Aero-cops ponder 9/11 rescue lessons learned

 - May 6, 2008, 6:29 AM

Last September 10, the New York City Police aviation unit had a detailed disaster response and high-rise rescue plan in place. But the next day, NYPD’s Lt. Glenn Daley told an Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA) seminar audience, “It all went out the window.”

Attendees at the 32nd annual ALEA convention in Tucson, Ariz., July 18 to 20, heard details–many not previously related by the media– about how New York area public-use aviation personnel responded to the unthinkable events of September 11. Also offered were suggestions on preparing for terrorist attacks of similar magnitude.

To a packed room at the Tucson Convention Center, Daley opened his presentation, “Lessons Learned Since 9/11,” by describing the chaos his people beheld as NYPD helicopters first closed in on the burning World Trade Center (WTC) towers. “My aircrews were met by literally dozens of people leaping from the buildings. Our high-rise roof top rescue plan became irrelevant when no one could get up to the roofs.”

He explained that the plan called for specially trained rescuers to rappel from the helicopters to the WTC roofs, clear away obstacles, including the forest of cellphone, TV and radio transmission antennas, and then shuttle firefighters down and victims up for evacuation. In fact, an ALEA northeast section briefing, held in May last year, on disaster response conducted by NYPD used the WTC as a high-rise rescue training example, based on experience from the 1993 Trade Center bombing.

However, a combination of factors prevented people inside from reaching the tower roofs and helicopters from saving those who might have done so. Daley explained, “First, believe it or not, the city of New York does not have any rooftop helipads. Then, the northwest wind prevailing that morning negated any rescues from Tower Two” (the South Tower) by blowing dense smoke and flame directly onto it from the North Tower, the first to be struck. “And then,” he added, “we later learned that Trade Center management had locked all the access doors to the roofs for security reasons, such as preventing daredevils, like the guy who tightrope-walked between the towers a few years back, from getting up there.”

With their rescue plans in shambles, NYPD aviation personnel devised new tactics, literally on the fly. “We started to disperse our aircraft throughout the city, to keep them safe and ready for response. We realized it was time to regroup,” Daley said, describing how his unit designated new landing zones (LZs) around New York City and New Jersey, and began coordinating with other assets that immediately began pouring in. These soon grew to 12 helicopters and crews from neighboring Suffolk and Nassau Counties, New York and Massachusetts State Police.

“We kept getting offers of aircraft and crews from as far away as the Los Angeles Police Department. Our newest guy–with us just one day–an ex-Marine, took the initiative of setting up a status board listing the equipment and capabilities of each arriving aircraft.”

Emergency Comm a Must

Daley noted that a direct result of the WTC destruction was the loss of all cellphone and most radio-relay capabilities, leaving public-safety units with only short-range tactical frequencies for communication. He advised that planning for a similar catastrophe must start with emergency communications, especially designation of backup and reversionary frequencies and channels. A San Diego Police Department officer in the audience observed, “It doesn’t take a World Trade Center disaster to wipe out cellphone communications.” He related how a recent incident–a shooting at a school in nearby Santee–made cellphones in the east San Diego area “overloaded and unusable” as parents called en masse to find out about their children.

“In our current pre-planning document we look at potential targets and establish LZs accordingly,” Daley said. He added that planning includes provision for post-event flights, from VIP transportation and ceremonial flyovers honoring victims and fallen public-safety employees, to site surveys and photo missions.

Daley advised that evacuation of the injured, as well as residents of contaminated areas, will involve aviation and all other transport modes. “In New York we had a tremendous water-borne evacuation. That’s something those in coastal areas might consider.”

An extremely important aspect of planning for terrorist acts must be the likelihood of being called on to transport known or suspected biological agents to government laboratories, Daley said. “Get a protocol set down, get a containment vessel appropriate to the threat.” As an example he cited his unit being given suspected anthrax-contaminated material for transport to Fort Dietrich, Md. “They handed it to us in a Ziploc bag. One of our pilots on that flight came down with the flu the next day and was convinced he was a dead man walking.”

