N.Y. police aviation unit in high demand

By Shawn Cohen
The Journal News

CORTLANDT, N.Y. — Westchester County Police Officer Michael Susi thinks he has one of the cooler jobs in the county with his office 1,800 feet up in the air.

"My office is the cockpit of a helicopter," Susi, chief pilot of the department's aviation unit, said yesterday as he showed off the county's latest chopper and all the gadgets that make it effective in fighting crime, assisting rescues, even dumping water on fires.

He landed at the Camp Smith military reservation in Cortlandt for a presentation on just what this chopper can do. The goal was to educate local emergency service providers and police officials about the aviation unit so they can use it in their own law enforcement and rescue efforts.

"We want to get the message out to all local rescue workers that this helicopter is available free of charge," said Susi, one of three pilots in the unit.

"Police helicopters can cover an area in an hour that it would take 12 police cars to cover," he said.

The county now has two choppers, including a Vietnam War-era military surplus aircraft, a Hughes 369A acquired in 1994, a year before the unit took flight. The newer Bell 407 was purchased in 2006 for about $3.5 million, plus $1 million in equipment and training. The cost was supplemented by a $2 million federal Department of Homeland Security grant, said Capt. Paul Stasaitis, commanding officer of the special operations division, which oversees the aviation unit.

The operating expense of running the new chopper is about $300 per hour, not including personnel.

The aviation unit has been in increasingly high demand in recent years as more agencies learn about its capabilities. The new model is equipped with a forward-looking camera that provides night vision and can be downlinked to a remote video station. It also can carry so-called "Bambi buckets" that can dump 180 gallons of water on a single run.

So far this year, the county has used the helicopters to assist 141 operations - everything from vehicle pursuits to searches for missing people. It also has responded to 187 calls from other jurisdictions, assisting in efforts such as fighting summer wildfires to providing a spotlight to aid in the rescue of stranded boaters on the Hudson River.

It also does homeland security surveillance by making daily patrols over the nuclear power plants, bridges, reservoirs, and railway and electrical lines.

"The helicopters are being used for a lot more things than we thought," Susi said. "We were even called to Harrison last month to flush out a black bear."

Copyright 2008 The Journal News, Gannett Co. Inc.

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