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From the brink of Niagara Falls to the wilds of the Zoar Valley, Erie County's helicopters pluck people from danger and patrol the area's land and water.

This year, the Sheriff's Department Aviation Unit, headed by Capt. Kevin Caffery, is marking its 10th anniversary.

Sometimes the rescues are the stuff of heart-stopping drama.

This past summer, Caffery said, he and Investigator Chet Krupczyk rescued a despondent man from the brink of Niagara Falls.

"He just walked out into the rapids, and ended up against a small rock protruding about 30 feet from the edge of the falls," Caffery said. "At 6 a.m., the park police called Air One, and we were able to land on that rock and pull him out of the rapids."

In August, they were called to find and rescue two lost hikers in the rugged Zoar Valley gorge, east of Gowanda.

"The area was inaccessible to police cars or foot patrols," Caffery recalled. "Luckily, the campers had a cell phone with them and called 911 for help. It was already dark, and they weren't dressed for the weather. They were in definite danger of hypothermia if they had been forced to spend the night out."

Zipping along at 1,500 feet, officers in the copter not only protect residents but also observe and detect possible trouble.

"It's our job to assist law enforcement officers with air support, and we're the only full-time search and rescue helicopter operation in the area," said Caffery.

Begun with the support of Sheriff Thomas F. Higgins and a $185,000 grant obtained by State Sen. William T. Stachowski, D-Buffalo, the unit has two high-tech copters, Air One and Air Two. "Air One is our primary aircraft because it has pontoons for landing on the water, and we do so much water work, both in the summer and the winter," Caffery said.

When Air One flew into the Zoar Valley, its radar helped spot the hikers. The chopper was able to place one pontoon on a mud bank and the other on the water and pull them out.

Hours after the Niagara Falls mission, Caffery and Krupczyk were called out again, this time to use infrared radar and search for a 10-year-old girl with Down's syndrome who became lost while staying at a Cattaraugus County camp.

About 150 searchers had scoured the area for three hours. Using the infrared radar, Air One found the girl about two miles from her camp, sitting in high grass just feet from a ravine.

The aircraft, McDonnell Douglas 500 "Force Multiplier" helicopters, would have cost taxpayers $1 million if purchased commercially. "Our helicopters and repair parts are military surplus provided to us at no cost through the U.S. government's Defense Utilizations and Marketing program," Caffery said.

Buffalo Police Officer Mark Kane, one of three trained Buffalo police observers, and eight trained members of the Erie County Sheriff's Department, fly with Air One over Buffalo. "We respond to bank robberies, burglaries and any business alarms that go off while we're in the air," Kane said.

"In the course of a daily cruise, we come across stolen cars, illegal drug dumping, fires . . ."

Questions have been raised on whether police helicopters invade privacy. Bernie Zolnowski of the New York State Civil Liberties Union said the use of helicopters in Buffalo is "not as pervasive as in Los Angeles," but "it can still be intrusive."

He cited a case in 1995 when "the copters were used to surveil the U.S.-Cuba Friendship Festival, buzzing overhead and following the caravan into Canada."

"Although the Supreme Court has ruled that such surveillance is all right, it still gives us concern over the 'Big Brother is watching' mentality," he added.

But Erie Country Undersheriff Gerald Mack explained how the unit avoids such labels:

"Ninety-nine percent of our activities are specific, being directed to possible crime scenes and being asked to help in search and rescue missions. The Cuba Festival was just a big event with a mass of people. We just flew over to make sure everything was running smoothly. We certainly didn't hang around, and it was not for surveillance."

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