PROCESSED A-Star 3212015 marks the 50th Anniversary of the Suffolk County Police Department’s Aviation Unit.  Its humble beginning starts in 1965 with a single donated helicopter, but from there, the SCPD Aviation Unit has grown into an elite unit that enhances every aspect of Suffolk County policing – from protecting to serving – this unit flies high.

DSC_0067On a crisp October day, we had the opportunity to spend time with a few members of this elite unit at one of their home’s – a hangar on the grounds of Islip/MacArthur airport. 

As we arrive, we hear the unmistakable rumble of a helicopter and a few seconds later watch it lift up over the hanger and head out.  Little did we know, two of the officer/pilots were on their way to medevac a patient and save a life.  As Officer Dennis Fitzgerald humbly says;

“Saving lives is what police officers do everyday, so this is just another day in the office.”

And saving lives is indeed a lot of what the Aviation Unit does, yet it isn’t all they do.  The Aviation Unit has two general missions – medevac/inter-facility emergency medical transport and standard patrol activity.  Officer Fitzgerald explains, that this can be anything from working to find a missing person, to assisting in the search for a suspect, to assessing damage pre and post natural disasters (think Superstorm Sandy). 

Today the unit has four helicopters – Two at Gabreski Airport in West Hampton and two at MacArthur Airport in Islip.  Their “birds” are two twin-engine helicopters (EC145) and two single-engine aircraft (AS-350B2 Astars).  And they get quite a workout — just in the short time we were there they received two calls they had to lift off for.  The first happened just as we arrived — an emergency medevac in Copiague where a person was struck by an LIRR train.   And about 30 minutes later, as we talked next to a helicopter we heard the next call come in — a hiker was missing in South Haven County Park. Officer Fitzgerald and Sergeant Sengstacken excused themselves, grabbed their helmets and within 5 minutes were up and away…

Those two calls exemplify the dual mission the Aviation Unit serves – Officer Fitzgerald notes,

“Above all, we are police officers and protect and serve the community.  The helicopters just allow us to cover more ground in less time, while getting the birds eye view, which helps us locate suspects or victims and critically save lives by drastically reducing the time it takes to get trauma patients to the hospital.”

In total there are 21 Police Officers that comprise the Aviation Unit, all of whom are pilots.  Paramedics from Stony Brook University Medical Center work as part of the Aviation Unit’s team – every medevac call goes up with two police officer pilots and a paramedic.  Working to maintain safety and reliability, the unit has four in-house mechanics who perform the vast majority of the maintenance. Each helicopter costs as much as $5 million – so maintenance is extremely important.

The Unit stays very active – in a typical year they conduct about 400 medevac or inter-facility transfer calls and about 1200-1500 patrol calls (tracking down bad guys, finding missing people).  Officer Fitzgerald reiterates,

“we do the same job as every other police officer does, we just do it from the air”

Before we lost Officer Fitzgerald to the call, we had a chance to learn a bit more about him and what it takes to become a member of the Aviation Unit.

Growing up in Rockville Center, Officer Fitzgerald entered the University of Richmond in an ROTC program and upon graduation entered the Army, where he spent the next 10 years as a helicopter pilot flying Chinook’s, which are big transport helicopters. 

SCPD Marine_2256After 10-years he felt it was time to come back home and he became a Suffolk County Police Officer.  Although a pilot, Officer Fitzgerald wasn’t immediately placed into the Aviation Unit.  He explained, “every officer in the aviation unit has to be a patrol cop first.”  I asked him why and he elaborated, “you need to learn the job – you already know how to fly, but you need to learn to be a police officer because in order to support the police officers on the ground, you need to know what they are thinking, understand how to track down a suspect, look for clues of missing people, and work in tangent with fellow officers. The only thing that really teaches you to do that, is to spend time on the ground, as a patrol cop.”

So from 2005 to 2008, Officer Fitzgerald worked out of the 1st precinct learning the ropes of being a police officer,

“Being the best police officer you can be requires the same set of standards and training, on the ground or in the air.”

In 2008 he applied to the Aviation Unit and changed his beat from the 1st precinct to the airspace over Suffolk County.

When we asked him to share some of his more memorable stories, he smiled and said, “that’s what so great about this job – there are so many. The 3am call to take a kid from Stony Brook hospital to Philly for a heart transplant; or another kid at Stony Brook we transported to Boston for critical burn treatment; or the snake-bite guy we had to get to the Bronx for the cobra anti-venom that saved his life.  Those are just a few examples, but you don’t forget that stuff, you don’t forget the people whose lives you saved.”

While incredibly modest, the more we talked to Officer Fitzgerald, the more we realized the vital role the aviation officers play within the police force and outside the SCPD as well.  Of the 21 officers, 3 are current members members of the Air National Guard 106th Rescue Wing; 2 are Marine Reservists; and 1 is Army National Guard.  Many of the unit’s members are former military that still stand ready to protect their country, but now spend most of their time protecting us in our communities.  Sergeant Sengstacken added that the military experience gives the pilots first-hand knowledge of how to handle difficult, chaotic situations when decisions need to be made right on the spot especially when people’s lives are at stake.

As a little side-note that we want to brag about,  Sergeant Sengstacken holds the world record for the furthest sea rescue from land – 862 miles into the ocean.  Yet another impressive fact about this team.

After the time we spent with these real life

heroes who fly high, wearing blue jumpsuits and saving lives, we are again reminded that each and every day Suffolk County PBA members are protecting our families and strengthening our communities. We thank them for all they do.