NEW YORK (PIX11) — Unlike the police officers you see on the ground, a small cadre of cops who fly helicopters pound quite a different beat. They are members of the elite NYPD Aviation unit who possess the skills of aviators and are trained to keep a vigilant eye over the city.

They fly multi-million dollar aircraft equipped with cutting-edge technology capable of responding to emergencies in a fraction of the time it would take ground units.

Captain Hansel Duran, the unit’s executive officer, said, “We’re basically New York’s Air Force. We respond to any type of request from the officers on the ground, missing persons, perp search, somebody wanted hiding on a roof. With our infrared imaging, we know right away if someone’s on the roof.”

A classic instance of how effective the technology works has been demonstrated many times, particularly with the arrest of three suspects who cowered in the darkness of a Brooklyn rooftop two years ago. They were unseen by the naked eye but as clear as daylight when picked up by an infrared imaging device.

In operation since 1929, the NYPD Aviation unit is the country’s oldest unit of its kind. It’s staffed by 60 police officers and 35 pilots who whiz through the skies over New York day and night, 24/7.

During a recent flight, I got an exclusive look at some state-of-the-art technology to keep New York safe. With thousands of foreign vessels entering New York Harbor each year, radiological detection and thermal imaging are employed to detect dirty bombs or other nuclear devices that may be spirited away in the cargo.

According to Captain Duran, “We have kinda like an early warning system indicating a higher level of radiation coming from a vessel than normal. We are looking if that could be a radiological threat.”

As we fly up the East River, I’m told one of the unit’s priorities is to keep a vigilant eye on the bridges and tunnels. 

“If we notice anything unusual under the bridge or anywhere around it, we can notify ground units and direct them to that specific area,” notes Captain Duran.

Criminals can run, but they can’t hide from the airborne cops who can train their high-resolution cameras on the cars below. From 500 feet, they zeroed in on the license plate of a parked car below.

From the sun setting over the Statue of Liberty, we slowly morphed into the night, with the city taking on a distinctly different personality. With its lights glistening like a precious jewel, it is a  breathtaking view from a vantage point few ever get to see. Pilot Lester Sanabria is mesmerized by it.

He’s aglow with pride as he observes, “You see the city from this vantage point, and you realize that there’s a lot to take care of, a lot of responsibility. It never gets old.”

Given the recent spate of mass shootings, another priority of the aerial cops is to scrutinize large gatherings, as we did at 1,400 feet over Times Square and a packed concert at the South Street Seaport. 

Captain Duran explains, “We look at large gatherings like this to make sure that we don’t see anything out of the ordinary…something that is dangerous that would show up on the infrared.”

The NYPD Aviation unit will be hovering over the streets of Brooklyn this weekend, keeping a vigilant eye on the annual West Indian Labor Day parade.

It was an awesome experience flying with these airborne cops. It’s reassuring to know they are there. Next time you look up and see a blue and white police helicopter, you should feel an extra sense of security, knowing someone is looking over you.