By Joey Gerardi
Unique Connection Series Trip Report: Kalaupapa, Hawaii
If you have read my articles in the past, then you know I love out-of-the-way airports, airlines, and aircraft and would do almost anything to adventure to a new city or fly on a unique, rare aircraft type. So in continuation of this series, which I call my “Unique Connection Series”, I will go over a unique flight between two cities using a small, unusual airport as a stopover. The uniqueness of the connection might be referring to the small size of an airport, a unique aircraft type, or both.
For this unique connection, I will be starting at Hawaii’s busiest airport, Honolulu International, and flying to the main airport on the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i named Hoolehua Airport, using the small Essential Air Service (EAS) community of Kalaupapa, Hawai’i as my connection point, which is also on the island of Moloka’i. I will be flying on Mokulele Airlines, which is now operated by Southern Airways Express and flying on an 8-seat Cessna 208B Grand Caravan that carries the registration of N852MA.
While Mokulele Airlines is a unique aspect for anyone that doesn’t live in Hawaii, it isn’t that unique for the people who live here as the airline has quite the presence and operates nearly 120 daily flights around the Hawaiian islands. The Cessna 208 also isn’t that unique in the Hawaiian islands as at the time writing of this article all Mokulele flights are operated using this aircraft, but they do have some Saab340s that will be coming to the islands soon. The uniqueness of this route is due to Kalaupapa, the community is one of the Hawai’i’s three Essential Air Service cities, but that is actually not the most unique aspect of this connection.
Kalaupapa is a small peninsula on the north end of the island of Moloka’i and is cut off from the rest of the island by cliffs. But the biggest unique aspect of this community is that guests aren’t allowed under most circumstances. Kalaupapa is a former Leprosy colony and is part of the Kalaupapa National Historic Park, no visitors are allowed to visit here unless you have a sponsor, know someone that lives there, or work for the National Park Service, and even then no one under the age of 16 is allowed here even with a permit, and the government of Hawai’i has pretty much stopped giving out all permits since Covid began.
No roads in, and boats aren’t allowed within 1/4 mile of the Kalaupapa shoreline without a special permit from the government of Hawai’i, the only land way in is a donkey trail along the almost 2,000-foot cliffs, but the trail is highly dangerous for anyone to attempt without a special guide and even then you would still need a permit. No dining, shopping, medical facilities, or lodging for visitors, and even the locals must have everything they need to survive, and be flown in and out on the Cessna 208s that fly here five times a day.
But there is one exception to the special permit rule, this flight. The flight between Honolulu and Hoolehua, or the other way around, with a Kalaupapa connection, is most likely the only way outsiders will step foot in or even see Kalaupapa in person. One-way flights to this spot aren’t bookable online and the only way to book the flight to Kalaupapa is with a connection between the two previously mentioned cities, even with the connection, you aren’t allowed to leave the airport, and you’re only there for less than 20-minutes.
The flight between Kalaupapa and Hoolehua is also the shortest commercial flight in North America, and the second shortest in the world, just coming out a few miles longer than the famous flight between Westray and Papa Westray in Scotland.
Day of the flight
The airline operates one flight in each direction between Honolulu and Hoolehua with a connection in Kalaupapa. They do operate multiple flights between Hoolehua and Kalaupapa, but as non-locals, without a permit, you have to fly it between the two bigger cities as a connection. At the time of my trip, the flight operated in the morning, so I stayed overnight in Honolulu for the night. I made sure to get to the airport two hours prior to the flight as Mokulele does operate in a separate location from the other airlines, and requires a shuttle from the main terminal to their location at Terminal 3.
As most non-locals don’t know about Kalaupapa, Hoolehua Airport is displayed as ” Moloka’i ” on airport terminal monitors and even on most airline booking websites as that is the main airport on the island of Moloka’i and is the airport most visitors and vacationers search for. But, for the sake of showing the true correct name in this article, we will refer to the main airport on Moloka’i as Hoolehua.
It wasn’t hard to find the bus stop, the airport offers a free inter-terminal shuttle that does go to the terminal Mokulele operates out of. On the departure monitors, all Mokulele flights show departing from ‘H1’ and the shuttle stop sign says ‘H Gates’, super simple to find and piece together. After a short five-minute ride I made it to Mokulele’s terminal.
