Travel Musings,  Warm Islands

A Kauai Air Tour – Conquering a Travel Fear

I love to travel, but I hate to fly.  I fly because it’s necessary in order to see the world, and that’s my passion.  But when the flight attendant says “Sit back, relax, and enjoy your flight”,  I  scoff at the statement every time.  I have never relaxed and enjoyed a flight. There have been many times in the past, on moderately bumpy flights, when I  would think – the in-flight heart attack I am about to have is much more likely to kill me than any miniscule chance that this plane will crash.

However, to enjoy life to its fullest, we have to conquer and set aside our fears and anxieties. Travel gives us many opportunities to do just that.  Some of us set aside our fears by simply leaving our comfort zone and going to a foreign country.  For others, it’s ordering strange food in a restaurant where no one speaks your language.   For me, every time I get on a plane, I have to set aside my fear of flying.  

My flight phobia has improved somewhat over the years.  I’ve learned through meditation to calm my brain enough that I no longer worry about in-flight heart attacks.  However, for many years, my flight phobia did have its limit. I never had any intention of setting foot on any plane smaller than a Canadair or Embraer regional jet.  But then a travel opportunity came along that forced me to muster up the courage to set aside my fear for the greater good of a memorable travel experience.  I took a Kauai Air Tour.

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Tripping Kauai and a Frightening Realization

A few years ago, we visited the island of Kauai Hawaii for the first time. As I tripped Kauai, it quickly became clear that some of the most beautiful parts of the island are difficult to reach and are best seen by air. Kauai air tours over Waimea Canyon and the Napali Coast are very popular.  My stomach churned a little as I contemplated this idea. But…I ultimately concluded that we could not experience all of Kauai without taking to the air.  

My flight fear certainly stems from a concomitant fear of heights combined with a general lack of control. I am also quick to suffer from motion sickness, having hurled my lunch over the side of many boats around the world. I generally don’t experience motion sickness on commercial flights, but I know it’s a common experience on smaller aircraft, especially helicopters.   Helicopter tours are the most common type of Kauai air tour.  Fortunately, I easily found an alternative on TripAdvisor  – Wings Over Kauai – which happens to be its #1 rated tour of any kind on the southeast side of the island. (Click here to check out my blog post about finding great local tours when travel planning).

Wings Over Kauai's Cessna.  This is the plane from which we took our Air Tour over Kauai

Wings Over Kauai offers an air tour from a Cessna airplane rather than a helicopter.  Small plane or helicopter – either one sounded frightening, but if I couldn’t avoid anxiety, at least I could try to avoid motion sickness too.  I didn’t want to cope with multiple reasons for vomiting while trying to enjoy the beauty of Kauai from above.

An Uneasiness in My Brain

When planning a trip months in advance, it’s relatively easy to set aside your biggest phobia, and sign up for a Cessna air tour over Kauai.  But in the week leading up to the trip, an uneasiness in my brain started to creep in.  I tried to put it aside as best I could for the first few days in Kauai while we enjoyed the island on the sweet sweet ground. 

A wave crashing in the Poipu area of Kauai Hawaii
A sunset on the south shore of Kauai Hawaii

The Big Day

But then it was The Big Day.  I nervously drove us to the airport – stomach churning, palms sweating.  It was a cloudy day and there was potential rain in the forecast.  I had been in communication with Wings Over Kauai through the day, as flights will be canceled in inclement weather.  Of  course, this had ramped up my flight anxiety through that day even more.  My imagination ran wild with many possible scenarios for a heart-pounding roller coaster ride through stormy weather in a tiny plane.

Upon arrival at their small office, our pilot Bruce (who is also the owner) assured us that despite the potential storminess, all would be well.   He  explained that he was not a hot shot pilot and would not take us up if it was unsafe. He showed us the weather radar in detail and made sure that we were completely comfortable taking ‘the flight.  Completely comfortable was an absolute impossibility, but my daughter and Mrs. Thorough Tripper were both very excited,  and I couldn’t let them down.  


The cockpit of a Cessna is small.  Two crowded seats in the back, the pilot and copilot seats in the front.  There were three of us, and I was the biggest.  That meant the copilot’s seat for me.  Bruce assigned me the copilot’s duties too – whether that was really necessary or he thought that some degree of control would help me feel better, I don’t know.  Either way, it certainly enhanced the experience. 

My view from the copilot's seat onboard our Cessna ride with Wings Over Kauai

My duties basically consisted of confirming that he went through all the items on his printed pre-flight checklist.  But still, Copilot!  Of course, visions of having to land the plane if Bruce had a medical emergency also danced through my head. He didn’t show me how to do that….

Soon –  too soon it seemed – we were taxiing out to the runway (which happened to be the exact runway our commercial plane had landed on a few days earlier.)  

And then, up in the air we went….

