I got to knock a few items off my bucket list when I recently got the chance to visit Niagara Falls in Canada. A few weeks ago, I pitched an idea to Niagara Parks in Ontario, which is actually a government agency, to see if I could go behind-the-scenes at some of their attractions around Niagara Falls. Low and behold, they said yes.
First up was the Whirlpool Aero Car, just a few kilometers downstream of the falls. This attraction has been in operation nearly 100 years (since 1916) and is suspended via cables between two points on the Canadian border known as the Great Gorge. However, during one complete trip on the Aero Car, you cross the international border four times, although a visa or passport isn’t necessary to ride since you are suspended in the air!
As water travels away from Niagara Falls, it goes downstream and created a sharp 90 degree turn downstream, or an “elbow” in the river. This resulted in a pool created where the stream takes that turn creating a vortex or a whirlpool effect that’s roughly 1,700 feet long, 1,200 feet wide and 125 feet deep. These rapids are classified as Class 6, meaning they are known as the fastest in the world and thus, not available for kayaking. Further downstream from the whirlpool, the rapids enter Lake Ontario.
The Aero Car itself was built by a Spanish engineer named Leonardo Torres-Quevedo and assembled in Bilboa, Spain. While the mechanics of the car have been modernized, the actual carriage of the car remains virtually the same as when it debuted nearly 100 years ago.
The car is suspended via six cables, with three on the left and three on the right side of the car. Twenty-four wheels keep the car moving from point A to point B and strangely enough, since the Aero Car is a one-of-a-kind, is regulated by the Canadian government like a ski lift.
According to regulations, the car can hold up to 40 passengers at a time. Since they want to lean on the side of caution, each 8.5-minute trip is limited to just 35 passengers.
Every year, inspectors come in and ride along the top of the car and x-ray each cable through a special machine which shows any imperfections it may have. As long as it passes, the Aero Car is good to go for another year. Additionally, they have never had any major safety issues. No one has ever fallen out or even had to be evacuated from the ride.
However, they are prepared in just such an event. Even though the electric current motor was installed in 2004 and has a diesel generator back up, in case of emergency or power failure, they have to have a rescue car located at the opposite side of the gorge from where the Aero Car station is located. Several times a year, before the attraction opens to the public, the crew who works there practices sending out the rescue car and evacuation procedures just in case something does go wrong.
While the crew monitors a radar system from the main office for severe weather conditions, as every once in a while extreme winds, torrential rain or heavy snow will sneak up on the Aero Car. Since the car is always manned by a narrator which communicates with the operator at the control panel via two-way radio, they can ask to have the car reverse back to the station in case of extreme conditions, which has happened a few times.
This doesn’t mean that the Aero Car hasn’t had a few incidents unrelated to the operation. In 1989, Rainbow Helicopter Tours was flying over the gorge entirely too close. The landing rails of the helicopter struck the cables and tore them off completely. At the time, the Aero Car was carrying 17 passengers and thankfully no one was injured. The helicopter managed to land on the 10th hole of the nearby Whirlpool Golf Course where the passengers and pilot managed to escape without harm.
Niagara Falls, as everyone knows, is notorious for daredevils wanting to go over in a barrel or cross over on a tightrope. In 1967, Europe’s top tight rope artist, Henri Rechatin, proposed to walk across the Great Gorge on a tightrope in celebration of Canada’s centennial birthday. Ultimately, the Niagara Parks Commission denied the request in addition to one he proposed in 1975, where he would be suspended over Niagara Falls via helicopter while he escaped from a straitjacket.
Undaunted by the threat of being arrested for any kind of stunt, Henri arrived at the southern terminal of the Aero Car on June 4, 1975, prepared to cross the whirlpool via the cables before it began operation. He had modified a motorcycle to be able to ride across the cables and created a carriage below it for his wife, Janyck, to travel below, dangling from her feet.
While this had clearly been a stunt that was well thought out, Henri was not prepared for the heavy winds that morning and the rear wheel of the motorcycle began to slip. He and his wife then walked the rest of the way across using a balancing pole where they hopped in the Aero Car which hadn’t begun operation yet. In the end, police ended up arresting Henri, but no formal charges were given. In 1976, however, Henri was allowed to perform a dangerous act near Niagara Falls, which I will highlight in my next article!
Meanwhile, if you’d like to learn more about the Aero Car, which will be celebrating it’s 100th birthday in 2016, visit NiagaraParks.com and if you’d like to learn more fascinating behind the-scenes stories, make sure to follow Theme Park University on Twitter and like our Facebook Page!