Pilots

Tony Sanseverino

September 1, 2006

Most pilots can recall a memorable day of flying, but few share a day like that of Tony Sanseverino. And with some certainty, few share any memories of flying at the time that sticks out in Sanseverino's mind.

"The first night sticks out in my mind the most because it was a very surreal sight to see, flying over Ground Zero," Sanseverino says of flying around lower Manhattan five years ago on September 11, 2001. "Everything was on fire and glowing; it looked like something from a science fiction movie.

"There was nobody on the radio, the radios were dead silent," Sanseverino recalls. "Flying in this area we have three canopies of Class B airspace that overlap, and that night it was so weird to be the only one flying."

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Sanseverino says he and his wife always looked forward to one thing when they were on their way back from vacation: "Whether by car or by airplane, we always knew we were home when we saw the towers." But on the day he recalls, the world would change.

As a New York City Police Department (NYPD) helicopter pilot, Sanseverino was one of the only people in America in the air that evening. "It's something that I will always remember, the sights, the sounds, the smells of that day."

There were fighter jets flying patrol overhead that he knew of, but they were on their own frequencies. Flying out of the base at Floyd Bennett Memorial Airport, the NYPD pilots were alone near Ground Zero. "By the time I got airborne, the buildings were down; unfortunately there was nothing we could do," Sanseverino says. When darkness fell, the helicopter pilots searched the site with FLIR (forward-looking infrared) cameras for any survivors, trying to help with the rescue effort in any way they could. But mostly they were flying security patrols and transporting supplies and personnel to Ground Zero.

Today Sanseverino is retired from the NYPD after 20 years, the last five of which were in the Aviation Unit. But he's still flying around Manhattan. These days he's guiding tourists from around the world as a pilot for Liberty Helicopters. "I'm basically talking during the whole flight. I mean, I don't shut up when I fly these tours. I just constantly talk and joke," he says with the smile of a man who's enjoying himself. "I'm proud of my city, I'm proud to have served it honorably, and I have a good time flying people around, showing off my city."