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Rainbow Helicopters: A ‘Kuleana to Bring Help’

After Hawaii’s devastating wildfires last summer, a Honolulu-based tour operator rushed supplies across the ocean to families on Maui – and kept relief coming through Christmas.

The first images from Maui, on Aug. 8, 2023 were shocking. While the rest of the world paused to take in the tragedy, the people of Hawaii leapt into action to aid the community of Lahaina. Thousands had lost their homes, and what was left of the town was completely cut off.

The wildfires burned through early Wednesday, Aug. 9. For days, all roads to Lahaina were closed. “We got a lot of calls from people just wanting to be rescued, and for supplies,” said Nicole Battjes, CEO and director of operations at Honolulu-based Rainbow Helicopters. “Friends on Maui called and said they needed supplies for mothers and newborn babies, whose homes had burned and were displaced.”

The plea hit home for Battjes, who had just given birth to her second child six weeks earlier. She asked her assistant and her father-in-law to run to Costco and buy $4,000 of baby formula, diapers, wipes and other supplies.

Her entire staff jumped in, and by Friday, Aug. 11, Battjes and her chief pilot flew one of Rainbow’s Airbus AStars full of supplies to Kapalua Airport (JHM) – a private airfield and the only landing site on Maui’s west side.

“We just knew the moment it happened that we were all affected,” said General Manager Susan Kim. “Whether or not we knew anybody personally, we’re all connected here.”

Rainbow staff made more Costco runs over the next several days and dispatched more flights to Maui, carrying supplies. “Hawaiians have always been a self-sufficient people,” said Kim. “We didn’t have time to wait for the government to move. For three or four days, there was no FEMA, no Red Cross. They were still mobilizing. You can’t watch your family and friends go through that and just sit back.”

By the first week of September, Rainbow had made a dozen relief flights to Maui, delivering nearly 5,000 pounds of essential supplies. And they were not about to stop.

“When we were not working, we were volunteering. It was happening so fast.”

Kamalani Ballesteros Senior Operations Manager, Rainbow Helicopters

All-Volunteer Effort

Rainbow staff all volunteered to support the relief flights. Pilots flew missions to Maui for no extra pay; maintenance techs worked extra shifts to prep the helos for cargo. On days off, operations and admin staff loaded supplies. Battjes donated all relief flights and avgas for the Robinson R44s. Rainbow’s FBO and landlord, Castle & Cooke Aviation, donated the Jet A for the AStars.

“It was just nonstop the first six weeks,” said Kamalani Ballesteros, senior operations manager. “When we were not working, we were volunteering. It was happening so fast, trying to get as many supplies out as fast as we could.”

There are only four Costco locations on Oahu, and one day in early August, Operations Manager Kalei Perreira visited three of them because every store was running out of baby formula.

Perreira, who had lived on Maui for four years, still has family on the island. “They were in the midst of it in Lahaina. Their house burned down,” she said. “We got a call from them, saying that they were going to one of the main shelters in Lahaina. Then we didn’t hear from them for a week, because there was no cell service and no place to charge a cellphone.”

By October, Perreira’s family was staying with relatives in another part of Maui. “It was emotional for me,” she said, “But even if we couldn’t get a hold of them, it felt great knowing the things we were bringing were going directly to them.”

Rainbow’s team joined a statewide effort to rush relief to Maui. Whale-watching boats were sailing to Lahaina with cans of gasoline, which are unsafe to transport by air. With the roads still closed, private pilots with Maui Flight Academy flew supplies from Kahului, the island’s biggest city, to Kapalua on the west side. When Rainbow’s pilots landed at Kapalua Airport, they recognized the liveries of four other helicopter tour operators.

Meeting the Moment

The flight from Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL) to Kapalua is about 100 nm – one hour in a fully loaded AStar. While Rainbow mostly operates tours around Oahu, it also takes charters to Maui about once a month, so Rainbow’s pilots were familiar with the route.

“We take the coast of Molokai most of the way,” explained Chief Pilot Josh Melaccio. “That jump over to Ilio Point on Molokai’s west side is just 15 minutes.” For each trip, the pilots determine which side of the island’s coast to follow. The north shore is dominated by some of the highest sea cliffs in the world, which can create turbulence. The south shore is more likely to be covered in clouds.

