I’d flown helicopter tours around Kauai
long enough that I could scan my passengers
and predict their fears, attitudes, moods—
you name it. Body language, mostly. Fetal
position, legs crossed, hugging themselves
meant, I’ll die today but my husband wants
me to go, so here I am. Legs splayed,
laughing much too loud said, I’m terrified to
fly but damned if I’ll let my wife know.
Holding hands, yawning and kissing
screamed honeymooners. I rarely missed.
One passenger, however, mystified me. She
appeared to be late fifties, maybe sixty, but
was round-ish and childlike. Her short hair
and flat chest gave her a no-nonsense look.
Five leis hid her neck. She was suffocating in
flowers. Her paisley bandanna was an odd
touch, but seemed to fit. She was alone—not
unusual, but not typical, either. Rarin’ to go,
she greeted me with a brassy quip about my
arrival and touchdown, which the group had
“Snowflake landing?” she asked.
She cackled and flipped her leis around.
“Snowflake landing,” she said again. “No two
I laughed along with everyone else. This will
be a fun tour, I thought. This lady could
provide a lot of the entertainment. She
adjusted her bandanna, flipped her leis again
and smiled like a toothpaste ad. I’d flown
nearly ten thousand tourists around the
island, but she was a standout. Her outfit,
attitude and genuine glee were infectious.
She was as pale as chalk, so I figured she’d
just arrived on island. The Hawaiian sun
quickly renders a tan, and tourists always
I produced the passenger manifest from my
back pocket and began reading off names.
“Jack and Martha?” The couple to my right
“Sarah and Matt?” A young couple yawned,
hands joined. “Honeymoon?” I asked.
They grinned, and blushed in unison.
There was just one more name. “Wendy?”
“Just like in Peter Pan,” she said. “Never
gonna grow up neither!”
Another round of polite laughter.
“Wendy, thanks for flying with me today.”
“Ain’t flown nowhere with you yet,” she said.
“Shall we fix that right now?”
“Good idea,” she said. “I ain’t gettin’ any
younger, you know?”
After a passing shower, the tropic sun had
reemerged, misting rain-wet palm trees in a
halo of light. The northeast trade wind
gusted, perfuming the morning with
plumeria and the scent of the nearby surf. It
was an ideal day for a tour.
Martha must have thought otherwise. She
huddled close to Jack for protection and
hugged herself, legs pretzeled, her face
twisted with worry. “What about the rain?”
Arms free at her sides, her neck festooned
with all those leis, Wendy answered for me:
“No rain, no rainbows.” Martha sat back,
mollified. Then Wendy looked at me. “If I
don’t see a rainbow today I want my money
The group chuckled. So did I. Finally, I
thought, a passenger who gets it. I often
wondered what their real fears were. Sure,
they’d never been up in a helicopter, but
what scared them about it, the noise? The
rattling, thrashing mish-mash of whirling
parts? The bad press helicopters get after a
banner-headline crackup? There’d been an
accident on the island three months before
and tourists still mentioned it, so I couldn’t
dismiss their fears. But I’d flown so long that
to me flying was like riding a bicycle, only
I sometimes joked with my passengers, if I
thought they were up to it. “About the noise?
Only time I worry is when it gets quiet.”
They’d laugh, most of them. It was a fine
line; some passengers didn’t appreciate my
sometimes sardonic aviation humor. “You’ve
already done the dangerous part of your trip
today,” I’d say. Eyebrows would arch,
followed by stares. “Yep, you drove to the
airport. Driving on this island is a lot more
dangerous than flying with me.” Heads
So it was nice to meet a passenger who
wasn’t afraid. On occasion I had to restrain
myself around people like Martha who had
no concept of the experience I brought to
the table. I’d flown for thirty-five years. I’d
logged more than twelve-thousand hours of
flight time in twenty different kinds of
helicopters, navigating through winter sleet,
summer storms and Viet Cong small arms
fire. I knew I wasn’t bulletproof, but I knew
the real danger and they did not. But the
customer is always right, so I listened to
their anxieties and welcomed the rare
passenger who understood my level of
expertise. Wendy appeared to be one of
Soon everyone was aboard and buckled up,
with Wendy in the seat beside me in the
cockpit. I launched into my standard FAA pre-
flight safety spiel about seat belts, smoking,
first-aid kit, exits, and what I referred to
with some delicacy as the handy, white
“Aloha” bags. Then I buckled in.
I snapped the battery master on, and
punched the starter button. Soon the engine
whined, igniters crackling, lighting a fire in
the 700 horsepower turbine engine. The
instrument panel came alive, gauges
sweeping dials, needles arcing toward green
ranges, caution lights winking out. The
blades thrashed overhead and the ship
rocked with a gentle back and forth, like a
hand on a cradle. The radios clicked alive
with aviation chatter. I keyed the mic switch
to request departure clearance.
“Good afternoon, Lihue tower, Air Kauai
three on pad five with information Hotel, off
to the harbor.”
Tower answered right away. “Afternoon, Air
Kauai three, cleared for harbor departure.
Winds one-three-zero at five.”
“Roger. On the go.” I checked the gauges
once more. All was well on the instrument
panel, so I lifted the collective, brought the
ship up to three feet and hovered out for
takeoff. I scanned for other aircraft, lined up
with the departure pad and started the
music, an upbeat Hawaiian, slack-key guitar
piece. Once again I keyed the mic: “Off like
a herd of turtles.”
