September 29th 1992
At 12:19 p.m., four persons were killed as two sightseeing helicopters collided in mid-air.
The collision took place in Canadian air space approximately 100 meters (330 feet) west of the Horseshoe Falls in front of the Minolta Tower and the Incline Railway. The weather was crisp and clear so high winds weren’t a factor.
Two men and two women aboard the American sightseeing helicopter (owned and operated by Rainbow Helicopters of Niagara Falls, New York) died. The American helicopter, a bright red Hughes 500E, was piloted by Ben Porawski. Porawski had worked for Rainbow Helicopters for fifteen months. He was an experienced pilot with service in the Marines and U.S. Army.
Rainbow Helicopters was based at a heliport located at 454 Main Street, Niagara Falls, New York, adjacent to the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge.
Niagara Helicopters Limited operated from a heliport located on River Road at Victoria Avenue in Niagara Falls, Ontario.
The Canadian helicopter, a Bell Jet Ranger i206 which was owned by Niagara Helicopters Limited was being piloted by Rodolfo DeCastro. He was carrying four Spanish speaking passengers identified as Ana Torredemer Morcet, of Barcelona, Spain, Anna Maria Espinosa Equizabel, of Madrid, Spain, her husband, Carmen Estefania Garcia, and Santiago Grau Carci, of Barcelona, Spain.
DeCastro was an experienced pilot and a veteran of the Phillipine Air Force. Following the collision, DeCastro was able to bring his badly damaged aircraft to a safe landing in the parking lot of Marineland located approximately 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) from the crash scene.
Witness, Michael Folemsbee, a six year Niagara Parks employee described the crash as “one helicopter passed over the other and its wheels smashed off the tail of the other”. The American helicopter dropped from the sky instantly following the collision. It was missing its tail section and main rotor. The cockpit compartment crashed into the base of the moraine beside the Incline Railway. The occupants died on impact with the ground. The bodies of the victims remained in the tangled wreckage until they were removed at approximately 8:55 p.m. that evening. The dead passengers were identified as Amnon Sarfate, of Brooklyn, New York; his fiancée, Esther Zarian of Brooklyn, New York, and Orna Levy, of Queens, New York.
The victims had come to Niagara Falls for a short visit with two other family members. Sadly, Amnon’s sister, Nimrod Sarfate and Zarion’s sister, Genya Zarion who remained on the ground both witnessed the crash that took the lives of their family members. Folemsbee further described the collision as “it appeared the American was flying toward the Falls and the Canadian was flying away towards the escarpment”.
The crash was investigated by the Canadian Transport Safety Board. The cause of the crash wasn’t immediately determined. Preliminary reports indicated that the American helicopter came up beneath the Canadian helicopter and that the entire right front of the cockpit/passenger compartment on the Canadian helicopter was heavily damaged. According the DeCastro, the American helicopter actually struck DeCastro’s shoulder and nearly pulled him out of his pilot seat.
On February 8th 1994, sixteen months after the crash, the Canadian Transport Safety Board issued a thirty page report on the cause of this accident. The Board ruled that no one was to blame because neither helicopter pilot saw each other in time to avoid this collision. The Board found that both helicopters were operating on a flight path which took them within a 200 foot altitude separation. The American helicopter was overtaking the Canadian helicopter from below when the main rotor blades of each helicopter made contact with each other. Part of the main rotor on the American helicopter was severed. The tail and tail rotor of the American helicopter made contact with the right front of the Canadian helicopter. The tail portion of the American helicopter was severed by the main rotor of the Canadian helicopter.
The Canadian helicopter was operating at 2,500 feet while the American helicopter was operating at 2,183 feet (183 feet above Rainbow Helicopters maximum ceiling). Existing rules at the time of this accident allowed helicopters to circle over the Falls at a height of 610 – 670 meters (2,000 – 2,200 feet).