In the New York City that Never Sleeps
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Sgt. James Coan "a pilot with the New York City Police Department (NYPD) Aviation Unit" was in the middle of his daily routine of taking his dogs for a run when he stopped in at the local delicatessen for a cup of coffee. Finding nobody behind the counter, he immediately thought there was trouble.
Like any good police officer, Coan went to the back to investigate and found two young girls listening to the radio; they told him a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. He ran to a nearby payphone and placed a call to his unit. The duty sergeant informed him that the plane that had crashed into the North Tower was an airliner and that the crash looked intentional. By the time he had left his house for his unit’s base of operations, the South Tower had been hit by the second plane, and Coan realized he needed to get into the air as quickly as possible.
As he walked to his helicopter, bits of debris from the Twin Towers began to fall onto the tarmac. When he took off for lower Manhattan, he realized that the two tall buildings that so many pilots used as a reference point were no longer there. The short five-mile flight was hazardous due to all the smoke and debris, but he and his co-pilot managed to find a park just north of the buildings that was suitable for landing. The flight proved worth the risk on a personal level — minutes after landing, Coan looked into the eyes of another police officer covered in debris, and recognized that it was his brother... whom he had feared might not have survived the events of that terrible morning.
At the end of that fateful day, as the NYPD Aviation Unit shared the sky over New York City with United States Air Force F-16 and F-15 fighter planes conducting combat air patrol, Coan realized that the mission of the NYPD Aviation Unit would forever be drastically altered. Over a decade later, Sgt. Coan is now Capt. Coan, and serves as commanding officer of the elite group of men and women whose missions have changed, but whose role of keeping watch over the famed “City That Never Sleeps” remains the same.
A History of Progress
Founded in 1929, the NYPD Aviation Unit was one of the world’s first official, full-time law enforcement air wings and was established primarily to combat the problem of reckless fliers over the city. Initially furnished with four fixed-wing amphibian airplanes, the unit would see its first helicopter in 1948, when it acquired a Bell 47 and became one of the first police departments to formally use a helicopter for law enforcement operations. Seeing the amazing capabilities that helicopters brought to the law enforcement mission, it took only about six years for the unit to transition to an all-helicopter fleet.
Throughout its history, while the unit has flown a host of different helicopter types, it has flown them all from the same base. Floyd Bennett Field, in the southern part of Brooklyn, N.Y. — which also once housed Naval Air Station New York and Coast Guard Air Station (CGAS) Brooklyn — has been home to the NYPD Aviation Unit since its inception, although the unit now resides in a spacious hangar that was vacated by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) in 1998. And, in addition to taking over the Coast Guard’s facilities, the unit’s Air-Sea-Rescue Team has assumed some of the USCG’s roles in the area, as the nearest USCG helicopters are located CGAS Atlantic City, N.J.
Other more recent changes to the unit’s missions stemmed from the events of 9/11, and led to the procurement of a counter-terrorism-capable Bell 412EP in 2003, which had such upgraded technologies as forward-looking infrared imaging systems and downlink capabilities. That same year, the unit began retiring its Bell 206 JetRangers and transitioning to AgustaWestland AW119 Koalas. Today, the unit has a fleet of seven aircraft, four AW119 single-engine helicopters used primarily for daily patrol and three Bell 412 twin-engine aircraft for search-and-rescue, counter-terrorism and a variety of other special missions.
Unlike many law enforcement air wings, the geographical area covered by the unit is fairly small. This leads to a response time that can be as little as 10 minutes to anywhere in the city. Aero-mapping software installed in all of the helicopters, meanwhile, helps ensure that aircrews can be fast and accurate, too, arriving right above where they are needed.
The Right Personnel
Like most police departments, the NYPD requires that all of its pilots have a minimum amount of time “walking the street” as a beat cop before they are allowed to join the ranks of the Aviation Unit. Most officers are not considered until they have about five years with the department.
To better understand the hiring process, I sat down with chief pilot Dennis DeRienzo. DeRienzo, who is also an instructor pilot with the unit, joined the NYPD as a patrol officer in 1993, but before that was a Bell AH-1W Super Cobra pilot for the U.S. Marine Corps. He joined the Aviation Unit the day before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
DeRienzo explained that all pilots come in with at least a basic commercial fixed-wing pilot’s license; you don’t need to have a helicopter license. “We mirrored our training program to the military, because we are not a training command, we are an operational command that also has to train its pilots.”
He told us that new hires begin by going through an intense ground school. After the ground school, they go into a primary flying stage with an instructor pilot, which includes lessons in the in-house simulator. This helps get each new pilot set up for the commercial helicopter rating. After that, new hires slide over to the tactical flight officer program, which means they’ll have received over 100 hours of instruction at this point. By now they’ll also already have a license, so they will be out there “working the gear.” “Your number one job here is to learn how to be a cop in the sky,” said DeRienzo. After new pilots have mastered that, instruction on how to be a pilot-in-command begins.
