TOURING THE BIG ISLAND IN A CESSNA GRAND CARAVAN EX

Most ‘avgeeks’ will admit to harbouring a lifetime of yearning to live their personal aviation dream. So it’s always gratifying to hear about a pilot who has made the dream reality. And for good measure, he’s done it in one of the most spectacular natural settings in the world.

Steve Lupkey is the owner of tour operator Big Island Air in Hawaii. A lifelong pilot himself, Steve bought Big Island Air six years ago after a long and successful career in the automotive industry in South Carolina. He has been living his aviation dream ever since. 

With a staff of 15 employees, Big Island Air flies about three tours every day, each lasting up to two hours. It also offers charter service. They fly a PT6A-140–powered Cessna Grand Caravan EX configured so that every passenger has a window seat.

"We previously flew another Caravan powered by a PT6A-114 engine, so we were quite familiar with the powerplant,” says Steve. “The new PT6A-140 engine has been a great asset for us with a power capability that lets us better navigate the big island (aka, the Island of Hawaii) and climb over the varying terrain.”

Steve says every tour begins with a briefing on the ground. Customers will often ask about flying in a single-engine aircraft. “We tell them that we have a very reliable piece of equipment to carry them on tour. We actually brag about the Pratt & Whitney Canada engine and how powerful and reliable it is.” The unmatched reliability of the PT6A makes it the only engine to be certified for single-engine aircraft used for commercial passenger flights in the United States.

These days, his tours are fully booked seven days a week. The eruption of the Kilauea volcano has become a must see for visitors to the island. “The other week, I had the Caravan out over the eruption site and it was a real traffic jam… we were the only fixed-wing aircraft there -- surrounded by no less than 22 helicopters,” he said.

Steve explains that Kilauea has actually been erupting since 1983, but on May 4th this year it started spewing lava from a site 20 miles from the original eruption. He – like all Hawaiians – is awed by the power of Mother Nature and respectful of the fact the 700 homes have been lost. Some predict the eruption could go on for years and in just a little over two months more than 400 acres of new land has been created.

Even without volcanic eruptions, Hawaii provides lots of aviation challenges. In fact, 11 of the world’s 13 climate zones can be found on the big Island from desert to rainforest and virtually everything in between. Active volcanos compound these environmental challenges because when hot lava flows into the sea it creates clouds that contain ‘laze’ – essentially tiny shards of glass – which obviously must be avoided.

The PT6A-140 takes all these challenges in stride and Steve’s crew is meticulous when it comes to engine maintenance, conducting an engine rinse every day. He has not yet overhauled the engine but at the mid-life inspection the engine was very clean and in excellent condition.

“I am 63 years old and to be able to live my aviation dream in one of the most beautiful settings in the world is likely the greatest experience of my life. I am happy that Pratt & Whitney Canada has been a part of it,” concludes Steve.


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