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Peering into Kilauea's caldron. Hop in a small plane or helicopter and you're ready for a bird's-eye view of an active volcano.

BELOW us, thick folds of black, hardened lava seem to have upholstered the countryside in great swaths of rumpled elephant hide. A few bits of fern and lichen cling tenaciously in the tiny crevasses - the beginning of plant life that in the ensuing centuries will turn the crusty surface to green forest, as it has farther up the coast.

``Lava is very rich in nutrients,'' says the pilot of our small plane. ``Just wait a few hundred years until it cools and breaks down, then add a little grass seed and what have you got? Instant golf course!''

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Some Hawaiians still blame Pele for the recent eruptions of Kilauea Crater here on the ``big island'' of Hawaii, Pele being the mythical, tempestuous, and capricious fire goddess of volcanoes. Referred to as ``Madam'' Pele by native Hawaiians, in a mixture of familiarity and respect, this legendary ``Woman of the Pit'' is believed to reside deep within Kilauea Crater, a fiery lair from where she looks after friends and raises chaos with enemies. Some Hawaiians are still convinced she appears to mortal men as a beautiful young woman to tempt them or, more often, as a wrinkled old hag, who comes to test them, making an appearance before every eruption.

The best way to see Kilauea Crater is from the respectful and safe distance of several hundred feet in the air. Helicopters and airplanes are available from Hawaii's airports for this adventure.

``The `big island' of Hawaii is not only the largest in this archipelago chain, but also the youngest, about a million years old,'' our pilot says as he helps five passengers aboard a small, twin-engine Cessna 402 airplane. ``And the island is still growing, as you'll see,'' he adds.

With an extra tug on our seat belts and earphones in place we are soon roaring down the tarmac at Keahole Airport just outside Kona.

From this arid side of the island the view below confirms that Hawaii is indeed a submarine mountain of lava rising from the earth's mantle deep beneath the Pacific.

``We're going to do about 300 miles in the next two hours,'' he says through the raspy intercom. ``Mostly weaving - very little straight flying,'' he adds as we dip down toward an emerald-green rain forest where Akaka Falls spills its long, white, thunderous stream into a pool below. Other valleys and peaks reveal wispy waterfall veils. It is hard to believe we were flying over a desert of black lava just moments ago.

``There're over one-hundred varieties of palm trees down there, and all those white beaches along the water, they're all coral sand. Later we'll be flying over the black lava beaches farther down the coast,'' our pilot informs us as we buzz over an Ocean Thermo Energy Plant and an abalone farm.

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Farther on, great fields of sugar cane burn beneath us, sending up clouds of smoke as thick as gray flannel. The fields are burned deliberately at harvesttime to seal the cane and rid the area of rats and mongooses as well as dried grasses and weeds, we learn.

Halfway down the eastern side of Hawaii is Hilo, a pretty, but soggy, city of 45,000 people. Here more than 140 inches of rain fall each year (and not just at night, as some guidebooks will try to convince you.)

A few miles to the southeast, we catch the breath of Pele. Clouds of acrid volcanic smoke begin to mix with Hilo's humid fog. It's a mixture referred to as ``vog'' around these parts. A rather faint but still unpleasant smell of sulfur permeates the close cabin, prompting a few passengers to reach for the blue Chinese-paper hand fans in our seat pockets in a vain attempt to push it away. ``It smells a little, but it's harmless,'' we are told.

Through the mist below stretches Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, a broad sweeping area of 359 square miles that jogs around to encompass the two most active volcanoes in the world.

Since records have been kept (over 200 years), Mauna Loa and Kilauea have spewed their hot lava over 200,000 acres of land, destroying everything in their path.

``We'll wait for this cloud to pass and then try to get down for a close look inside the crater,'' our pilot says as we sweep down through the low clouds.

Here was the home of Pele, a giant lake of molten rock bubbling with gasses and shooting up a ``curtain of fire.'' A thick river of 2,000-degree F. magma pumping in fits and starts from the depths oozes its way slowly down the volcano slope, crushing, burning, and smothering everything in its path. For eight miles this river of lava runs, dividing into several streams, working its way across the Kalpana Highway, and sizzling into the sea. School buses have to make a 60-mile detour because of the closed highway, we are told.

More than 20 acres of new land has already been added to the island by this latest outburst. In the process, 13 homes have so far been destroyed, and others evacuated, but there have been no injuries. Some lava is hurled skyward and cools into fine threads as it drops back to earth. This process is referred to as ``Pele's hair.''

A few more passes over the bubbling caldron and down along the Chain of Craters and we head off over the icy, snowcapped, dormant Mauna Kea and back to the airport.

``This has been an exceptional day,'' our pilot-guide remarks as we land. ``Don't get many like this with such good visibility. Hope you all thought it was worth the 125 bucks.''

We all nodded approvingly, our eyes bulging and cameras emptied of film. Practical information

Helicopter and airplane flights over the volcano are available from several island airports. Plane trips may also be made from some of the other islands in the Hawaiian chain. Be warned: Helicopter rides are far more expensive than plane flights, sometimes costing twice as much for half the length of time. And be sure to stop in at the Hawaii Volcano National Park when you return to terra firma.

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