The terminal was very simple, an open-air terminal to let the warm Hawaiian breeze blow through. Mokulele operates all of its flights in the Hawaiian Islands non-sterile, meaning there is no TSA to go through and passengers can show up closer to their departure time than if they were departing from the main terminal. There were a few seats in the terminal for those that didn’t wish to sit in the direct sunlight, but I opted to sit at the picnic tables outside with other passengers as it was still pretty early in the day and the sun wasn’t in full force yet.
Check-in was easy, they checked my ID, weighed my carry-on, and asked my approximate body weight. They do this on these aircraft as they are on the smaller side, and they assign everyone’s seats for them based on weight and balance for safety.
I had some time to spare so I watched next to the fence as the morning flights started to come in from the other islands. It was pretty busy and at the peak time when I was there, they had about eight-or-nine aircraft at any given time sitting out on the ramp.
One thing I was also very impressed with was the airlines’ ability to handle wheelchairs and people with very limited mobility, usually on small aircraft like this passengers must be able to lift themselves up into the aircraft on the steps on their own power. But I did see them use an ADA ramp into the left side cargo door to help a person with low mobility out of the aircraft, a big kudos to the airline for this and I hope more airlines with small aircraft do this in the future.
It wasn’t long before we were called out to get ready for our flight, they announced the flights with the flight numbers as there are sometimes multiple aircraft headed to the same destination at similar times. There were no boarding passes so they just called out our names and lined us up according to the seating chart made by the pilots which were calculated using the weights we gave them at check-in.
Just before walking out to the aircraft, I noticed about 12-to-14 boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts being offloaded from inbound aircraft. Doughnuts will very frequently be flown on the Mokulele flights and is a common sight, there is only one Krispy Kreme in the entire Hawaiian Islands and it is in Kahului on the island of Maui.
As we boarded our aircraft I saw the Southern Airways Express logo just next to the door, the carrier said that the Mokulele brand will stay alive in the Hawaiian islands, meaning this small logo will be the extension of the Southern branding seen on the Cessna’s. But all Mokulele flights are operated by Southern Airways Express and carrier the SAE flight number code of ‘9X’ and SAE’s ATC callsign which is ‘Friendly’.
I was told to sit in row 2, but they give you the choice of which side we sit on. When flying from Honolulu to Kalaupapa you want to be on the right side to see the scenery, and you just have to make sure you get in line ahead of the other person in your row, as they might have the same idea as you do. I managed to get ahead of that person and sat on the right side of the second row. Nothing special about the inside, eight seats and a cargo net in the back, there was also a wall and a curtain in the front which separated us from the pilots during the flight.
The crew did their normal safety briefing and mentioned we would be making a quick stop in Kalaupapa. Although I was aware of this stop, a few of the passengers booked the flight without realizing it had a stop somewhere despite being listed on the flight details when booking.
The startup was normal and we taxied out to the runway. Due to the Cessna 208 having a short takeoff distance, we entered runway 8L roughly at the 2/3 mark using Taxiway Echo, allowing us not to taxi all the way down to the very end of the 12,000-foot runway.
The low rate of climb relative to jet aircraft gave passengers on the right side a great panoramic view of the entire Honolulu Intl. For passengers on the left, they got to see downtown Honolulu and Waikiki Beach as well as Diamond Head.
It wasn’t long before we were gaining distance from the island of O’ahu making our way towards the island of Moloka’i. Other than here in Hawaii, it is not very often you see single-engine unpressurized aircraft flying over open water for long periods of time, as the Cessna 208 isn’t rated for or certified for extended flight time over water. This is one of the main reasons the airline doesn’t fly to the island of Kauai.
Due to this rule, there was no ‘cruising altitude’ for this flight, instead, we spend roughly half of the flight gaining altitude and the latter half descending. The highest altitude we got to for this flight was approximately 6,500-feet. Another unique aspect of the Cessna 208 was the fixed landing gear, meaning passengers could look out and down to see the main landing gear.
