On the U.S. side of the Falls, Rainbow Helicopters operate a MD-500E for their sightseeing tours.
The MD-500E is a nimble, light helicopter capable of great performance in a little package. There are military versions of the helicopter marketed as MD-500 Defenders. The U.S. special operations flies it as the MH-6 Little Bird, and AH-6 (the armed attack version).
I was really pumped to get a chance to ride along in such a hot rod helicopter, and choose the U.S. helicopter tour operator over the Canadian one (which operated a JetRanger variant) for just that reason!
My Dad and Daughter also came along for the experience. Here they are right before we boarded.
Got some firm instructions not to delay (and take pictures) prior to boarding, so no shots of that kind. Here we are though, taking off - which was breathtakingly effortless and a totally amazing sensation!
Next thing I knew, we were hundreds of feet off the ground banking over the Niagara River.
The Rainbow bridge connects the cities of Niagara Falls, New York with Niagara Falls, Ontario. This is the Canadian side of the bridge, showing the Canadian customs check point.
The Rainbow bridge is a magnificent looking steel arch bridge, and the principle method of going back and forth between the U.S. and Canada in the Falls area. There is a smaller bridge downriver which my GPS initially guided me to, but I quickly found out I needed a special pass in order to use it.
Towards the bottom of the picture, the cars queued up trying to enter the U.S. on the Rainbow bridge can be seen. Not a whole lot of fun waiting in line! Off in the distance is of course, the world renowned Niagara Falls.
Niagara Falls is composed of Horseshoe Falls, American Falls, and Brial Veil Falls.
The Horseshoe Falls (also known as the Canadian Falls) is 2200 ft in width, with the water traveling at 20mph and 10 ft deep as it passes over the crest.
Most of the water (90%) falls over the Horseshoe Falls. Here's the up river view before the falls.
Like me, my Daughter was having a great time!
We were flying a lot higher and faster that I thought we would be. Instruments show 2450ft high, and over 100 knots! Have to be quick on the shutter release, as the views change quite quickly at that speed.
Sitting on the wrong side of the helicopter for this one, but it gives a sense of what the view is like inside the helicopter.
Can see a little more in this shot as the pilot banks harder into the turn.
Impressive as it is, what we tourist see nowadays of the Niagara Falls power is but a shadow of it's formal self. Half of the water is diverted to power hydroelectric turbines during daylight tourist season. Other times, up to 3/4 of the 1.5 million gallon per second flow is diverted for power generation!
Strangely enough, there's a treaty specifying how much water can be diverted away from the falls for power generation.
There are even conservation groups which monitor how much water is going over the falls. Still, 1.5 million gallons a second flow is almost incomprehensible.
It is widely known that the Canadian side offers a nicer view of the falls.
The Canadian side though, is also highly commercialized as compared to the U.S. side.
The U.S. side is better known for its traditional national park - back to nature sort of experience.
With the right angle in relation to the sun, a nice rainbow can be seen by the Horseshoe Falls.
Would really love to have buzzed the area at 500 ft, but I think the helicopters fly high to not bother the people on the ground as much.
Here's the Skylon Tower, where one can get an elevated view of the falls. I opted for the helicopter instead! :-)
A closer look at the American Falls, and Brial Veil Falls. Bridal Veil is the smaller fall on the right. You can see people clamoring about on the red wooden staircases wearing yellow ponchos. That'll be the Cave of the Winds tour - which we also did. Quite worth the cost, and you get to keep the poncho, slippers, and a plastic bag to carry and keep your shoes dry! Quite considerate of them.
Here we are turning to make another circuit of the falls.
The various Maid of the Mist tour boats can be seen here, where they take you close to the hurricane like base of horseshoe falls.
Here's our pilot, who handled the helicopter wonderfully.
We were given ear muffs to wear to muffle the helicopter noises, but I really didn't think it was necessary. It wasn't very loud in the cabin. What I think the real intention of the ear muffs was to discourage conversation with the pilot! :-)
We made a few aggressive turns which I thorougly enjoyed!
This is view from the front passenger seat, which I greedily grabbed (since I had the nice camera!).
This is the view of the river going over the American Falls.
Niagara Falls State Park can be seen in the lower right.
Closeup of the Horseshoe Falls.
Downwind of the falls can feel like a light rain depending on the wind blows.
Slight rainbow can be seen on the American Falls.
Here's a wider view.
Didn't get a chance to go on this observation deck, but view of the American Falls is great from some night time postcard picture I saw which was taken from there.
Doesn't look like too many cars, but it was a good 40 minute wait when we crossed back into the U.S. side! Immigration takes their time checking people out.
A shot showing the whole Rainbow bridge.
We're a lot lower now and in the approach pattern.
Having done this a thousand times over, the pilot set the helicopter down on the pad like it was an elevator. No fuss, no drama!
Looks like my Dad enjoyed it as much as I did.
Back on Terra Firma, it was a great ride! I know I had fun, and came away with some memorable photos as well!