Reflections on Lahaina, Maui, relief efforts.

I woke up on the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 9, to the news of devastating wildfires in Lahaina, Maui, which is a little over 100 miles from the Hawaiian island of Oahu, where I live. In those first hours, the desire to help our greater ohana, or family, was overwhelming, but it was also difficult to know how best to assist.

HAI Board Chair and owner of Rainbow Helicopters Nicole Battjes works with her crew to load supplies into an Airbus AS350 during relief efforts for Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, Aug. 11.

By Thursday afternoon, my team at Rainbow Helicopters had connected with local authorities and charities on Maui who told us how we could help. We immediately mobilized, purchased supplies, and planned a relief flight for Friday, Aug. 11. Focusing on providing critical supplies for mothers and babies, such as diapers and formula, we loaded as much as we could fit into one of our Rainbow AS350 B2 aircraft and flew to the Kapalua Airport (PHJH) on Maui, near Lahaina. After unloading the helicopter, we flew to Maui’s Kahului Airport (PHOG) to take on more supplies and make a return flight to Kapalua. [Note: the victims of the Maui wildfires continue to need support, so please visit the Rainbow Helicopters Community page for more information on how to donate.]

The flights into Kapalua made clear the desperate situation in and around Lahaina. A charred landscape with flattened homes and burned-out cars stretched for miles. The beautiful, historic seaside town was covered in a thick layer of ash and lingering smoke and surrounded by blackened, drooping palm trees. When we were offloading supplies at Kapalua, the sense of need among the people there was palpable. There was also, though, a sense of hope—their ohana had come to help.

Experiences like this are a stirring reminder to me and my fellow Hawaiian tour operators of just how vital vertical aviation is to our communities. We aren’t specialists in humanitarian assistance, but we know what our helicopters can do. Not needing roads or major supporting infrastructure, helicopters ferry supplies to where they are needed. We provide authorities with up-to-date photos and videos of affected areas and enable them to conduct their own damage surveys. We transport officials and other relief workers to areas accessible only by air. In short, we provide vital assistance at times of great need.

For my first column as chair of the HAI Board of Directors, I didn’t expect to write on this topic, but it directly touches on Initiative 1 of HAI’s Strategic Industry Plan: to unify the industry around a new vision of vertical aviation and to continually promote community compatibility.

The many disaster relief and humanitarian assistance missions that our industry undertakes demonstrate what vertical aviation achieves for our communities. While I’m very proud to be a small-business owner, a vertical aviation operation is not just any business. We are a vital part of our communities’ disaster preparedness infrastructure. In times of crisis, we provide emergency services as well as rapid, on-demand vertical lift solutions.

During my term as HAI chair, I look forward to talking to our members and hearing how you provide vital vertical lift services in your communities. I want to know all the ways that you support the places where you live, work, and call home. I also hope to understand how vertical aviation is perceived—or misperceived—where you are operating. It is HAI’s goal to ensure that all communities recognize the critical importance of their vertical aviation assets. That effort begins by helping them understand all that our industry does to make them safer, prosperous, and more resilient.

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Nicole Battjes

Nicole Battjes

Nicole Battjes is the owner and director of operations for Rainbow Helicopters, a Part 135 air tour operation based in Honolulu, Hawaii, and the 2023–24 chair of the VAI Board of Directors. She is a dual-rated pilot, flight instructor, and check pilot with more than 3,500 flight hours in helicopters. An active industry volunteer and advocate, Nicole has worked on issues such as community compatibility and SMS implementation for small operators in the Hawaiian Islands.