This is what an air tour over Kauai looks like from the copilot's seat of a Cessna

…And I was OK!   I was definitely nervous the whole time, although it abated somewhat the longer we were in the air.  I watched the grey clouds above us warily.  But I also took in everything there was to see below us. Bruce provided commentary the entire flight about what was below and this provided great distraction.  And we certainly saw the entire island in all its glory.  There was only one time when my heart rate jumped from the 110 upon which it had settled, up to 140, and that was when we finished passing over Waimea Canyon and descended slightly over the coastal mountain ridge to the Napali Coast. It was cloudier there and windier there and bumpier there, but we made it.

I never had any motion sickness…

Wings Over Kauai

We spent an hour up in the air, flying first along the south coast and over the Poipu area (which is where our rental condo was located.)

Poipu area of Kauai from the air

We then headed westward and flew over Waimea Canyon (often called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific). 

Waimea Canyon view while on our air tour over Kauai with Wings Over Kauai

Next, we headed northward along the rugged Napali Coast. 

The Napali Coast from our air tour over Kauai
Looking down on the Napali Coast from inside a Cessna

We continued to the north side of the island, where we flew over the north shore and Hanalei Beach.  We then turned southeast and cut down the green mountainous center of the island where we could see one waterfall after another, like long silver ribbons on the deeply green landscape.  

Waterfalls just under the wing as we fly across the center of Kauai
Notice several waterfalls in the center just under the wing

The last waterfall he showed us was the Fantasy Island Waterfall (from the 1970’s Fantasy Island TV show – and the irony of being inside The Plane The Plane was not lost on me.)

The Fantasy Island Waterfall on Kauai Island
(this picture was taken afterwards from the ground)

Ultimately, the Lihue airport came into view.  I will admit that a giant wave of relief passed over me at this point.  Bruce gently landed the plane and our Kauai air tour was over. I did it!  And I lived to tell about it!!

Approaching the runway at Lihue airport at the end of our air tour over Kauai
The Runway is in view and I am awash with relief from the Copilot’s Seat

Rainbows and Happiness

A Rainbow on the south shore of Kauai

Certainly the best way to overcome your fears is to simply face them head on – despite the anxiety.  Would I fly in a small plane again?  Yes – if the travel experience I was seeking necessitated it. Would I be just as anxious? Yes!  Will I ever go bungee jumping? No!! SkyDiving? Hell No!!! My fears of falling uncontrollably through the air will never be faced head on…if I can help it!

To read about another time I conquered a fear while traveling, check out my post about snorkeling at Buck Island Reef in St Croix USVI. I can’t swim, but managed to snorkel out in the open ocean over one of the Caribbean’s great reefs.

And if you are looking for other great activities in Kauai, then check out Viator


  • Linda

    Wow! You’re much braver than I am! And the pay off was sooooo amazing! Those views are spectacular and you had perfect weather to enjoy it all. Kauai is a beautiful island for sure!

  • Elaine (Ryann's Mom) Harris

    This is my fav blog yet, we went to Kauai twice, but I suffer the same anxiety, so never did the plane tour… and the rainbow at the end, ,,,,,,,,,,, Mahalo nui loa <3

  • Travel for a while

    I loved this post. I’m as anxious when I have to fly and I’m not in a hurry to jump in a small plane but looks like it was well worth it. Kauai is absolutely gorgeous. Thanks for sharing this!

  • Becky Exploring

    Good for you for facing those fears and anxiety! I know how hard it is to overcome anxiety and actually get to the point where you’re doing the activity you fear. I have a similar experience when I scuba dive and get so nervous and anxious leading up to every dive. It’s only when I’ve descended fully that I’m relatively calm and afterwards I’m so glad I did it. Being willing to face those fears has led to some incredible experiences and sounds like it’s the same for you!

  • Lisa

    Well done Steven for conquering your fear! I too am not the best on planes, and just pray and hope for the best. The views over Kauai are incredible!! Hawaii is one of my dream destinations to visit.

  • Wendy White

    I could have written that first paragraph myself. It is exactly how I feel. I don’t even like flying on small commercial planes. I have got worse over the years (I used to be fine), probably since having kids. I don’t like not being in control and not knowing what is happening.
    However, your photos have made me realise that I need to face my fear like you did. I’m missing out on so much! Like you, I’ll never jump out of a plane or bungy jump but I think I just may be able to do this….well, maybe 🙂

    • thethoroughtripper

      Excellent point about kids. I am calmer on commercial flights now they are grown. Maybe that’s part of it… I hope you get the chance now to go up in a small one 🙂

  • Ryan

    It’s good you managed to get yourself onto the plane for sight seeing. The views you got from being close by the scenery up in the air are amazing. I did this around Mt Denali in Alaksa and it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’ve been on a helicopter in the mountains also. The helicopter was the far smoother, less bouncy of the 2. If the pilot’s being nice the ride is extremely smooth. If you ever get the chance, don’t be afraid of the helicopter anymore than the small airplane.

  • Jan

    What an experience 😉 and it becomes even more remarkable or even self-transforming if we allow ourselves to embrace what we fear and face it head on. Gorgeous photos 😉

  • Devin Held

    I love to fly, but these small planes give me the shivers! I’ve always wanted to fly in one though. You can get such unique views of the area! Really neat you got to be a copilot!! Thanks for sharing.

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