Daley recalled the shocking experience of one of his aircrews. “One of our Bell 412s was just south of the towers when the second airliner came up from the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and just missed our helicopter by less than the width of this room, about 50 ft.”

Observing that reaction to the lessons of September 11 ranged from high anxiety to complacency, Daley warned the ALEA audience, “This is going to happen again.”

A Varied Group

The ALEA convention brought together many of the international group’s more than 3,500 individual members from nearly 400 police departments; county, state and federal agencies; and 243 affiliate member companies, a number of which were among the 140 exhibitors. Approximately 1,200 people attended the event, which was hosted by the Tucson Police Department air support unit and the U.S. Customs Tucson aviation branch.

From 1930 (when the New York police became the first to operate aircraft, to curb barnstormers over Gotham) until the late 1960s fixed-wing operations predominated, but since then helicopters have made up an ever-increasing percentage of the law-enforcement fleet. The ALEA 2002 exhibit hall reflected that trend, with rotorcraft ranging from the piston-powered Brantly B2B, Enstrom F28F and Robinson R44 to the turbine offerings of Schweizer, MD Helicopters, AgustaWestland, Bell, Eurocopter and Sikorsky. However, the proliferation and increased capability of infrared and video airborne sensor systems, with vastly increased image magnification and resolution–of which numerous examples were on display–seemed to be leveling the playing field between helicopters and their fixed-wing cousins.

Marketing reps for Cessna, Pilatus, PZL North America and Groen Brothers Aviation (GBA) were happy to point out that the latest sensor and display technology now allows non-hovering aircraft to loiter quietly at higher altitudes while observing, identifying and recording the same level of detail on the ground. Each provided numbers showing their aircraft having lower hourly operating costs than their rotorcraft counterparts.

Of course, the difference will continue to be that helicopters don’t need runways. Enter the GBA Hawk 4 gyroplane. An advanced iteration of the autogiro, it combines conventional horizontal thrust (via a Rolls-Royce 250 turboprop) with lift from a free-wheeling overhead rotor. GBA says the gyroplane’s simplicity and reliability will yield a cost-per-hour lower than any turbine helicopter’s. The Hawk 4 has demonstrated the ability to take off and land in less than 200 ft and to maintain level flight down to 40 kt (gyroplanes cannot hover, however). GBA is concentrating its marketing effort on public safety and law-enforcement public-use applications for which an FAA production type certification isn’t required.

The Hawk 4 has accumulated several hundred hours of flight testing toward certification, and over a hundred more in surveillance flights over Salt Lake City during the Winter Olympics.

Bruce Jones of Cessna’s single-engine marketing group said his company is delivering 20 to 30 aircraft a year for law enforcement, mainly 182s and Turbo 206s. Operators include local jurisdictions in less densely settled areas such as Kern County, Calif., which includes the west slope of the southern Sierra Nevada. Kern County’s new T206 was on view in the ALEA exhibit hall.

A new entry in the North American public-use arena is actually a refined version of a decades-old Warsaw Pact workhorse, the Polish-built PZL-104M Wilga. Sporting a full IFR panel around a Garmin 430 navcom moving-map system as standard equipment, the Wilga 2000 is imported by PZL North America, based in Albuquerque, N.M. With a 300-hp Lycoming IO-540-K1B5 piston engine driving a three-blade Hartzell constant-speed prop (replacing the Iron Curtain version’s seven-cylinder Soviet-designed radial), the Wilga taildragger has at least several things going for it: excellent STOL capability (takeoff and land in 500 ft), level flight below 48 kt (thanks in large part to its fixed-slot leading edge), simplicity and ruggedness with full oleo strut main gear and a sticker price of $185,000. The high-wing Wilga has no struts, with large doors that fold up against the wing or can be removed completely for excellent surveillance, photography or mapping viewability.