (no relation, of course, to the little Cessna company) intends to spruce up the old ship and sail it from San Francisco to Honolulu, where it will do a series of inter-island cruises before steaming back to California to start the circuit again. Meanwhile, United States Cruises has bought the once-dashing SS United States, which has spent a decade on the sidelines, with the intention of putting it onto a similar schedule.

I know this news will also cheer a reader and correspondent of mine, Mrs. Madeline C. Fleming of York, Pa. On reading an earlier column (Jan. 9, 1979) the harked back to the salad days of the SS Lurline, once the queen of California-Hawaii ships, Mrs. Fleming sent me momentoes of a crossing she made on the Lurline in 1925. A tattered ship's newsletter from Oct. 17, 1925, reported that the American aircraft industry had "pledged its vast resources to the development of commercial aviation as an auxiliary arm of the national defense." For breakfast on Oct. 19, there was poi, puffed rice, farina mush, grilled sirloin steak, Postum, and two dozen other items.

I doubt if poi will be on the menu of the new inter-island cruise ships, but I do know that their presence will be noted from 3,000 feet above, or less, by the well-documented pilots of Royal Hawaiian Air Service. On an Oahu- Molokai flight during my last island visit, Capt. Dave Henley was already into his lecture before the Cessna had left the ground. "That's the world's largets airplane," he said, pointing to an Air Force C-5 parked across the tarmac. Passing Oahu's Hanauma Bay, he said a hotel may soon be built on those quiet shores, adding, "I hope not." Indicating Koko Head crater, he told us, "I also read in the paper the other day that someone wants to put a restaurant in there, with an aerial tramway." I shuddered.

Royal Hawaiian isn't the only commuter line in Hawaii, and it doesn't fly to Kauai (served by the smaller Air Hawaii and OK Air), but it surely has the most detailed newscast -- even if the news isn't always good.

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