Hachijōjima – Aogashima: 9 PAX per day and per direction
No, you are not dreaming: this is indeed a Sikorsky S76C as a title picture for this FR, and yes, it does meet the guidelines of this website which mandate that it should be representative of the flight experience! And yes, it is really a scheduled flight that anybody can board, not a scenic flight nor a private flight like those serving off-shore oil rigs…
After the first report on HAC in the preceding segment, this report is a triple first on Flight Report: - first FR on Toho Air Service - first FR to Aogashima - first FR on a helicopter flight
(Thanks to the moderators who introduced them in the data base, with dummy IATA codes since there is none, as is often the case for helipads and the airlines using them.)
I’ll admit it immediately: as soon as my new friend from Hachijōjima invited us to visit him, I searched the internet to find out what was to be seen there and as soon as I discovered the existence of this isolated volcanic pebble at the southern end of the Izu archipelago and served by ONE daily helicopter flight, I had only one idea in mind: going there.
I’ll admit it immediately too: my wife was less than enthusiastic about riding in a machine which appears to be made of moving parts only, either rotating or vibrating, but she knew better than trying to negotiate with me on such a matter.
I owe a lot to my Japanese friend who suggested to go there together and handle all bookings when I wrote that I wanted to visit Aogashima. There are nine seats only per day, the helicopter is nearly always fully booked, and bookings open every day except Sunday at D-30 by phone at 9 am local time (which means 1 am Paris winter time) : he clearly at once simplified tremendously the preparation of this trip. I sent him the scan of our passports, the transcription in katakana of our names, and I was overjoyed to receive this picture D-29. The first thing I gave him when we arrived was of course to give him an envelope containing 4 x 11,530 JPY for our two round trips. (He paid less than that because the locals have a 40% rebate upon provision of a proof of residence.)
Now the secret is out: this is the entire routing of this trip which was basically Paris – Aogashima round trip, with three distinct round trip tickets. I evidently never considered looking for a travel agent which might sell me a Paris-Aogashima ticket on a single PNR!)
On D day, which I had selected two days after our arrival in HAC in order to have some margin in case of missed or delayed flight on CDG-HND + HND-HAC, good news : I would not call it a great weather, but it’s not raining. Due to its location, Hachijōjima receives 3,000 mm of rain per year (vs. 600 mm in London and less than 1,000 mm in Seattle): I chose to go there in April simply because it is the least wet month in the year. We can even see the top of Hachijōjima’s Mount Fuji (this is its official name !), which has not been the case every day when we were there.
Driving through a tunnel under HAC’s runway
And reaching HAC’s parking lot which is for free ; there is actually no charge for parking anywhere on the island.
You see nearly all the infrastructures in HAC : the kiss and drive stopping lanes (without any picky limitations), a decorative sculpture and behind the control tower and the terminal.
The parking lot and the local Mt Fuji, looking back
Toho Air Service’s counter is minimal, but it only processes 18 passengers per day here : 9 to Aogashima and 9 to Mikurajima, the preceding island in the archipelago.
Note that ANA’s counter which processes three A320s per day, far from being fully loaded every day, is not oversized either
TAL’s schedule is simple : a helicopter leaves HAC at 9:20, comes back at 10:05, then leaves at 10:25 to Mikurajima and continues from island to island, then back from Mikurajima at 16:00. TAL has two Sikorsky 76C (and other smaller helicopters for charter), which makes it possible to maintain them without stopping the line.
Both sides of a safety card are posted at the counter, but there is one on board too.
There is also this not which prohibits the use of electronic device (including explicitly digital still and video cameras) during take-off, climbing, descent and landing, once the door is closed. It’s in Japanese only, a measure of the number of foreign passengers (once a month, I was told on the island), but I cannot pretend I cannot read and understand it.
TAL’s commercial name of its service overhead : : Tokyo Island Shuttle, written phonetically « Tokyo Airando Shatoru ». The English words are in syllabic hiragana and katakana, except the first syllable (Ai) which uses the ideogram 愛 (love) : a typically Japanese kawaii pun.
The scale of the luggage next to the counter has no need to be large. I did not hide the face on the screen : it the safety demonstration for the passengers, because there are of course neither IFE screens nor flight attendants on board.
The luggage allowance is 5 kg, and the maximum size is limited too:
No problem for us : our combined hand luggage barely reaches 5 kg. My wife’s red daypack is going to be checked in, not my black one because it contains my laptop. It’s not over though: the check-in staff also asks how much we weigh! I do not know if there was a limit, but we apparently did not endanger the aircraft’s mass balance.
And then ? Wait on the seats in front of the TV !
But better have a look at the landside shop which apart from standard sweets and other items displays a wide range of local products
Let’s start with dried flying fish (and cut in two to separate the fillets). This is indeed the flying fish season, until mid-May, at night with fishing lights.
