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Niagara helicopter pilot a true savior

Ruedi Hafen, not shown, president and chief pilot of Niagara Helicopters Ltd., flies over Niagara Falls in Niagara Falls, Ontario.David Duprey / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Up here, it becomes clear what helicopter pilot Ruedi Hafen has said on the ground: A helicopter offers a view of Niagara Falls like no other, and no one wants to leave without a picture, or 10.

It's also obvious just how imposing the landscape really is with its foaming white cascades, steep and rocky escarpment and swirling green river and whirlpool.

Twenty-eight years at the controls of his fleet of sightseeing helicopters have given Hafen a unique perspective of the natural wonder straddling the United States and Canadian border. Perhaps more than anyone else, he has seen the good and the bad, from the happiest tourists drinking in the scenery, to the despondent who allow themselves to be swallowed by it.

"There's a huge magnetic field over Niagara Falls, there's a lot of ozone created around the Falls, there are psychological things, they say that draws people," said Hafen, who has heard all the theories. "I believe that big falling waters attract people. ... People are drawn to natural things like that."

Hafen estimates his Niagara Helicopters Limited has given nearly 3 million people a birds-eye view of the Niagara Gorge. His polished blue helicopters, striped in red and yellow, have become part of the scenery, drumming 2,500 feet overhead year-round from morning until just after sunset.

But in recent years, they have also been on the scene of rescues and recoveries as Hafen, whose native Switzerland is a leader in air rescues, has forged partnerships with Canadian and U.S. law enforcement that have him helping train rescuers and responding to calls as a volunteer.

The bond was on view in harrowing fashion in March, when a suicidal man astonishingly survived a plunge over the 167-foot Canadian Falls and then stubbornly refused rescuers' pleas from the frigid shore to swim toward them.

Ruedi Hafen, president and chief pilot of Niagara Helicopters Ltd., poses for a photo in Niagara Falls, Ontario. David Duprey / AP

Hafen, summoned by an off-duty Niagara Parks Police officer, arrived five minutes after being called and 30 minutes after the man entered the water. For several minutes Hafen hovered over the dejected victim as an officer flying with him extended a snare, only to have the man free himself. Hafen dipped low and offered the chopper's landing gear as a lifeline, but the man refused to grab it as Hafen maneuvered to keep the helicopter's tail clear of the waves and ice in 40 mph winds.

"He gave us absolutely no help," Hafen, 56, recounted recently at Niagara Helicopters. "We were able to yell and scream at him, 'Buddy, give us a hand. We're going to get you out of your misery.' We tried everything."

Finally, tipping his Bell 407 side to side, Hafen blew the man toward shore with the rotor wash, being careful not to push him down into the water. The man was pulled to safety and survived.

"I probably wouldn't go (under) those weather conditions and risk anybody's life to retrieve a dead body. They have time," Hafen said. "There was absolutely no time. ... He was on his way out.

"If he would have gone under the ice," Hafen said, "that would have been the end of it."

With only three people known to have survived an unprotected plunge over Niagara Falls, such a rescue might never be repeated. But Hafen is ready for other emergencies, to find fallen or injured hikers, or help emergency crews retrieve bodies from the whirlpool.

"Especially for searching, the helicopter is very, very efficient and very fast," he said. "Now we've developed a short haul system, where we hang a police officer or a fireman under a helicopter on a 110-foot line and we can pretty much drop him off anywhere where nobody else can get, and we even can retrieve anywhere where nobody else can go and get a victim."

With the blessing of parks authorities, Hafen built a landing pad at the bottom of the gorge, hauling in the 9 cubic feet of concrete himself. Calling on his background as an architect and engineer in Switzerland, he also has tailor-made his tourism business, designing the building that houses the offices and an Internet cafe and bar where patrons can watch helicopters come and go through Swiss cross-shaped windows.

The place was a small seasonal heliport when he bought it in 1985, four years after moving to Canada to build up his flying hours as a young pilot. Today it is a year-round operation with 55 employees, flying $3.3 million Bell helicopters specially designed with rotor speeds that can be reduced in flight to quiet noise and long, narrow bodies that ensure passengers a window view.

"It was very awesome," said tourist Sergio Moya after taking a nine-minute flight that he called "a dream come true."

Tour guide Judy Holland said she brings passengers by the busload to Hafen, telling them the view from above will put the rest of their visit to the area in perspective. Countless couples have tied the knot in Hafen's helicopters.

"I got into this business because of the love of flying. This gets it all going. This is for me a drug. It's a natural drug," he said. "You can't get enough of it."