The pilot of a sightseeing helicopter and his three passengers had a harrowing few moments Tuesday 200 feet above the churning Whirlpool Rapids in the Niagara River gorge when the craft struck a cable car's support wires.
After the accident, the pilot landed safely on a nearby golf course, and the passengers escaped unhurt. None of the 18 people aboard the Spanish Aero cable car was injured.
Authorities credited the helicopter pilot with averting a possible catastrophe.
The incident happened at 5:54 p.m. when the helicopter, based in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and piloted by Mark Felderstein of Niagara Falls, passed within 250 feet of the cable car, soared into the cables and sheared off its landing gear.
Tour guide Roger Barnsley, who was aboard the cable car, said he noticed the low-flying craft for several minutes before the impact.
"I had him in my sight about halfway coming back," said Barnsley. "I was thinking it was very odd for him to be flying down that low. Nobody's ever down that low.
"The next thing we know, there was this impact and the landing gear just shattered into a million pieces and dropped down into the gorge. It all happened in seconds. I thought he was gone, but he pulled it back up. It was amazing he could control it so well."
Felderstein then brought the northbound-craft about 100 yards inland from the gorge edge to the golf course and allowed the passengers to jump a few feet to the ground before softly touching the helicopter down on the
10th fairway. No charges were filed immediately. Investigators from the Canadian Aviation Safety Board are expected to arrive today to begin an inquiry. Niagara Parks police said possible charges are within the safety board's jurisdiction.
Constable John Clark of the Niagara Parks Police said the entire incident was filmed by one of the passengers on the helicopter. The evidence seemed unmistakable, he said.
"It appears he was flying much too low," said Clark. "He should not have been below the lip of the gorge. He was very well below that, maybe 150 to 200 feet lower than he should have been."
"You talk about cool: He didn't even bat an eyelid . . . They got some severe vibrations. He picked out the golf course to land. And you can see him. He's saying (to the passengers): 'You've got to get out now! Right away!' "
Felderstein said he never saw the wires, Clark said, something that Barnsley speculated.
"But he must have seen the car," said Barnsley.
Barnsley said the cable car, carrying 17 passengers, was on its return trip across a pocket in the Canadian side of the gorge when the helicopter struck the cable about 700 feet from shore. He said the car swayed front to back for perhaps a half minute but no one was in danger of being thrown from the open-air coach. No debris came near the car.
It was about 210 feet above water at the time of the collision, but the car can dip as low as 150 feet when it's near the middle of the run. The gorge is 270 feet deep.
The helicopter, minus its steel strut landing gear, left no skid marks in the green.
"He set it down gentler than you can set a baby down," said Stuart Forsyth, director of maintenance for Rainbow Helicopter, which has a launching pad at Third and Main Streets in Niagara Falls, N.Y.
Niagara Parks police also credited Felderstein with doing a good job in the emergency. He hovered above the ground until the three passengers were safely away before landing the craft, a five-seat Hughes 500C.
"He was a smart cookie," said Clark. "He got everyone out safely in an emergency controlled landing."
Scott B. Hughes, general manger of Rainbow Helicopter, said Felderstein had been employed there for about four months. Pilots in the three-craft company seldom fly more than eight hours a day and "some days maybe an hour," depending on the amount of business, Hughes said.
Police said Felderstein, 25, has been flying for three years and serves with the National Guard in Rochester.
The helicopter company, which has been in business "six safe years," according to Hughes, makes seven-minute flights on the regular tour over the Falls and a 20 minute extended ride along the gorge. The ill-fated flight was an extended ride.
Hughes confirmed police accounts when he said the passengers lauded Felderstein's skills.
"They said they wanted to complete the trip tomorrow (today), if possible," Hughes said.
Felderstein was questioned by police at the clubhouse of the golf complex. Clark marveled at the way the possible catastrophe was averted.
"If it wasn't for his coolheadedness, it could have been a lot worse," he said, before considering the legal ramifications. "I hate to see a young fellow get condemned for something like that."
Niagara Parks Commission spokesman George Bailey said the cable car was making its the last ride of the day. He said the ride will be closed this morning as a precaution until government inspectors examine the wires. "We hope to have it running again later on (today)," he said.
"The Spanish Aero Car has been operated by the Niagara Parks Commission since Aug. 8, 1916, and we never have had a passenger seriously injured in an accident," he said. "Our record still is intact."
Bailey said any one of the six cables is capable of supporting the entire weight of the cable car, which can accommodate up to 40 passengers.
The car, built in Bilbao, Spain, is pulled across the whirlpool by a wire rope attached to a 60-horsepower motor and is one of the major tourist attractions on the Canadian side of the Niagara River gorge. Passengers pay $3.50 each for the 10-minute ride across the white-water rapids of the whirlpool below.
Meanwhile, clubhouse supervisor Wayne Cloutier said Felderstein went to the clubhouse shortly after the accident.
"He came in here and made a few calls," said Cloutier. "He was nervous as hell."
Not so a man who was playing golf on the 10th fairway where the helicopter made its impromptu arrival.
"He was quite upset," said Cloutier. "He said 'Move that damned thing.' "