Passengers laughed, their necks craning for
a better view. Adding power, I took off in a
rush. Matt and Sarah held hands, mooned
and kissed—and yawned. Jack aimed his
camera despite Martha’s death grip on his
arm. Wendy sat upright, grinning, hands on
her thighs. Her bandanna swept back and
forth as she soaked in every passing palm
tree and waterfall. “Ain’t nothin’ like St.
Paul,” she said.
I had to agree. “Plus, your mosquitoes are
bigger,” I said
“State bird of Minnesota!”
That brought another chuckle from Wendy’s
public in the rear seats. Shortly, we crossed
the first ridge to the interior of the island,
which surrounded us in its lush, tropical
splendor. I launched into my tour talk. “Who
saw the movie Jurassic Park?” Half the
passengers had seen the Spielberg dinosaur
classic. “Remember when the group landed
in the helicopter, right in front of a
waterfall?” Crossing a ridge, I pointed to my
right. “There’s that waterfall,” I said. Mauna
Wai Puna falls brought cameras up, shutters
snapping. I crossed in front of the falls to
give everyone a chance to see its 250-foot
bridal-veil sheen. Wendy had no camera.
She smiled, and patted my knee.
“Beautiful,” she said. “Just beautiful.”
Pulling up, I angled south and west. On the
island’s south shore, Makawele’s sea of
sugar cane brought a discussion of Kauai’s
bittersweet history wrapped up in sugar and
exploitation. Then the rust-colored crags of
Waimea Canyon loomed ahead.
Wendy pointed to a chasm to the right.
“Take me down there,” she commanded.
(Not take us down there, take me down
Descending, I angled toward the spot. “What
did you see?” I asked her.
She pointed to a mountain goat gamboling
on a knife-edged ridge. I’d seen the animal
prancing on his precarious ledge on previous
tours, and I’d even created a name for him.
I keyed my intercom, addressing Wendy.
“His name is Cliff,” I said.
Her grin spread like a kukui blossom. “Wise
guy. Cliff. That’s funny!”
As we left the canyon, I aimed for the NaPali
coast, renowned for its majestic vistas and
crashing surf. I steered the aircraft into the
NaPali’s velvet green recesses, Hanapu,
Kalalau, Hanakapiai, valley walls drenched
with water and foliage of every hue. Just
beyond the Hanapu Valley I saw the
rainbow. Increasing speed, I raced toward it
before it could disappear. On Kauai just
blink, and rainbows are gone.
I nudged Wendy and pointed toward the
rainbow. “No refund for you.”
She stared at the shimmering arc in front of
us. “No rain...” she said.
In the back seat Martha keyed the intercom.
“That’s right,” Wendy said. “And don’t you
ever forget it neither.”
Laughter again followed as cameras came up
to record the bow. I slowed the aircraft,
weaving back and forth in front of the pastel
arc, giving everyone a chance to see and
photograph it. Then it dissipated, as fast as it
Wendy looked at me, and she smiled.
“Yes it is,” I said. “There might be more of
She tapped my knee. “Done,” she insisted,
staring. “I can go now.”
I made a face, wondering what she meant.
At that moment I thought about Wendy’s
odd outfit, her upbeat attitude, her
nonchalance. If I was so good at reading
people, why had I not solved her mystery?
Maybe I wasn’t such an expert at body
language after all.
She angled sideways, rose in her seat, and
pecked me on the cheek. Her eyes were a
mass of tears. “Thank you. I can go now,”
she said again.
“But we’re only halfway—”
“It’s okay,” she said, patting my arm.
I flew on, past Namolokama falls, the
Hanalei valley, into and out of the Wai-ale-
ale volcanic crater. Finishing the tour, I
landed and shut off the engine. As the rotor
blades wound down, I scribbled in the
logbook and watched my passengers
disembark, another tour complete. Wendy
was the last to go. Her floral arrangement
circling her neck, she turned and blew me a
kiss. I waved goodbye. Hugging herself, she
shuffled off toward the exit. She slipped
through the chain link gate and latched it
behind her. Then she took one last look at
the helicopter, and I imagined she waved at
me again, so I lifted my arm and waved
I watched her, again thinking about her
unconventional behavior and outlandish
costume, her carefree attitude and all those
flowers. Their scent lingered in my cockpit.
Of all the passengers I’d flown Wendy was
Parked by the gate, another woman waited
in a rental car, its convertible top down.
Wendy climbed in. The other woman
reached across to buckle her up, then
hugged her for a very long time.
One month later, almost to the day, I
noticed a letter in my in-box at the office.
Postmarked St. Paul, Minnesota, it was a
simple note from a woman I’d never met,
Wendy’s traveling companion on her trip to
Kauai. The woman, Kathryn was her name,
had followed Wendy’s wishes by writing to
me. Her letter stated simply that Wendy had
done everything she’d set out to do since her
diagnosis, and a helicopter tour of Kauai was
the last item. She thanked me on Wendy’s
behalf for the wonderful tour and wished me
continued success. The letter ended by
telling me that Wendy had died in her sleep
a week after she’d seen her rainbow.
Byron Edgington flew helicopters for a living, then quit
flying in 2005 to write. He says flying is easier. He is working
on an aviation memoir entitled The Sky Behind Me, and
another memoir about returning to school (Ohio State) at
62. He and his wife Mariah live in Columbus Ohio.