Inside a helicopter ride-along with NYPD’s Aviation Unit

Criminals can run, but they can’t hide from the NYPD’s high-tech eye in the sky.

That’s what accused murderer Weng Sor, 62, found out earlier this month when he went on a deadly rampage through the streets of Bay Ridge, randomly mowing down 10 people in a U-Haul before careening onto the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. There, an overhead police chopper spotted him and told officers, who were too boxed in by traffic, where to arrest Sor.

The Post flew on patrol recently with NYPD chopper police pilots who soar 1000 feet above the five boroughs, using Wescam MX-10 aerial infrared technology designed for low-altitude tactical surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

Pilots can see up to three miles, read license plate numbers from the air and pinpoint perps on rooftops — skills that prove indispensable in a city where, unlike Los Angeles, high-speed chases in ground vehicles are often impossible.


NYPD Aviation Unit chief pilot Det. Christian Delacruz
NYPD Aviation Unit chief pilot Det. Christian Delacruz was inspired to become a helicopter pilot after seeing Tom Cruise in “Top Gun” in 1986.
Matthew McDermott

The radio call sign? “Finest.”

“We’re not up here to do sightseeing,” Deputy Inspector Louis Soviero of the NYPD’s elite Aviation Unit said at the command center at Floyd Bennett Field in Marine Park, Brooklyn, last week. “We’re here to help catch the bad guys.”

After first “tugging out” from the edge of Jamaica Bay, the multi-million dollar, blue-and-white helicopters can hurtle through the sky and be at the top edge of The Bronx in less than nine minutes.


A view looking out on New York City from inside an NYPD helicopter
Pilot Delacruz (right) and Tactical Flight Officer Lester Sanabria (left) on patrol approaching Manhattan.
Matthew McDermott

The average commute to a “job” — which could be in a high-crime area like Brownsville or involving a capsized boat or distressed kite surfer at sea — is seven minutes.

But speed is just part of why the NYPD’s elite Aviation Unit is a patrol cop’s secret weapon.

Cameras hang down from the front of each chopper with “eyes” that transmit high-definition images to a video display in the cockpit, which ismonitored by the tactical flight officer (TFO). The cameras also provide video to headquarters.


Looking at an NYC rooftop on a screen inside an NYPD helicopter
Flight Tactical Officer Lester Sanabria keeps his eyes glued to the images of rooftops being transmitted by the chopper’s high-tech cameras.
Matthew McDermott

At night, depending on the operation, pilots wear night vision goggles and the copters use Trakka Beam search lights for illumination.

The pilots and support team are jacks of all trades —fast rope deployments, high-rise and roof-top insertions, hoist operations — and they also serve as air ambulance operators. 

The unit respond to calls within a 60-mile radius of the city, including from Cape May to Atlantic City.


Crew chief Robert Bernhardt of the NYPD's Aviation Unit
Crew chief Robert Bernhardt gets an bird’s eye view of Manhattan during a recent flight.
Matthew McDermott

What was founded officially in 1929 as the NYPD Aviation Unit began unofficially in 1919 with 26 aerial police officers, equipped with wireless telephones and and chosen from a pool of over 125 applicants.

Many of them were hardened airmen returning from World War I. They also opened a women’s-only aviation corps later that year.

“Armed with Machine Guns, They Open the Season’s Campaign on Air Traffic Violators,” blared The New York Times headline in 1922. At the time, the police pilots focused on “dangerous and daredevil flying over New York.”


Crew chief Robert Bernhardt, Chief Pilot Det. Christian Delacruz and Tactical Control Officer Det. Lester Sanabria of the NYPD's Aviation Unit
Crew chief Robert Bernhardt, Chief Pilot Det. Christian Delacruz and Tactical Control Officer Det. Lester Sanabria took The Post out on patrol over the city.
Matthew McDermott

Now, terrorism and street criminals are the focus.

During national holidays and major events, the NYPD pilots scan big vessels in the harbor, as well as train yards and waterways, searching for signs of suspicious activity. Day to day, the unit focuses on the same crime trends that the cops down below do, but from the air.

“A lot of what we do is look for patterns,” Det. Christian Delacruz, 42, the unit’s chief pilot, said as he operated the controls of the cockpit while Det. Lester Sanabria kept his eyes glued to the video screen. “Right now we’re working on a pattern which involves suspects on scooters and sport bikes. They can take off and go up and down sidewalks and down one-way streets which our patrol officers can’t always do.”


An Aviation Unit Bell helicopter takes off from Floyd Bennett Field off Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn.
An Aviation Unit Bell helicopter takes off from Floyd Bennett Field off Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn.
Matthew McDermott

As darkness sets in, the chopper camera switches over to thermal imaging to identify possible suspects in the middle of committing crimes. As a result, the NYPD has a lot of video showing suspects hiding out in the dark on rooftops.

The unit includes 35 pilots as well as a big maintenance crew and has seven choppers: two Bell 412 search and rescues, four Bell 429s, and one Bell 407 which is a “trainer” aircraft.

Delacruz, a 13-year veteran of the aviation unit, said he never tires of zooming over Coney Island, the Empire State Building and circling around the Brooklyn Bridge and other landmarks, checking for “jumpers” (people possibly trying to commit suicide), trespassers and other suspicious individuals.


The police helicopter simulator at Floyd Bennett Field
The police helicopter simulator at Floyd Bennett Field where police pilots brush up their skills.
Matthew McDermott

“I saw ‘Top Gun’ in 1986 and knew what I wanted to do,” Delacruz said. “I think there’s a lot of pilots in the NYPD and elsewhere who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s and are here because of Tom Cruise.”

Some of the police helicopter operations are lower tech, and employ the unit’s “Bambi buckets,” attached to each chopper, that enable them to help the FDNY put out brush fires. Last week, the Aviation Unit helped the FDNY contain a brush fire on Gerritsen Beach in Brooklyn by scooping up to 200 gallons of water from the bay and dropping it on the affected area, which was inaccessible by land.


Police pilots scan bridges, vessels and train yards for signs of suspicious activity from the air.
Police pilots scan bridges, vessels and train yards for signs of suspicious activity from the air.
Matthew McDermott

In 2017, an NYPD pilot had to essentially thread a needle through trees to rescue a trapped hiker at Bear Mountain.

“At the end of the day we are the ultimate support team,” Delacruz said, landing his craft back at Floyd Bennett Field after a patrol that went to the Bronx and back. “People might look up and see us and think we’re just checking out the parade — but we’re doing a lot more, believe me.”

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