I moved to the North East to
be closer to home and for a job which promised adventure and slightly more
money. I was closer (2-1/2 Hrs) to home but there was not much adventure
in flying the same route over and over again for 6 days in a row.
To top that off the cost of living ate up the pay raise and then some.
I did make more friends and my time with Decair did lead to my time in
the Amazon and that was well worth the move. I did lose weight though
because we would not get through until after supper and something light
would do me till bed time. I was also fortunate to room with 2 other
guys one of which was also a pilot. Both of them were characters
and their antics made life flying the tracks bearable.
My main job was to fly one of 2 Bell 47 G-4As that were chartered to the NYC Rail Road Track Police patrol. I would pick up one of 2 track officers at the main station just north of NYC in mid afternoon and fly them down the Hudson River, around Yankee Stadium, and up the eastern line to the Connecticut border. I would do that for 2-1/2 hrs, refuel, then do it all over again for another 2-1/2 hrs, 6 days a week. It was our job to get people and things off the track. The chopper was their eye-in-the-sky and was commanded by one of two lieutenants that had control over three ground units stationed at different locations along our run. We rarely landed. It was the job of the three ground units to do the dirty work. The flying was not just boring, but MAJOR boring and I, being single, hated the Saturday run in particular. The other chopper did the Long Island section of track. I was told that the pilot before me flew the entire last day (5 hrs) backwards. That must have been a site.
Due to potential pollution problems the pioneering fathers of NYC decided to use the 3rd rail system for mass transit. This resulted in subways that used overhead electrical connections for power. Above ground they used trains and a 3rd rail that had about 26,000 volts. The 3rd rail was always "HOT" but was covered so that only a special connecting wheel on the bottom of the train would make contact, that and small animals.
The chopper was equipped with an extremely loud speaker and multiple siren system. I sometimes wonder if it would suck off rpm if we turned it up all the way. It was loud but necessary to intimidate people to get off the tracks. Hitting that siren would send kids running about 95% of the time.
The day would start by picking up that week's officer (Big Mike or Little Mike) at the large train depot at Tarrytown, some 18 miles north of the city. Little Mike was just over 220 lbs. and Big Mike was even bigger and tipped the chopper, something I got used to after a while. Both men were Lieutenants nearing retirement and had control over the three ground units stationed strategically throughout the city. Both men were a credit to the uniform. And the answer to your question is "NO", I did not fly with a gun, though they had one. I wanted to but they wouldn't let me.
The tracks would follow the edge of the Hudson River right down to Yankee stadium. Our first point of interest was the maximum security prison called Sing-Sing. Because of the lay-of-the-land, the tracks ran right through the center of Sing-Sing prison necessitating two huge concrete walls and an enclosed catwalk. We would always say hello to the guards and they would wave back. This section of track was usually pretty quiet except for the occasional kid or kids taking a short cut, via the track, to get to a rock jetty that was just south of the prison. It was a prime fishing spot because the people always showed us their catch when we asked, and did they ever catch the fish there.
Big Mike embarrassed himself one time there when we caught a group of kids taking the shortcut. As we hovered high just above the big walls, Mike got on the loud speaker and said something to the effect, "Hey you guys, come on, get out of there". While his attention was on the kids, mine had to be on everything else and I told Mike to look down into the big exercise yard. It embarrassed the heck out of him to see virtually all the inmates there jumping up and down waving their arms wildly. I always wondered if someone could get a duplicate chopper and rig it with a smoke grenade on the engine, beat us there by 5 minutes, pop the smoke, make an emergency landing in the exercise yard and pluck someone out of there? Could be done I do believe.
Down the tracks from Sing-Sing was an old rotting pier that people fished off of all the time. How they could eat the fish out of that river was beyond me, it was really nasty. I guess they must have really been hungry. They would always wave and Mike would ask them to hold up their fish. I would wave back with the chopper. Sometimes I would do a slow 360 pedal turn while still going slowly down the river. I always tried to do something different for those people because they seemed to be pretty nice folks.
Next down the river was an old warehouse district. This is where we got the finger a lot. Seems it was the perfect place for low budget movies and the presence of a passing helicopter was not in the script. We saw some pretty sets and some pretty costumes. We just passed on through and never harassed them a bit.
Next was a long small grassed in park that was between the tracks and the river. The strip was only about 20 ft wide but a lot of mothers spent a lot of hours there with their kids. At one end it had a small patch of woods that hid a small flat grass area under a big tree. It was a romantic spot and was used for that purpose on many an occasion.
On further down the track and just before making the turn into the city was a sewage plant. Where they let the water out was a little waterfall. During the summer there were kids swimming there all the time. Guess it was cleaner then the river itself. I couldn't do that.
"Spiten Dival" was a 40' sheer cliff where a small river came out of the Hudson River and ran Southeast. The river separated the Bronx from Manhattan thus forming Manhattan Island. Spiten Dival was, radio wise, our first checkpoint into the city. There was a special approach control frequency for Kennedy International Airport that we had to be on but because we were so low they never saw us, even on radar, and it was more of a bother than anything else. During the warmer months kids would jump off the top of the cliff into the river some 50 ft or so below. They had to have a sharp eye to miss the boards, tires, bottles and everything else that was floating back and forth in that river. Sometimes several kids would jump off at one time when the tour boats passed by. I guess they liked the attention.
