New York’s flying finest cope with post-Sept. 11 realities

 - May 9, 2008, 4:49 AM

More than a year later, southern Manhattan still seems scarred, incomplete; the variegated skyline stretching the length of the island seems an architectural sentence without an emphatic piece of closing punctuation. It’s the visual equivalent of “phantom limb syndrome,” that condition amputees suffer in which they’re not only aware of their amputated appendages but also suffer aches and pains as
if those limbs were still attached.

What should have been an ordinary day, a late-summer Tuesday morning over a year ago, became a nightmare when a pair of hijacked jetliners smashed into Manhattan’s World Trade Center, destroying the towers and killing thousands, among them 70 police officers and 343 firefighters.

Left physically unscathed but scarred by sights and sounds they hope never to experience again were New York Police Department (NYPD) police officer/pilot Pat Walsh and co-pilot Timothy Hayes. Along with crew chiefs John Maier and Donald Gromling and rescue scuba diver Steve Bienkowksi, they crewed the first official rescue helicopter to approach the towering column of smoke and flame that served as the signpost to a site of unimaginable horror.

Hovering over the blazing north tower, the five men found themselves to be frustrated rescuers. While thick smoke poured from the shattered north side of the north tower, drawn by the prevailing wind and tremendous heat up and over the tower top, five pairs of eyes swept the roof in vain, looking for survivors. A reinforced portion of roof, designated as an approved helicopter landing area, was intermittently visible through the smoke. But no people. Access to the roof was barred by a heavy metal door, locked to protect the multi-million-dollar rooftop complex of broadcast antennas and transmitters. On September 11, the security system worked all too tragically well. Dozens of frantic survivors of the collision who, according to calls made to relatives and loved ones via cellphones, were trapped on the stairwell leading to the rooftop from the Windows on the World penthouse restaurant. No one in this group survived.

The crew of the big Bell looked on in growing horror as panicked survivors of the crash, desperate to avoid the agony of death by fire, opted instead for the short sharp shock lying at the end of what’s been called “gravity’s rainbow.” The sight of these men and women is etched in the officers’ memories. The victims expected nothing more than an ordinary day at work from this Tuesday but accepted their fate in a frame of mind that can barely be imagined. They chose to confront death under terms at least somewhat within their own control. The five officers will remember that scene as surely as they recall the image of a second Boeing 767 slicing toward the towers from the south in the second attack of what onlookers now understood was a determined act of terrorism.

History has touched the men and women of the NYPD Aviation Unit before. Being an integral part of the law enforcement strategies of what some call the “capital of the world” leaves little leeway to maintain a low profile. Even the former Coast Guard hangars of the unit’s headquarters at quasi-abandoned Floyd Bennett Field reek of history (and of the woodsy, salt-air funk of the tidal marshes surrounding it). Before the emergence of La Guardia, JFK International and Newark as the Big Apple’s principal air gateways, the sprawling runways of Floyd Bennett saw pioneering aviators such as Howard Hughes (who began and ended his historic ’round-the-world flight from here) and Harold “Wrong Way” Corrigan (who “aimed for California” but flew to Ireland).

Until just a few years ago, the unit made its home in the very same tumbledown hangar from which Corrigan left. Then budget cuts forced the Coast Guard to move out, clearing a modern work and training space for New York’s Finest’s flying cops. It nestles securely on a piece of what would be multi-million-dollar beachfront real estate if any housing developer with a few grams of brains could get hold of it.

Captain Joseph Galucci heads the 57-officer aviation unit, which includes some 35 officer/pilots, 18 mechanics and assorted support staff. The current NYPD helicopter fleet numbers three aging Bell JetRangers and a pair of newer Bell 412s heavily modified for search-and-rescue. Part of NYPD’s mandate, especially since the U.S. Coast Guard reduced its New York presence, is search, rescue and patrol of the city’s hundreds of miles of waterways, rivers, canals and marshes. Two police divers are routinely part of each 412’s crew.

“We’ve got some bigger and better equipment on the way,” Galucci told AIN. “One will be a Bell 412 specially configured for surveillance and patrol and funded under a $9.8 million grant from the federal Office of Defense Preparedness. The other, also a Bell 412, is the result of cooperation with the homeland defense effort and will be a heavily modified airframe with a lot of equipment, some of it secret, some of it never before operated by a domestic police department. This machine will be so capable and so digital we’re calling it ‘Blue Thunder’ in-house.”

While precise details are unclear on just what equipment and what capabilities will be built into “Blue Thunder” (most of the work will be performed at Edwards & Associates, Bristol, Tenn.), it will have an elaborate multispectral sensor suite, real-time satellite uplink and downlink capability and a lot more. “Most of its cabin space will be filled with either equipment or stations for the equipment operators,” Galucci disclosed.

