Erie County Sheriff’s Aviation Unit stays sharp with training

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BUFFALO, NY (WIVB) They often make the news after an ice rescue on Lake Erie, or a delicate extraction of hikers from a cliff in Zoar Valley, but the Aviation Unit of the Erie County Sheriff’s Office is always training to stay sharp.

“Hovering a helicopter is a bit like balancing on a beach ball,” said Sgt. Ryan Rogers, a pilot and tactical flight officer. “It takes constant input from the pilot, and for every little adjustment you make, you have to counter it with another adjustment.”

The Erie County Sheriff’s Office allowed News 4 to get an up close look from the air and from the floor of Zoar Valley, as they practiced one their aerial rescue drills this week.

It always involves three crew members; the pilot, the rescue specialist, who is lowered on a cable, and the system operator who’s operating the hoist from an open door on the chopper.

“At a certain point, on approach to the target, the pilot will lose visual of that target and the system operator will have to take over what we call conning, and have to direct the pilot into that location,” said Sgt. Rogers. “So, the systems operator not only has to focus on operating the hoist itself, but also conning the pilot, directing the pilot, as the pilot no longer has reference to the ground of that target, so it’s very challenging.”

The ‘Air One’ helicopter cannot safely lift more than 300 pounds from the cable into the chopper, so it’s usually one adult being lowered into the gorge, and one victim being hoisted up in a chopper where any sudden shift in weight can affect the flight.

“The pilot is kind of doing a dance on the controls of the aircraft,” said Deputy Shawn Young, senior tactical flight officer and chief pilot. “He has to bring it into a hover and then he will pick out his reference points to be able to maintain that steady hover. Helicopters will invariably move on their own with the wind and the conditions, so the pilot is constantly making those corrections as well as taking the information from the systems operator into his inputs.

As that drill was being conducted in Zoar Valley on Saturday, the crew came across tubers floating through the valley. “It’s great to see them down here enjoying themselves but don’t come down here late in the afternoon because when you get down here and it’s dark, it’s like walking into a closet and turning the light off. It’s pitch black and they get lost down in here.”

Air One Pilot, Captain Kevin Caffery says the water level can rise several feet in a matter of hours after a thunderstorm. “Every year, we’re down in here unfortunately taking bodies out and doing multiple rescues and we hate to see that.”

Captain Caffery has done countless rescue and recovery operations. Air One is the team that police agencies from all around Western New York and even across the border call upon for the trickiest life or death aerial rescues. This week, they performed a variety of aerial exercises with help from out of town consultants to keep up with the latest best practices.

Caffery has been semi-retired for five years, but is helping this next generation of life savers. “I’ve been flying for about 33 years and it;s a real honor to be able to help these new guys that are coming in be able to train them.”

Senior Tactical Flight Officer Shawn Young grew up in Hamburg looking up to Air One as a kid. “I used to watch it over the Bills games, over the lake, watching it fly by and never really thought I’d have the chance to fly it, but it worked out.”

Deputy Young notes that there is no longer a spare helicopter for when Air One is down for regular maintenance. “This helicopter saves lives. That’s what it does and we would love to see us be able to be more operational or operational 24-7 and have weather really be our only contending factor.”

“This is what myself and our crew have dedicated ourselves to doing is being ready for that rescue to save the lives or assist anyone, fire, or other police agencies,” said Young. “When the real life thing happens, we’ll be ready for it.”

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