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Aviation Unit 'Eyes in the Sky' for NYPD's Counterterrorism Effort


The New York Police Department Aviation Unit was founded in 1928, and is considered the first and longest-running police aviation unit in the United States. It is a unit that has transformed over the years from fixed wing aircraft to high-tech helicopters. As VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports, the Aviation Unit is now an important part of the counterterrorism effort of the NYPD.

Most police officers in New York City begin their day by reviewing their patrol area.

But for members of the NYPD Aviation Unit, whose patrol area is the entire city, the day begins by checking out the weather.

The patrol vehicle for the officers is a state-of-the-art helicopter, outfitted with surveillance equipment.

Lieutenant Wendell Sears, who serves as the Director of Flight Operations for the Aviation Unit, says the presence of the helicopter in the skies above the city is to enhance the course of regular police work. "Our role is to help the men and women on the ground."

With so much water surrounding New York City, historically one of the primary roles of the Aviation Unit is search and rescue operations.

But since the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., priorities have changed. While search and rescue work is still a regular part of the Aviation Unit mission, more of the regular patrol work is keeping an eye from the sky on the city - on the lookout for anything unusual. It is part of a beefed-up counterterrorism effort initiated by Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and executed by people like Lieutenant Sears.

"We have various counterterrorism locations that we hit, bridges, buildings, various locations throughout the city that we pay a visit on a routine basis," Sears said.

One of those locations is the George Washington Bridge, a major artery for vehicle traffic entering and leaving Manhattan.

During one routine patrol, one of the pilots notices something unusual. Pilot transmission: "We've got people on top. We've got workers on top of the bridge."

What they are seeing on the top of the superstructure is cause for concern. The pilots were not notified of any scheduled work, and they begin an orbit around the bridge.

Pilot transmission: "Let's go around, I want to take a look at what's going on. Are they taking photos?" Yeah, I don't know what they're doing, or who they are or how they got up there."

As the pilots circle, they are closely monitoring movements.

Pilot transmission: "Part of airborne patrol is to look and see, and obviously there is somebody here who we were not notified about so we're here to investigate what this is all about."

The pilots do not have the capability to physically intervene, and they call for land-based patrols with the New York and New Jersey Port Authority to help them investigate.

Pilot transmission: "They don't seem to be too alarmed to our presence, and I'm going out on a limb here to say that everything is OK, but it's best to have them checked out anyway."

After circling the bridge for ten minutes, word finally reaches the pilots that the people on the top of the bridge check out. It appears to be a routine inspection of one of the light beacons on the top of the superstructure.

But since the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., Lt. Sears says there is no such thing as "routine" and the Aviation Unit can never be too cautious. "We're more proactive, our officers are going over locations… it's a different world."

When asked if there is tangible evidence that the work of the Aviation Unit is making a difference, Lt. Sears points to the record. There has not been a terrorist attack in New York City since the mission of the unit changed after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, and patrols were beefed up to keep an eye on the city. "I do hope that we are making a difference. Every day that we don't see a tragedy like 9/11, maybe we are playing a role, and a major role, in the efforts of fighting terrorism."

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