Unavoidable in Hachijōjima which is its main producer ashitaba 明日葉, literally "tomorrow’s grass" because it is said to grow overnight if it sufficiently warm and humid. It is endemic and found everywhere in the wild on this island.
There are all kinds of produces with ashitaba, such as noodles
… or ashitaba tea. Quite frankly, ashitaba does not have a very distinct taste, but I do not want to quarrel about this with Hachijōjima’s inhabitants, and especially one of them.
More unexpected : yoghurt, because Hachijōjima has a meat and dairy farm on the slopes of its Mount Fuji.
It is a minor but real attraction for the Japanese who nearly never have a chance to see cows in pastures due to the lack of space.
It is impossible to not find dried seaweed in a coastal area : this is possibly second only to rice among the ingredients of Japanese food, so there is of course a local production in Hachijōjima .
Hachijōjima’s subtropical climate makes it easy to have oranges and lemons like these
There is even an unexpected produce from Aogashima: plain salt ! Aogashima’s geography precludes any chance of having salt ponds (you will understand later why) : it is produced using geothermal power, which is available in Hachijōjima as well
After this very partial review of the local delicacies, it is time to go airside via this security check, left of ANA’s check-in and sales counter (it is difficult to get lost in this terminal but – spoiler – it is gigantic compared to that of Aogashima).
There is a small airside shop for travelers who have last minute needs.
The waiting room is very plane spotter friendly, with all seats facing wide windows overlooking the apron and the runway behind it, but plane spotting is scarce when there is only one plane movement at a time.
For us, the bird to be seen is therefore TAL’s helicopter which spent the night here in her base
The crew and ground staff load freight on board
A Japanese Flight Reporter ? A tourist for sure, unlike a technician from Tepco, the local electric utility, who was on board too.
HAC’s only boarding gate
We take the first section of the airbridge, and then a staircase to reach the apron.
To boldly go where no Flight reporter has gone before
It is a tricky race : I want to take pictures on the apron, but not be the last to board in order to have a good seat, because it is free seating and the helicopter is fully booked as always.
Not only do I get a window seat, but with a newbie stroke of luck, it appeared to be the best side for taking pictures. It’s on the second row, therefore with little if any view of the cockpit, but the Marathons got it on the way back.
The seat pitch is not that bad : I’ve had worse in some A320s
Door shot, but I was so close to it that I couldn’t do any better
The seat pocket in front of me contains vomit bags
And a safety card which despite the vibrations did not fall in my daypack.
Once all passengers are on board, the captain closes the passenger door, boards through the front door and the helicopter starts with taxiing in order to reach the center of the runway. And then, a smooth increase of the turbines’ power : the helicopter lifts slowly
The helicopter makes a wide turn right, which provides a view of both volcanoes of Hachijōjima in succession
The urban area of Hachijōjima
and a panoramic view of the airport
The prohibitions of taking pictures during the take-off have been instantly forgotten by me and by the Japanese behind me who had a camera ten times heavier than mine and had not brought it for decoration purposes. We harmoniously shared 100% of the useful time (with a view of the ground) of the window of the right hand side door.
We keep turning and Hachijōjima’s Mount Fuji appears
Now in full
Rotor blade and volcano shot
Mount Fuji from the skies
Zoom and HAC’s facilities
We are getting closer to the coast, with Hachijō-kojima («Little Hachijō Island») in the background. It is now uninhabited since it was evacuated by its population in 1969.
Zoom on Hachijō-kojima
Last glimpse of HAC
We are now flying away from Hachijōjima
Through the left window : the last cape of Hachijōjima
In flight mood
The head of the copilot, taking advantage of a movement of the passenger in front of me. We are now halfway over open water, and what strikes me is how much this aircraft vibrates. Not only the fittings, but the doors too, because they are lightweight, have no structural role and no need to be air tight because the aircraft is not pressurized.
Aogashima in sight
Aogashima appears on the horizon
We are now much closer : this is the only inhabited part of the island, even though there are some buildings inside the caldera too
The road which crosses the cop of the caldera’s walls
The shadow of the helicopter appears on the ground
With very crisp details
And then suddenly, without any advance warning, we have landed, more softly than I ever remember in my long experience of air travel
Turnaround time : any competitor on this ?
The ground staff brings a trolley of freight and mobile stairs
It’s a tight timing : there is no time to waste and with a typically Japanese mixture of politeness and authority, a staff has the passengers leave the helipad immediately even if they wanted to take pictures close to the machine. There is no prohibition to take pictures, on the other hand.
I stretched the above picture vertically to reveal the marking of the helipad
The man in a blue uniform is a policeman
The staff brings back the trolley of luggage and freight
Everything is ready ?
