NYPD pilots protect city, inspire youth

We are honoring Black History Month and highlighting the remarkable achievements of people in the tri-state area, and it's possible none fly higher than a few pilots from the NYPD Aviation Unit. FOX 5 NY's Dan Bowens went on patrol recently with pilots Brian Worthington and Royston Charles.

"I grew up in the housing projects in the city of New York and I never thought, never dreamed that I would be here flying multimillion dollar aircraft. It is just absolutely amazing," Worthington said.

Taking flight with the elite NYPD Aviation Unit is an exhilarating and awe-inspiring experience. From about 1,000 feet above the city, you can spot potential dangers, respond to emergencies, assist ground units and dive teams in their rescue operations. 

The helicopters are equipped with advanced technology like infrared, capable of piercing the darkness at night to track suspects. There are cameras capable of reading license plates from the sky and thermal vision sensors to scan for possible suspicious material on the many ships arriving in NYC ports.

To become a pilot takes years of training, expertise and dedication. Charles and Worthingon now represent not just some of the top aviators in the city, but the diverse range of possibilities within the police force – no matter your background.

"If you had asked me 12 years ago where I would be now I would never would have imagined," Charles said. "I was born in Georgetown, Guyana. I moved here, when I was 13, and I'm flying helicopters now."

It wasn't easy, but now they're in a position to inspire others.

"Growing up, I never saw a lot of pilots that look like me," Charles said.  "For me, it means a lot to give back and not forgetting where I came from."

The helicopters can be rapidly deployed to respond to a wide range of incidents, from locating missing persons to tracking fleeing suspects, and even providing support during large-scale events such as parades or protests. 

The members of the unit are highly skilled and undergo rigorous training, including specialized courses in tactics, search and rescue, and aviation safety.

During our patrol, we started over Yankee Stadium in the Bronx and then headed south toward midtown and Lower Manhattan. Worthingon said they can get anywhere in the city in seven minutes or less. 

One area where they always take time to scan is near the bridges, where it's not uncommon to spot a jumper. If they see something, they will radio to officers on the ground to go and take a look.

"We're, we're always on alert. So at any time, anything could happen. We are always ready to go," Charles said.

While we were flying, something did happen. We received a call about a possible robbery in Queens and a suspect on the loose near a cemetery. In scenarios like this, Worthington says the officers on the ground provide a location where the suspect might be, and the helicopter can fly above and create a perimeter.

Worthington says it's important to remain calm no matter how intense the situation may get on the ground. The units down below rely on them to help guide them to the suspect or navigate other potential danger.

"At times, it gets very intense," he said. "But if we can calm down, then we are going to help the units on the ground. So we have to kind of be smooth and be cool while we're in the air and kind of do our job from above as well."

Worthington is also the president of the local chapter of the Black Pilots of America -- called the New York Metro Black Pilots of America. He also owns a flight school in Farmingdale called Flight King, where he spends a lot of time teaching young people, who normally would not have the opportunity, to fly.

Worthington and Charles, along with fellow pilot, Michael Carr, who was on a separate training mission when we visited, all volunteer to help young aviators in their spare time.

"If someone looks up to me as a role model, or someone looks up to me as where i am in my career, you know, it means a lot growing up," Charles said.

"Never let anybody tell you can't. I've had people telling me that I can't, and look at me now. I'm flying a multimillion dollar aircraft. I own a flight school. I'm the president of Black Pilots of America and I’m from the projects. (There's) nothing special from where I came from. but I'm here now. You can do it as well."

There are 35 total pilots in the NYPD Aviation Unit – five of them are Black. The stories of how they got there are all different. No matter where any of these 35 pilots came from, their mission now is clear – to protect and serve the people of New York.