While many major airlines are taking stuff out of the seatback pockets, Mokulele had a lot in them. This included a magazine for the airline, two safety cars (one for Southern Airways Express, and one for Mokulele), and a brochure with popular attractions on the islands. This made for good reading material while in-flight, but the views outside were great so I didn’t spend much time looking at the stuff in the seatback pocket.
It wasn’t long before the island of Moloka’i came into view, and the island slowly became bigger as we began to descend. The island has lower terrain on the western side of the island than on the eastern side, and it was an interesting aspect watching the elevation of land slowly increase as we approached Kalaupapa.
As we got closer to Kalaupapa and we descended, the cliffs along the north side of the island began to gain elevation and become more prominent. I could also see the main airport of Hoolehua, it is not often you see your destination airport while on approach to your connection airport, another unique aspect of this route.
It wasn’t long before the aircraft dropped below the cliff line, it was a spectacular sight and certainly like no other I have experienced.
It wasn’t long before we touched down on Kalaupapa’s 2,700-foot runway and taxied to the small terminal in this truly unique location. As noted before, visitors aren’t allowed to stay in Kalaupapa without written permission from the government, so nobody was allowed to get off at this shortstop and wander around. However, I was allowed to get off and take some pictures of the airport as long as I didn’t leave the eyesight of my pilots while cargo was offloaded from the aircraft.
This was the 37th EAS Airport I have been to, and I have seen my fair share of small buildings, but this has to be the smallest I have seen. The only fence around the airport was a small white picket fence around the terminal area, but other than that the only border to speak of was a knee-high post marking the airport perimeter. With no TSA, there was no need for scanners, and they don’t even have customer service agents working in this location. They train the pilots to do that task in the event when they occasionally have passengers going out.
Another sign on the airport fence reiterates that visitors are under no circumstances allowed to leave the airport area without an escort. So even if you do get permission from the government, at no point are you allowed to wander around by yourself on the peninsula
Being on the ground in Kalaupapa was truly amazing and you can see the clear physical boundaries of the cliffs cutting this peninsula off from the rest of the island.
The pilots for my flight, Thaddaeus and Zach, saw my camera and instantly wanted to be included in the pictures and I wasn’t one to deny them this opportunity for a photo.
They also helped me out and took my picture in front of the terminal building, which I try to do at all my EAS stops. This next flight is the second shortest commercial flight in the world and the shortest in North America. Even with all of the picture taking, we only ended up being on the ground in Kalaupapa for just 12-minutes.
We took off from what may have been my one and only time stepping foot on this tiny peninsula and in the community of Kalaupapa. As we took off, I could see the filming location for the opening scene of Jurassic Park III in the distance, as the two pointed rocks from that scene are unmistakable.
This flight was pretty uneventful, quickly up to our max altitude of 1,900-feet in order to clear the cliff line and made our way to Hoolehua Airport.
Even the non-aviation geeks enjoyed the sights and perks of a smaller aircraft, as many of the passengers were taking pictures of the runway out of the front window as we approached the airport.
We landed at Hoolehua Airport only 5-minutes after taking off from Kalaupapa. Even though the flight time was only 5-minutes, we took the long way to get here flying roughly 11-miles as we took off and made a 180-degree turn, then passed Hoolehua airport and turned 180-degrees again to land. The shorter direct route would have been 8-miles and would’ve made the flight time even shorter than that.
As an added bonus, due to our short shop in Kalaupapa, we arrived in Hoolehua at 9:07 A.M. which was our scheduled departure time from Kalaupapa. This also means that we arrived at Hoolehua 13-minutes early.
This trip was a truly unique connection, and quite possibly one of the most unique stops I have ever made. There are many aspects that make this connection so unique and one of the must-take flights if you are an AvGeek in the Hawaiian Islands. From the time we took off from Honolulu to the time we landed in Hoolehua, it was 38-minutes, the nonstop flight from Honolulu to Hoolehua is only about 15 minutes shorter than connecting in Kalaupapa. So why not take an extra 15-minutes and see somewhere that you would never see in person otherwise.
Unless you fall into one of the previously mentioned permit categories, this connection is the ONLY way you will ever see Kalaupapa in person. So, the next time your travel try connecting somewhere new and unique, you may just like where you end up.
For a video account of this Unique Connection in Kalaupapa, Hawai’i, check out the link below.