These safety considerations are routine for Rainbow – part of the flight risk assessment they do for every trip. They also factor in weather, pilot fatigue and experience. On relief missions, when they didn’t know exactly what to expect upon arrival, they built in a buffer for the unpredictable length of the duty day.

Ballesteros and Perreira calculated weight and balance as well as fuel requirements. They purchased fuel for the return, secured permission to land, contacted the U.S. Coast Guard for TFR exemptions and coordinated with relief groups on the ground.

The first time they flew past Lahaina, “it looked like Pompei,” recalled Melaccio, “just ash and deserted.” By contrast, Kapalua Airport was the busiest he had ever seen it. “It’s not towered, but they had a guy on the radio directing traffic. The fire department was there, folks with their arms up marshaling planes on the ground. And as soon as we landed, we were met by 100 volunteers, unloading the helicopter.”

Back at HNL, Director of Maintenance Mike Iven’s team turned the helicopters around. “Most days, they flew relief missions in the morning, and we had tours scheduled for the afternoon,” Iven said. “We didn’t have much time on the ground to convert them from hauling cargo to passengers.”

“There's a word in Hawaiian: Kuleana. It means privilege and responsibility....We had a kuleana to bring help.”

Nicole Battjes CEO and Director of Operations, Rainbow Helicopters

Shared Kuleana

Most of the supplies Rainbow donated and collected were delivered to volunteers with Keiki O Ka Aina, a network of preschools and family programs across Hawaii’s four largest islands.

Battjes quickly learned that mothers on Maui needed breast milk, so she worked with Northwest Mother’s Milk Bank in Portland, OR, to source donated breast milk and then delivered it to Pacific Birth Collective in Maui. She also bought a freezer and installed it in Rainbow’s pilot lounge for staging between flights.

“There’s a word in Hawaiian: kuleana. It means privilege and responsibility,” Battjes explained. “We had the ability to respond, so we had a kuleana to bring help.”

Beyond staff donations, Rainbow’s initial GoFundMe goal of $1,000 was massively surpassed after Battjes sent the link to her colleagues in the Helicopter Association International (HAI). A higher goal, $75,000, was soon eclipsed. Also, the company’s social media appeal for in-kind donations yielded canned food, clothes and medications from Oahu residents.

Most of Rainbow’s staff are either from Hawaii or have called it home most of their lives. “Many of us felt helpless before we sent our first flights,” said Executive Assistant Tim Burton. “But there is a strong sense of pride in knowing that you’re helping.”

Learn more about Rainbow’s community efforts at rainbowhelicopters.com/community.

A Company That Feels Like Family

Rainbow Helicopters’ remarkable response to the Maui wildfires could be summed up in a single word: family. “My staff all had family there, and my staff has become my family,” said CEO and Director of Operations Nicole Battjes.

Battjes founded Rainbow Helicopters in 2011 when she was just 27 years old. Originally from Michigan, she began her flight training at 16 – eventually earning commercial ratings in both rotor– and fixed-wing aircraft. She was named one of NBAA’s Top 40 Under 40 in 2023 and currently chairs the Helicopter Association International.


After flying with a Northern California helicopter charter service, she relocated to Oahu, leased a single Robinson R44, and founded Rainbow.

The company has quickly grown to become one of Hawaii’s larger helicopter operators, with 50 employees and eight helicopters. Battjes’ goal is to continue growing, to provide even more safety resources and opportunities to her team.

“It’s completely bootstrapped, I never had any outside investors,” said Battjes, who still flies herself – both on the wildfire relief missions and on regular tours. “We’re fanatic about customer service, and we compete with the big guys.” Hawaii’s largest helicopter companies have bases on multiple islands, and from its Oahu base, Rainbow is nearly ready to open its first location on a second island. Clearly, their family is growing.

Snapshot

Aircraft: Two Airbus AS350 B2 AStars and six Robinson R44 helicopters

Base: Headquartered at Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL)

Personnel: 15 pilots (including a CEO who flies), five maintenance technicians, five operations managers and 25 administrative staff

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