The "Concourse" was our next checkpoint and was near Yankee stadium. It was the lower roof of a high school that was all completely carpeted in green outdoor carpeting. At this point we were below the top of the buildings. From there it was up to the state line or down into Manhattan. I liked flying the mile or two run into Manhattan because it was a one way in and one way out sort of deal. That is where the surface trains went into a huge tunnel and merged with the subways. The skyscrapers really boxed us in which meant I had to really pull her over to get back out of there. Every time we went in, which wasn't very often, the windows loaded up with people to see us make that tight turn to get out. We sure must have made a lot of noise in there.
"Tar Beach" was what we called the section of the Bronx that bordered Manhattan. All the buildings there were pretty much the same height, about 10 or 12 stories and had flat roofs that were tarred. Each roof had a small wall around it for privacy and so no one would fall off unintentionally. Most of the roofs had things on them like gardens, pigeon coops, tables & chairs, and of course the occasional mattress. I can't count the number of people whose privacy we compromised flying that route. No big thing to them and no big thing to us, they just went on about their business and so did we.
Heading up the East Side one day I spotted a couple of ladies waving to us from the top of a roof that was about 3/4 of a mile away. I said let's go over and say hello, so we went. We found about a half dozen ladies sunbathing in the nude and did they ever scatter when they saw we were coming over. We were too fast for them though as they tried to hide behind and under the chairs. That made our day. When we left we gave them a warm "Thank You" over the PA system. I bet those two ladies that waved at us got chewed out royal. We never got a wave from the top of that building again.
For the most part our job was to get people and objects off the tracks but we were called on for other things as well. A small boy (10) ran away from a reform school north of the city and they call us in on the search. We spotted him hitch hiking along the highway and as I started down to pick him up Mike said don't do that or all the rest will break out too just for the chopper ride. He was right so we called in his location to one of the ground units and he was picked up. We also had to go up to the woman's prison one day. I had never seen a woman's prison before. Several of the inmates came over to the fence and waved.
On another occasion our sister ship, on the Long Island run, intervened in a police shoot-out when the suspect ran into the tall swamp grass near Kennedy Airport. He was jolly on the spot and directed the police via the loudspeaker to the suspect. Sometimes we were just at the right place at the right time.
During the summer it seemed that we saw an apartment house go up in flames every day. I can remember one that was burning right next to the tracks. It was going up fast and apparently everyone had gotten out of the building. On the top though was a frantic forgotten German Shepherd. I told Mike if they weren't going to get him I was. Mike got on the loud speaker and told the firemen below. They sent a man up the big ladder and pulled him off the back side just in time.
Now the good folks of NYC have a reputation of sometimes taking it upon themselves to get things done when needed. There was a long section of track just before a big turn before hitting the downtown section of track. A drunk had taken it upon himself to stop all trains, at the curve, then waved them on. Our sirens and loudspeaker wouldn't budge him from his task. I could see the long stretch of track behind me and there were no trains coming that way so down we went to try to blow him off the track. That didn't work and we couldn't land so up we went to wait on the ground units. He stopped two more trains and let them pass but the third did him in. He stopped it all right but it apparently irritated some passengers. Three men came out of the lead car and beat the dickens out of him then tossed the lifeless body up into the grass. We didn't say a thing, just watched in awe. We waited until the ground unit got there then told them where he was and they took him straight to the hospital.
The train windows were $60 bulletproof windows because kids throw snowballs and stones and things at the trains. It irritates passengers somewhat when a stone smacks their window though and they tell the conductor who tells the engineer who tells it to dispatch who then tells it to us. We got a call about such deep in the Bronx and went for a look see. Some old buildings had been torn down right next to the tracks and all that was left was an empty dirt field with some scattered junk boards and doors and such. We took a good look and Mike gave it the all clear then we went on our way. About a mile out another train was hit and we beat-feet back to the area but found nothing. Now it became a challenge.
I looked around and nearby was the perfect building to hide around. We went down the tracks about 1/4 mile and when we were out of site I rolled that throttle on and made for the back side of that building. We hovered there for a few minutes with only our heads showing. The noise of the city hid our rotor and engine noise and we got em. Just as the next train went by one of the discarded doors lying near the tracks popped up and two little tunnel rats stood up and pelted the train with stones. We made it back to the field in about 30 seconds and, when they heard us, back into hiding they went. We flew around there until a ground unit came. They got two 6 year olds but didn't know what to do with them. Mike, being the ranking officer told the ground unit to just lock them up in the back seat, drive them around the block once, then let them go. Just as he finished saying that one of the kids kicked the officer's leg and made a run for it. He got away through traffic and the other kid started crying so the officer let him go.
