Founded in 1928, it claims the distinction of being the oldest police aviation unit in the world, but there is a competing claim from the London Metropolitan Police Service ("The Met"). Based at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, the Aviation Unit responds to various emergencies and tasks, supporting other units of the N.Y.P.D. Among its capabilities are the deployment of divers for water rescues. From a standing start, the unit claims it can be anywhere in the five boroughs within 15 minutes, but this has been disputed and is dependent on weather conditions and air traffic congestion.

Since 9/11 the department has undertaken a major overhaul of the Aviation Unit. Equipped exclusively with Bell helicopters, it operates three Bell 412 helicopters, four Bell 429 helicopters, and one Bell 407 helicopter used for training.

The department has also purchased a state-of-the-art helicopter flight simulator, so officers can practice flying without actually having to take up a helicopter. In 2011 the department said they had .50 caliber machine guns capable of shooting down light planes.