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Friday, May 1, 2009

Rotorcraft Report: Rotor Wash Saves Jumper

COMMERCIAL | TOURISM

Helicopter pilot Ruedi Hafen used his rotor downwash to save a man who had just gone over Niagara Falls — despite the victim doing everything possible to spurn assistance. "He just didn’t want to be rescued," said Hafen, owner/pilot of Niagara Helicopters Limited, an aerial tour company based on the Ontario side of the falls. "But I wasn’t going to have him drown on my watch!"

Hafen’s amazing story of ingenuity occurred on March 11, in frigidly cold conditions. A 30-year-old Canadian man was observed hopping a fence above Canada’s Horseshoe Falls just after 2 p.m. The man then jumped into the upper rapids above the falls. As first responders were alerted and made their way to the scene, the victim plunged 167 feet over the edge of the falls, his clothes ripped off by the force of the near-freezing waters. Now naked, the man ended up in the lower Niagara River beneath the falls, too far offshore for rescuers to reach.

A experienced rescue pilot, Hafen was contacted by the Niagara Parks Police to provide assistance at the scene. "Myself and NPP Sgt. Sean Black got onboard my Bell 407 and [we] set off immediately," said Hafen. "We were there within 15 minutes. Despite the cold, the man was still alive in the river, swimming away from the shore."

Hafen’s 407 is equipped with a rescue sling that can "capture" a floating victim quickly. "But as soon as we got the sling on him, he took it off," said Hafen. Surprised by this response, Hafen then tried to get the man to grab the 407’s skid. But this didn’t work either. The victim just would not grab on. "No matter what we did, he just wouldn’t help," Hafen said. "At one point, he even gave us a dirty look that seemed to say, ‘what do you guys want?’"

Refusing to give up, Hafen decided to literally blow the victim to shore using his rotor downwash. "It took a number of tries; the first few times the man tried to swim away from the shore. But by then, he had been in the water about 46 minutes and was both hypothermic and tired," Hafen reported. So the pilot tried again. This time, the victim got within 50 feet of the shoreline, which was close enough for Firefighter Todd Brunning, clad in a diving drysuit, to jump in and swim the man to shore.

"I was so happy," said Hafen. "It was pretty clear to me that the Powers That Be did not want this man to die, and that I had been able to keep this from happening."

Besides this jumper, records show that only two people have ever survived the plunge over the Horseshoe Falls. The first was seven-year-old Roger Woodward in 1960, after the boat he was in capsized. Woodward was wearing a life vest. The second survivor was Kirk Jones, who went over the edge without any protection in 2003.

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