In his first remarks about an attention-grabbing claim that police had the means to shoot down a terrorist plane, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said Wednesday the department could arm helicopters with .50-caliber guns to fire at small aircraft, not a commercial airliner.
Kelly explained he was referring to crop dusters that could be commandeered and used to disperse anthrax or some other toxic material.
In the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, authorities uncovered information from would-be hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui about small aircraft being used in this way. It led to the brief grounding of crop dusters nationwide.
In response, Kelly said, NYPD officers spoke to local businesses and went to insecticide conferences around the country to learn how the planes were used, bought and manufactured. They also sent officers to Fort Dix in New Jersey to train on shooting from aircraft, and equipped helicopters so they could be armed with heavy machine guns if necessary.
"We didn't want to be totally defenseless in a situation like that, so we have trained our flight crews to use a .50-caliber weapon," Kelly said Wednesday.
The decision to fire would be only in an extreme circumstance, and would be made in consultation with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and with the Federal Aviation Administration and other federal authorities, he said. "We have a hotline to the FAA and we have direct contact to the towers at LaGuardia and Kennedy Airport," Kelly said.
He stressed that the weapons are not meant to shoot down a commercial airliner. "I don't see that as being a real possibility," he said.
Arming helicopters is only one example of the NYPD's program to fortify defenses. After the 2008 assault on Mumbai, the department trained scores of officers to use high-powered rifles with armor-piercing bullets. They have been put through drills at a facility that simulates a New York City block.