Pilots: Ruedi Hafen

March 1, 2010

This isn’t the story about Ruedi Hafen’s first helicopter rescue, although we’ll get to that part. Hafen is president of Niagara Helicopters, which gives aerial tours of Niagara Falls. But back in the early 1980s he was working in his native Switzerland as an architect. “It was not my love, it was not my passion,” he says. “I said to myself, ‘You need a drastic change in your life, something you can do from early morning to late at night, seven days a week.’” Something like flying. His passion.

A helicopter pilot, Hafen left Switzerland and moved to the United States, where he purchased Niagara Helicopters from Pan Air in 1985. The year before, Pan Air had flown 1,800 passengers. During his first year, Hafen doubled the number of tourists flown. The next year he doubled it again. “I made it a year-round operation with a terminal building where people can get a photo taken, a gift shop, a bar,” he explains. “Everything is pretty much military precision without the feeling. Everything works like a Swiss watch.” Last year Niagara Helicopters’ five Bell 407s took up 120,000 tourists. That works out to 35 every 12 minutes, no waiting. Business is so good he’s had to order another 407.

Hafen volunteers his helicopters to work with local and state agencies. Twice a year he invites police, paramedics, firefighters, coroners, and doctors to undergo a two- to three-day course, where they can familiarize themselves and the pilots with the gear and procedures they use for rescues—in case, say, someone accidentally falls into the river. Or, you know, goes over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

One day last March, they got the chance to put it all into practice when a 30-year-old Ontario man hopped in the falls. Attempts to pull him out from the ice floes proved futile, so Hafen and three local firefighters launched. The man, unidentified by police, would have nothing of this rescue, however, and became just the third person to go over the falls without a barrel and live.

Hafen flew over after him, and while swimming in the pool, a firefighter tried to throw a sling around the man, naked from falling 167 feet in broken ice. After the man unslung himself, Hafen blew him ashore with the rotor’s downdraft.

But Hafen doesn’t want to talk about that. “I don’t do this to become famous,” he says. He wants to talk about the business: Today it’s grown to 55 employees. “When I say something, it’s done,” he explains. “They know that I still cut the grass and wash the cars. I can still do every job: I can fuel the helicopter, I can shoot the souvenir pictures, and flip the burgers.”

And he wants to talk about flying. “For me it’s a drug,” he says. “I can’t exist without it. The moment I can’t fly, the business has to go.”