It was perhaps the scariest of many harrowing moments in more than four decades that Capt. Kevin R. Caffery has flown for the Erie County Sheriff’s Office.
Caffery and flight officer Arthur Litzinger Jr. were called to the brink of the Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls, where a man despondent over casino gambling losses had waded into the Niagara River, intending to let the rapids carry him over the falls.
Once he got out there, though, the man changed his mind. Now, he wanted to live.
Caffery carefully piloted the helicopter down to the rapids, hovering close enough that he could see the fear in the man’s eyes as he stood in the rushing water a few feet from a 180-foot drop.
“I was looking at him, and he was looking at me. I wasn’t afraid for myself, but I was afraid for him. I was afraid that the wind from my rotor blades was going to knock him down and over the falls,” Caffery recalled. “I told Art on the intercom, ‘I’m afraid I’m going to kill this guy.’ I was praying to God that I wouldn’t knock him over.”
Caffery was able to steady the chopper so that Litzinger could get out and throw a rescue ring to the 47-year-old man.
The man grabbed the ring but lost his balance and toppled into the fast-moving water. His feet were hanging over the threshold of the falls before Caffery and his partner – with help from firefighters – managed to haul him to safety.
He is one of many whose lives were saved by Caffery and his crews.
Caffery, a pilot who earned a national reputation for rescues from the depths of Zoar Valley to the brink of Niagara Falls, retired last week. The 66-year-old Evans resident started in police work in January 1969 and had more seniority than anyone else in his department.
Eleven years after that dramatic rescue at Niagara Falls, Caffery still becomes emotional as he tells the story.
“During this whole thing, I was looking right into this guy’s face, and he was yelling something at me. But I couldn’t hear what it was,” Caffery said. “I found out later that he was yelling, ‘Don’t let me go over!’ ”
Later, when Caffery took his gloves off, he had blood on his hands from squeezing the chopper’s controls.
Despite his retirement last week, Air Caffery may not be totally grounded just yet. He hopes to serve the department as a part-time pilot for about two more years, working on an as-needed basis. That plan still needs County Legislature approval.
Caffery has headed the Sheriff’s Aviation Unit for 27 years. During that time, he’s engaged in dozens of hair-raising rescues, several of which have won him awards from law enforcement organizations. He even appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show in 1999, after he and Deputy Chet Krupszyk risked their lives to rescue two boys who were stranded on the Lake Erie ice off the Evans shoreline.
“I’ve been blessed. I’ve been in police work for almost 45 years, and I still have my health and still have my passion for our mission in the Aviation Unit,” Caffery said in an interview. “I want to travel. I want to do more things with my family while I still am a healthy man.”
Sheriff Timothy E. Howard calls Caffery a “legend” and says he will be sorely missed as a full-time employee.
“Kevin is a very humble man, but he’s got to be one of Erie County’s greatest heroes,” Howard said. “He’s an asset to our whole region, not just Erie County. His reputation is nationwide. I’ve gone to police events all over the country, and had other sheriffs walk up and ask me about our helicopter pilot.”
While he spends most of his time working on rescues, looking for marijuana fields and helping police track down suspects in Erie County, Caffery has flown the county’s chopper to help police departments all over Western New York and in Ontario.
Assisted by the flight officers who fly with him, Caffery has swooped into the narrow confines of Gowanda’s Zoar Valley to rescue injured hunters and hikers. He has rescued ice fishermen who became stranded on ice floes.
He’s used the county’s chopper – outfitted with cameras and gadgets and worth an estimated $4 million – to help police on the ground chase all kinds of bad guys. He’s helped the Coast Guard find lost boaters and has located more marijuana fields than he can remember.
The March 2003 rescue was one of three rescues that Caffery has made at the brink of the famous falls.
Was Caffery ever scared during any of these adventures?
“I was scared a number of times,” he said. “Not for me, but for the people we were sent to rescue.”
His most recent wild endeavor was Jan. 13, when he and Litzinger were called to help Niagara Regional Police chase two men who were wanted in connection with a string of violent robberies in Southern Ontario.
Caffery and Litzinger zoomed across Lake Erie in about 20 minutes and joined the chase near Hamilton.
“These two very violent guys had stolen an SUV. The police chased them until they got a flat tire and they abandoned the vehicle. Then they broke into three homes and were beating people up before they got the keys to another vehicle,” Caffery said. “We were using our infrared camera to track these guys and coordinate things from the air. It was the longest car chase I’ve ever been involved in. We were running out of fuel by the time it was over.”
With Caffery and Litzinger’s help from above, Canadian authorities arrested suspects Joshua Beaver and Nicholas Hill, both in their 20s. The two men face a total of 30 criminal charges, including armed robbery, car theft, arson, possession of stolen property and breaking into dwellings.
Caffery said he is honored that police departments from all over the region call for his help in such situations.
“Ours is an Erie County unit, but our county does a real service for the entire region by providing this kind of assistance,” he said. “I’ve gotten a lot of credit for it, but it’s really a team effort .”
He credited Litzinger – the county’s other helicopter pilot, who will take over the unit – in addition to tactical flight officers Joel Schenfield, Tim Donovan and the department’s dispatchers for their help.
A South Buffalo native who grew up with many cops and firefighters, Caffery joined the Sheriff’s Office just over 45 years ago. He spent much of his early career working undercover, mostly on drug cases. He later worked on road patrol before taking over the Aviation Unit 27 years ago.
“One of the hardest things for me to learn has been when to say no,” Caffery said. “There are certain situations where police departments have asked for our help, and we just couldn’t help them, usually because of the weather. I hate to say no, but sometimes you have to.”
Caffery said he has known at least 10 helicopter pilots who have died over the years.
“Our biggest hazards are power lines and poles,” he said.
He tries not to talk much about the dangers with his wife, Cathy, a retired schoolteacher, and their son and daughter.
“With a lot of the rescues, we had literally seconds to spare,” Caffery said. “One thing I am really proud of is that, without our Aviation Unit, I know quite a few people would have died over the years.”