Cover Story

Safety First

Niagara Helicopters playing critical role with HART search and rescue missions.

n a yearly basis, Niagara Helicopters takes hundreds of people on a breathtaking trip high above the mighty Niagara. It’s become one of the region’s most exciting must-see tours. 

But what many people don’t realize is that the venerable Niagara Falls firm has also been helping save countless lives through its work with the High Angle River Teambetter known as HART.

A division of the Niagara Parks Police, HART is a squad of eight specially-trained officers who are called in to help out with search and rescue missions, and other sudden emergencies. Formed in 2000, HART often works closely with organizations like the Niagara Falls Fire Department and the Niagara Falls (NY) Police Department. 

But HART has developed a special bond with Niagara Helicopters over the years. 

Niagara Helicopters is called in when air support is critical to a situation. That can involve everything from searching for missing boaters to flying HART members in and out of precarious locations. Niagara Helicopters is particularly adept at helping out with short haul missions where a rescuer is suspended 100 feet below the aircraft. (This specialized technique is only used by a select few rescue agencies.) 

Although HART is responsible for emergencies throughout the Niagara River corridor, Niagara Helicopters is normally brought in to help out with missions taking place between Chippawa and 

Queenston. But the demand for air support is considerable. In 2014 alone, Niagara Helicopters was called in 88 times to assist HART, and there were another 65 service calls this past year.

Niagara Helicopters’ former owner Ruedi Hafen and HART coordinator John Gayder originally established a working arrangement in 2002and the two agencies would go on to work together on numerous search and rescue operations. One notable rescue took place back in June of 2011, when Ruedi Hafen and HART had to fly in and rescue two New York State police officers who were stranded in a police launch dangerously close to the Horseshoe Falls.

Current HART coordinator Shawn Black says it’s rare for a private firm like Niagara Helicopters to be working so closely with the police on rescue missions.

“This is a joint venture but it’s also a very unique relationship,” he says. “I can’t tell you how many times they’ve been able to rescue an injured person or get one of our team out of harm’s way.”

In recent years, Ruedi Hafen’s role with HART has been taken over by Rene Huessy, a veteran pilot and Niagara Helicopters’ operation manager.

“I started at the bottom and worked my way up,” explains Rene who’s been with Niagara Helicopters now since 2004. “Ruedi showed me the ropes with HART and pointed me in the right direction. It’s valuable for any pilot to have the proper rescue skills. You never know when you’re going to need them.”

Right now, Rene is the only member of the Niagara Helicopters team who is fully qualified to undertake HART missions. Over time, he’s undergone rigorous training through Transport Canada and continued to hone his rescue skills, whether it’s passing flight tests like hovering with a hook or going through protocol with HART members. 

“Rene has been a huge part of our success,” Shawn says. “We couldn’t do our job without him.”

Just this past April for instance, Rene was called in to help a pair of fishermen who had become stranded on a rock in the lower Niagara River near Devil’s Hole. The men had gone too far out to fish and the river had rushed in, cutting off their escape route. Fortunately, Rene was able to fly HART members in and airlift the anxious fishermen back to shore. 

Although Ruedi sold Niagara Helicopters to Helicopter Transport Services in Ottawa back in 2011, the new parent firm has continued to be a strong supporter of HART’s activities. For example, Niagara Helicopters subsidizes most of the mission expense itself, receiving only a flat rate of $350 from the Niagara Parks per assignment. Helicopter Transport Services has also provided Niagara Helicopters with a special Bell 206 Jet Ranger which is specially designed to fly search and rescue missions.

“From a law enforcement point of view, the value of Niagara Helicopters’ service has been invaluable to us,” Shawn says. “Their generosity has been second to none.”

Niagara Helicopters’ work with HART isn’t all about life and death situations, however. On April 20th, Rene will fly several members of the Niagara Parks Police and the Niagara Falls Volunteer Fire Department into the Niagara Whirlpool area to help clean up accumulated garbage and debris. It’s the second year Niagara Helicopters has taken part in the community project.

Shawn says he’s pleased that Niagara Helicopters is committed to playing such a key role in the success of their operation. 

“I can’t say enough about them,” he says. “We wouldn’t be where we are today without their generosity.” BL


Niagara Helicopters is located at 3731 Victoria Avenue, Niagara Falls. For more information, call 905.357.5672 or visit