During one stretch of boring time I called into approach control and told them I have a confession to make. I told them I was not really a chopper but that I was a crippled kid that was laid up permanently in a bed and my dad had given me this used radio so that I could listen in on the airport traffic. He got a kick out of that since it was slow for him also.
We did have one big worry other than what to do if the engine quit being so slow and low and that was kites. People would fly those things from the roof tops and even out their windows. The tall buildings made for some pretty strong wind areas and some folks took advantage of that. Mike said that he had heard that some people even used fine wire instead of string. You had to really watch for those things. I sure didn't want to get caught up in kite string and get that stuff wrapped around my pitch links.
We did have one close call. While we were peeking in on the Masters golf tournament at the famous West Chester Country Club a severe weather warning came over the radio. An unexpected squall line was passing through the area with severe turbulence (60-80 mph winds) and was really tossing area aircraft around. At about that very same time we noticed the people on the ground running for cover and papers flying all over the place. The trees were being bent over almost 90 degrees. Before it hit us I yanked her over and pulled in every thing she had and headed for Long Island Sound. I was hoping to get enough distance between it and us to find a place to set her down in on Long Island. Mike was watching the wind tear up the ground behind us and said he did not think we were going to make it. The old 281st training kicked in and I kicked pedal while coming off throttle and dove her to a small field behind a nearby building. The flare was perfect and just seconds after we set down it hit us and did we ever rock on those floats. I'd have to say the rocking put the blades within 5 feet of the ground. It passed in about 60 seconds and without doors we got dusted out pretty bad. I looked at Mike and said something to the effect that I wondered what would have happened to us if it had caught us in the air? Probably would have torn a float off.
It gets hot in the city in the summer, especially if you are flying in a little bubble chopper even without the doors. There was a hamburger place along the tracks that had a rather large landable area behind it. We were dying of thirst so I suggested landing and letting him go in and get some drinks. I asked him to get me two large cokes, one with ice and one without. He got them and off we went. I drank the one with ice in about 30 seconds and asked him to pour the other into the cup with the remaining ice. He tried but was having trouble with the little breeze that was coming through the ship since we had the doors off. Without thinking he stuck both of them out the open door to pour them out there. Being already at cruise (60 mph), the laws of "relative wind" kicked in and in 2 seconds that large coke had coated everything in that ship except our underwear. My sunglasses were covered and I even had coke in my right ear. I'll tell you this, it's no fun flying a chopper with sticky controls. When I got the ship back home that night the mechanics sure gave me a piece of their mind.
One of the things we would do to break the routine would be to take a short cut between the top sections of our watch area which sort of paralleled a major highway that was really curvy. Now a Bell 47 doesn't go very fast to begin with and flying one with a big set of floats hanging off it brought our max speed down to that a little below that of the average speeding car. The highway had a lot of speeders and it didn't take long for me to make a little game of it. I would pick out a speeder going in my same direction, try to catch up to him in the curves, and try to place the shadow of the chopper just in front of the speeder. Usually it didn't take very long for them to figure out they had been had and most would slow down and some even pulled over. As I recall there was only one person that would not slow down. We didn't fly that route very often but when we did I had my little game of skill for about 15 minutes.
We flew with the doors off most of the time and both the officers that I flew with had a sense of humor. On the northern part of our East side run there would always be a small group of kids (about 10 year olds) playing along one stretch of track that ran straight for about 2 miles and paralleled a long expanse of woods. Whenever we came by they would scoot into the wood line and get ready to ambush us. As we passed they would jump out and spray us with make believe gunfire. Sometimes the officer would fire back with a make believe machine gun and sometimes he would act like he was hit. In each case I would pull in the power and high tail it down the tracks a little ways.
On one occasion we ambushed them. We saw the kids' head into the woods as soon as we turned on to the long section. Just before we got to them I pulled in the power, pulled her over behind them, and swung the tail around so Mike was facing them with a clear shot. Mike mowed them down with his make believe machine gun and they knew they had been had. Every one of them lay down dead in the grass.
On another occasion things did get really exciting. Three men had broken into a boxcar parked in one of the small yards in the Bronx and we had them red handed. They took off and scattered so we picked the biggest and followed him with the siren blazing away. He jumped a fence and made it to the road and a somewhat crowded street. The ground unit was miles away so we hoped that one of the city's finest would nab him for us. The guy was really tired now and here is this helicopter hovering about 50 feet up in the air and you would think that the local police would figure something was up. Nope, they just stood there even when Mike asked them to nab him for us. He ended up going into an apartment building and getting away.
After I got to know both the Mikes we got to talking a lot. Both were family men and the talk passed the long hours away. The answer to one of my questions though has always stayed with me and the both answered pretty much the same way. I had asked them if they had it better now or when they first started on the force. Both answered, "when they first started out". Sure they were making more money but they really didn't have more. Back in their early days they said they could all (family) hop on the train and go down into Manhattan for 15 cents each and spend the whole day and have fun on just a dollar. There was meat on the table 7 days a week and no one ever locked their door. You knew your neighbors and there was never any trash around. It sure wasn't that way now. Such are my memories of the Rail Road Track Police Patrol.