If the lava flow now threatening Pahoa Village on the Big Island eventually crosses Highway 130 and continues towards the ocean, residents of lower Puna could be isolated on the far side of the flow, with a 70-plus mile commute to reach Hilo for shopping or jobs via an emergency route along the Chain of Craters Road through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

It’s not a pretty prospect.

But Hilo attorney Steven Strauss has been quietly laying the groundwork for another innovative alternative.

Struass is definitely thinking outside the box. Or, in this case, above it.

Lava Ferry SkyFlyer

This airship developed by Lindstrand Technologies is being considered as a Lava Ferry on the Big Island.

Screenshot: Lindstrand Technologies

He calls his solution the “Lava Ferry,” and says it would pick up passengers on one side of the flow and deposit them minutes later on the other side.

His scheme involves an airship that is a contemporary take on a Jules Verne lighter-than-air craft from the pages of vintage science fiction, updated with modern high-tech materials and computerized controls.

At first glance, it sounds most improbable.

But get Strauss talking and it’s quickly apparent that he’s done his homework.

As Strauss explains it, the Lava Ferry is sort of a mini-cable car system that will be able to carry around 25 passengers at a time up and over the lava, starting from the highway on one side of the flow, over to the the highway on the other side. The cable system would be anchored on each end by a 10-ton computerized winch,  and supported in the center, safely above the lava, by a stationary, helium-filled airship. The whole system would work much like a ski lift, with the winches pulling the passenger gondola up the cable toward the airship, and then lowering it slowly down the cable to a landing on the far side of the flow.

Each trip is estimated to take just five minutes, allowing a many as 1,000 passengers to be ferried each day, Strauss said. He estimates local residents would have to pay $15 per trip, not insubstantial but potentially worth it when the time otherwise lost in the long commute and gasoline costs are taken into account. 

Strauss estimates about 10 percent of affected Puna residents would use the Lava Ferry rather than take the long commute. The system would also be open to tourists, who would be charged twice the resident rate, or around $30 per person, Strauss said.

The system is designed to extend over a lava flow as wide as the length of a football field, and expandable to span three times that distance.

If necessary, the whole system could be relocated in as little as 48 hours, depending on the availability of cranes.

There are lots of unresolved issues to be faced before the Lava Ferry can move toward reality. But Strauss is serious about moving his scheme forward. His business, Lava Ferry LLC, was registered with the state on Sept. 23, 2014. Strauss is majority owner, and is registered as the company’s lobbyist for the upcoming 2015 legislative session.

Strauss says he is working with Sen. Russell Ruderman, who represents the Puna area, on required authorizing legislation, and will be seeking the county’s cooperation in arranging buses, van pools, or other mass transit options to shuttle passengers on to Hilo or other destinations.

A Proven Technology

Strauss says the idea for the Lava Ferry grew out of his discussions about ways to assist clients living on the lower side of the flow. While prowling the internet for ideas, he came across a feasibility study for a project in India that proposed cutting an 8-hour commute around a large river gorge by transiting the gorge with a lighter-than-air balloon.

This led him to contact Lindstrand Technologies Ltd., based in England. The company, founded back in 1991, is a leading designer and manufacturer of a variety of lighter-than-air craft, from familiar hot-air balloons used for brief tourist flights to large blimps, or aerostats, used for corporate and military communications and observation. Lindstrand’s website describes a range of uses for its products, and boasts that its tethered  balloons carry passengers on brief rides are in use in 50 cities around the world.

Lindstrand’s latest aerostat, which it calls the SkyFlyer model, is scheduled to go into commercial operation at the Jungle Island theme park in Miami, Florida, later this year.

SkyFlyer Lava Ferry

The SkyFlyer by Lindstrand Technologies

Screenshot: Lindstrand Technologies

Lava Ferry has obtained the exclusive rights to Lindstrand’s technology for a passenger ferry system in Hawaii. The plan is to use the SkyFlyer, the same model that will debut in Miami in a few months.

This craft is over 100 feet long, floats at an altitute of more than 500 feet, and can fly in wind up to 40 miles per hour, according to data posted on the Lindstrand website.

The company’s owner, engineer, pilot, and well known balloon adventurer, Per Lindstrand, visited Pahoa in late 2014 to confirm that the proposed technology is a good fit for this purpose, Strauss said in an email describing his project.

Timing, Politics, and Other Uncertainties

There are many uncertainties that will make obtaining financing, and then getting the Lava Ferry off the ground, a difficult and complicated task.

Strauss believes the series of lava-related emergency proclamations by Gov. Neil Abercrombie last year will exempt the Lava Ferry from most regulations and permit requirements that would otherwise apply. But how long this emergency will remain in effect remains an open question at this point in time, as unpredictable as the lava flow itself. And with a lead time of about nine months to manufacture, ship, and install the cable system on site in or near Pahoa, timing is critical.

Strauss will also need legislation authorizing his company to lease portions of Highway 130, if and when lava crosses the highway, to set up the system’s winches and passenger loading areas. The leases would only be in effect as long as the highway is blocked by the flow, Strauss said. Once the highway is reopened, Strauss envisions moving the Lava Ferry to private land, where it could potentially be operated as a tourist attraction.

Absent the emergency declaration, however, it seems likely the permanent installation of a large blimp operated as a tourist attraction will prompt opposition on environmental and aesthetic grounds. Whether or not that’s a deal breaker for the project’s business plan isn’t clear.

But whether or not the Lava Ferry ever actually becomes operational, it’s exciting to see this kind of innovative, above-the-box thinking being applied to Hawaii’s local problems.

About the Author

  • Ian Lind
    Ian Lind is an award-winning investigative reporter and columnist who has been blogging daily for 15 years. He has also worked as a newsletter publisher, public interest advocate and lobbyist for Common Cause in Hawaii, peace educator, and legislative staffer. Lind is a lifelong resident of the islands. Read his blog here. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.