NYPD Air Unit cops start off as cops in the most basic sense of that word. They attend the NYPD Academy and spend what might be called their “boot” years in the streets, either walking a beat (New York City is among the few major U.S. urban areas in which police still walk foot patrols) or cruising in a patrol car. Galucci said, “The norm is to put in three to five years doing that and then apply for whatever special duty you prefer, whether that be narcotics, homicide, burglary, whatever. Or aviation.”

While NYPD will take non-pilot police officers and train them to be pilots, almost
all of its successful candidates had at least some stick-and-rudder time before coming
on board. Nearly everyone, that is, except Galucci, who concedes his aviation logbook is comparatively thin. “I came up through the street ranks and then narcotics without ever flying,” the 38-year-old Bronx resident admits with an almost sheepish grin. “But I did those missions for a total of 19 years before coming over here. I guess someone thought I had some managerial talent.”

Since taking over the unit, Galucci has gotten his wings, although he admits that he doesn’t get away from his desk and into the cockpit as much as he’d like.

A Question of Image

“The events of 9/11 and its aftermath have given us a Hollywood, ‘front line against terrorism’ image that maybe isn’t appropriate to our basic mission,” Galucci concedes. “Even though we fly in support of all the world-class events that New York is famous for, our real mission is to back up the individual officer on the ground, in the streets. He knows we’re there when he radios for a ‘10-15,’ that means ‘officer in need of assistance.’

“There isn’t much in the way of acceptable criteria for when it’s appropriate to call in the helicopter,” Galucci continued. “That’s left up to the individual officer. It’s his job to determine the need, and if he’s in trouble, we’re on our way. We’ve backed up a single officer on the ground being threatened by a gang. The surprise effect on a confrontation like that is pretty dramatic, not to mention effective.”

Of course, special events are where the great majority of the general public sees the NYPD aviators in action, and the city’s never-ending schedule can mean some active months. “September was especially busy for us,” recalled Galucci. “In just three weeks we provided security for the first anniversary of the Trade Center attacks; the special session of the U.S. Senate that was convened for that occasion; the opening of the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly, with more than 80 heads of state in town for that; the U.S. Open tennis tournament; and a huge pre-season kickoff event in Times Square for the opening of the National Football League that drew 400,000 people. So we put in a lot of time that month.”

The year since the Trade Center attacks has seen more of a quantitative rather than a qualitative change in the NYPD aviation unit’s mission. “Other than a few missions we can’t talk about, we’ve just basically been flying more of the same. Surveillance. Patrol. Enforcement.”

How much flight time has that worked out to? “Altogether approximately 5,000 hours annually for the fleet,” said Galucci “The 412s account for about 800 hours of that each, leaving the lion’s share of the work to the three JetRangers. They not only put in all that patrol time but also serve as the unit’s training fleet. Do the math and you’ll see that’s a lot. It’s a tribute to their reliability and that’s one of the reasons we’re such fans of Bell equipment.”

What Comes First?

It’s a chicken-and-egg argument: Do you train cops to fly helicopters or do you train pilots to be cops? Other departments may disagree, but the NYPD definitely has its opinion. “I don’t have any assets in my division to train someone how to be a better cop. I can train them to be better pilots and we do that. But there’s nothing that can instill the skills needed to be a good cop–how to handle yourself on the street and how to have the empathy essential to know what those men and women down there are going through and how we can help them. Only street experience can give them that. It’s one of the most basic things we look for in our candidates–the ability to relate their actions aloft to what’s going on on the ground.”

Galucci agrees that those abilities were sorely tested on 9/11 as his men flew in support of a disaster whose scope no training exercise could ever have prepared them for. The impact of the horror of the towers’ collapse can only be guessed at when talking to the easy-going yet thoroughly professional men and women of the aviation unit.

Starting that horrific morning and for some days after, New York’s flying police did not get home very much. As is true for so many, Galucci’s day started out as any other. Enjoying the perfect late-summer morning on his drive to work, Galucci first heard of the initial phase of the attack while at the wheel. Seconds later his police radio buzzed and the first inklings of the severity of the disaster began to become apparent. Finally Galucci got a call ordering him to divert to a precinct house in the Bronx, where one of the unit’s helos picked him up, thereby avoiding the gridlock that was already beginning to stop ground traffic in the city.

“So many thoughts, pictures, impressions and feelings have stayed with me since that day,” he said. “Too many to deal with one at a time. But one thing that comes back to me is just how lethal this attack was. All over the city, hospital emergency rooms stood open and waiting, but empty or with just a trickle of patients. Every EMS helicopter within a hundred miles of New York was standing by, and there was nothing for them to do. We flew in some emergency personnel and equipment and then just stood by. The lethality of this event was just staggering. It was a helpless sort of feeling…”

(Authorities put the final death toll from the twin towers’ destruction at 2,823. The remains of 1,102 victims have been identified. Only 289 intact bodies were recovered.)