Maspeth cop leads daring helicopter rescue upstate

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It was a no-margin-for-error mission in a frigid windstorm high in the blackness of night 60 miles north of New York City.

The pilot, Officer Steven Browning, expertly eased the NYPD helicopter precisely to the point above the freezing West Point plebes so that they could be rescued from Storm King Mountain. But it was Officer Fernando Almeida, 46, of Queens who pulled them to the safety of the chopper.

The NYPD helicopter crew recounted their mission at a ceremony Tuesday at One Police Plaza and received kudos from Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.

Browning, a pilot with 31 years of experience, had to ensure that the craft was close enough for a rescue without hitting the rocky ledge on a 500-foot cliff with the rotors. It was close. He said he had used all the power the engine had to hover at the right spot so strong was the wind.

Almeida agreed. It was up and down and side to side as the winds buffeted the NYPD helicopter that arrived near West Point shortly after 2 a.m. Sunday.

Almeida, the crew chief of the NYPD Aviation Unit mission, said his job was to let down a medic on a rescue line to oversee the rescue on the narrow ledge above the Hudson River.

“This involved watching that nobody was smashed against the rocks going or coming up,” said Almeida, who lives in Maspeth. “The wind made this kind of operation difficult.”

Almeida made several lowerings and raisings that morning in temperatures in the low 20s, first letting down Detective Christopher Condon, a medic, who directed the ground part of the rescue. He equipped both cadets with what are called “horse collars,” a device that is fastened around the chest and allowed them to be raised into a helicopter.

Did the two plebes — freshmen — say anything after they were hauled up into the copter?

“All I heard from them was, ‘Thank you, sir,’” said Capt. James Coan, commander of the NYPD Aviation Unit. “They were really frozen.”

Both were taken to the West Point hospital.

The rescue team said the West Pointers used cell phones to call 911, setting off the effort to rescue them.

Despite all the variables and awful weather, the crew agreed it was a textbook rescue.

For Almeida, interest in aviation goes back a long time.

“I graduated from Aviation High School,” he said, “and Vaughn College.”

The West Point rescue operation was a fitting anniversary observance for Almeida.

“This is my 20th year with the NYPD,” he said.

Reach contributing writer Philip Newman by e-mail at or phone at 718-260-4536.

Updated 11:03 am, October 12, 2011
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