OK for boarding
In line from lower right of the picture : the nine passengers of the return flight, guided by a ground staff in orange jacket, and the captain in blue at the foot of the helicopter, turning around the static policeman.
The captain closes his door
Seven minutes elapsed from the moment the helicopter landed and when she was ready to take off
The policeman waves to the helicopter taking off
And so does the entire ground staff
The helicopter won’t disappear behind this vegetation
She turns and gains enough altitude to remain in sight
She flies away after retracting the landing gear
The policeman removes the rope which closes this small road going through the helipad, during the only helicopter movement of the day
And the only policeman in Aogashima returns to his car, after completing the most of his strenuous daily duties.
This is a picture the entire terminal of Aogashima’s helipad, taken the next day; you will have a comprehensive visit in the report of the return flight.
How could I not agree with this mother and her baby ?
An island which is so seldom visited is well worth a tourist bonus, and I split this topic of less than 9 square kilometers between the two reports of the round trip..
Bonus : Aogashima, an island inaccessible by way of sea
Bonus : Click here display hide
Apart from the aviation geek interest, why choose the helicopter to go to Aogashima ? This panoramic assembly of several pictures taken from the end of the island’s small wharf does little justice to its configuration: Aogashima is a volcano which rose from the bottom of the ocean, with sheer cliffs on all sides reaching down to the ocean floor.
This wharf does not provides any protection against the waves : the sea was calm in the afternoon of our arrival in the island, but not at all in the morning.
No ship owner would leave his vessel moored there overnight: one of them has been towed up this vertiginous slip.
… but the half dozen strong fleet of Aogashima is safely on this platform here, more or less at the same elevation as the road in the picture above
There is no slip leading from there to the water : these ships have been lifted by this crane from the ocean below !
This is the overall configuration of the harbor: a wharf which can be used only if the ocean is not choppy, a boat storage which is accessible by crane only, and a road access through a long tunnel through the natural wall which circles the caldera.
The overhead road which can be seen above collapsed a few hundred meters beyond the edge of this picture. Work is underway to consolidate the slope: it will eventually look more or less like this other section seen from the island’s summit:
Choppy waters are for real: the ferry is cancelled 50% of the time in yearly average, like the day we landed and the day after when we departed, because it would not be able to dock to the wharf. The home page of Toho Air Service’s website displays typical pictures of each island that the helicopters serves: the double picture illustrating Aogashima tells it all without any need for a comment: do you want to take the risk of being stuck on the island (sometimes three weeks in a row !), or would you rather fly? Because of course, if the ferry is cancelled, there is no plan B, since the 9-seater helicopter is always fully booked.
My wife had misgivings about setting foot in a helicopter, but it was obvious that the ferry was not an option, neither for her nor for me: it can appear much cheaper, but the accommodation bill can quickly cancel that advantage because of weather conditions. So it would be a helicopter ride, and my Japanese friend had been careful to book a small rental car which has one of the most common registration zones in Tōkyō, because Aogashima like Hachijōjima belongs to Tōkyō’s prefecture. And like all rental cars, its hiragana on the second line is わ.
It’s a so-called "Kei car", identified as such by its yellow number plate, a car category which is specific to Japan, with strict car body and engine size limitations. Its 660 cc engine was barely capable of handling the steepest slopes with three people on board, but provided us the mobility needed to explore the entire island in 24 hours – the other visitors were staying two days to do it on foot.
We nevertheless needed to exercise our legs in order to reach the summit of the island.
… which was well worth it:
Aogashima is indeed a volcano which grew in the middle of the caldera of a previous volcano
With very unusual stripes of lava on its cone
Facing north, we have the only side of the caldera which is not a cliff down to the ocean level (but it nevertheless ends with cliffs down to the ocean level): that is where all the housings are located.
It is also where the helipad is located; it is clear that it would not make much sense to build a runway there, even for STOL aircraft.
In the distance, Hachijōjima and, left, Hachijōkojima do not seem that far, but they are actually 72 km away: Hachijōjima’s Mt Fuji is 854 m high and the summit of Aogashima is 423m above sea level.
How do the 170 inhabitants of Aogashima make a living? This will be in the bonus of the return flight. Thanks for reading me!
Toho Air Service
Hachijojima - HAC
Aogashima - XX1
This is a flight for aviation geeks where ratings are meaningless. Any reviewer would lash out at this level of noise and vibrations if this was a fixed wing aircraft; the old school seats themselves were comfortable though, on par with those of the ANA A320 of the previous flight. No flight attendant, no food or drink, no IFE, but what an entertaining flight !
Accessibility and fluidity at both departure and arrival are optimum of course: could it be otherwise when only 9 passengers are being processed with Japanese efficiency? The rating of the services in Aogashima is somewhat fictitious, but there was a screen displaying a local webcam’s footage.
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