After a few years as a pilot-in-command on the patrol helicopters, it’s time for some additional flight training, this time in Fort Worth, Texas, learning how to fly the Bell 412. But, as DeRienzo told us, “The school only teaches you to fly the 412, it’s up to us to teach you how to employ it for the air-sea rescue and other law enforcement missions we deal with.” Then, after a few years of flying as a co-pilot in the 412, you can then learn the steps to be a pilot-in-command on that aircraft.
It’s only at this point that the department considers pilots for the job of being an instructor (although they will continue to fly missions as well as teach). The NYPD currently has three full-time primary instructors that are used for beginner training, and five other instructors (including DeRienzo) who teach instrument and advanced training.
Rescues and More
In 1987, the unit acquired two Bell 412 medium, twin-turbine helicopters for the air-sea rescue mission. This marked the first use of the Bell 412 for law enforcement in the U.S. The larger helicopters were needed since part of the air-sea-rescue mission includes carrying two scuba divers, on top of the standard crew of pilot, co-pilot and crew chief. Today, the NYPD is the only police department in the U.S. that maintains a scuba capability 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. In addition, the 412s are fully instrument-flight-rules certified and have an auto-hover capability that comes in handy during over water rescues. Crew chiefs for the 412, meanwhile, are now also qualified to use the M4 assault rifle during dignitary protection assignments, or as requested.
Although rarely used for air ambulance missions, the 412s have strong medevac capabilities, particularly in regards to being able to transport up to six litters. Another rarely used specialty is the use of the Bambi Buckets, which enable the 412s to engage in fire suppression efforts and dump up to 180 US gallons of water on each run.
Beyond this are also the newer and higher-profile roles of counter-terrorism and mobile radiation detection. In fact, the NYPD spent many hours designing the specifications of its third Bell 412 in order to meet the demands of these new mission roles (and a few more traditional law-enforcement ones). The new 412EP was funded with U.S. Department of Homeland Security port security grants and can carry up to 10 people, including Emergency Services Unit (NYPD SWAT team) officers. One of the several counter-terrorism additions on the ship is a high-tech radiation detection system that can identify radiation signatures from an altitude of 200 feet; this feature can help protect the city from nuclear bomb threats. Using this technology on a helicopter lets you scan ships and ports very quickly, and unlike fixed-wing aircraft, once an alert has been sounded the helicopter has the capability to hover overhead/nearby to get a better fix on the location.
Counter-terrorism patrols are executed several times a week by the unit to ensure that the unthinkable never happens.
The Daily Grind
Even with the importance of rescue and counter-terrorism, the majority of hours flown in a given year are still for daily patrol.
Most daily patrols are flown with the AW119 Koalas and involve a crew of two, pilot and co-pilot. The co-pilot (who serves as the TFO) works the L-3 Wescam MX-10 camera, forward-looking infrared imaging system, moving map display and Spectrolab Nightsun searchlight. And while the Koalas can be used for counter-terrorism patrol, they are designed — and most often used — to assist the precinct commanders in supporting ground officers.
One of the challenges patrol pilots encounter is that they fly in some of the busiest airspace in the world. As soon as they take off, they are in the airspace of three major airports, and when they get toward Manhattan, they must be on a constant lookout for the tourist helicopters that on a nice day seem to be everywhere.
The NYPD is among the largest U.S. law enforcement operators of the AW119, with four in service. Plus, the Aviation Unit’s AW119s are the worldwide, law-enforcement, high-time fleet leaders, having achieved over 20,000 flying hours on all four ships and more than 6,000 on its highest-time Koala.
Continuing to Adapt
Today, commanding officer Capt. Coan is overseeing an expansion and modernization of the NYPD Aviation Unit.
For starters, in the spring of this year, it is anticipated that the unit will publish a request for proposal (RFP) for four new light-twin helicopters to replace the AW119s. The move from single-engines to light-twins will, among other things, provide added versatility to meet the ever-changing demands of the department. The unit is looking for a helicopter that has already proven itself in the law-enforcement mission, to help to reduce the risk and speed up the acquisition process. The new helicopters will also need to have a winch capability, which the current patrol ships don’t, and several new technologies for use in the counter-terrorism mission. Finally, the RFP will include an upgrade to the flight simulator that is presently in use.
Also in the works is the acquisition of a new single-engine-turbine training helicopter. This will ensure that new pilots are still able to get started on a simpler platform, but will also reduce the hours logged on the patrol helicopters and keeping training costs down.
This past year, the NYPD Aviation Unit logged over 4,000 flight hours and completed over 15,000 assignments, including over 760 air-sea rescues, once again proving the value it has to the five boroughs and illustrating how, in The City That Never Sleeps, there is an elite group of airborne law enforcement professionals that never rests.
James De Boer has worked as a freelance aerial photographer for the past 10 years. He is currently based in New York City.
Source: By James De Boer - Vertical Mag News – 2 April 2013
Photo: The U.S. New York City Police Department (NYPD) Aviation Unit AW119 and Bell 412 Patrol Helicopters (Photo by James De Boer)