Military Helicopters Descend On Washington In Bizarre Very Low-Altitude Show Of Force (Updated)
Using military helicopters to intimidate U.S. citizens is certainly a new tactic in the ongoing crisis.
U.S. Army UH-72 Lakota helicopters, as well as UH-60 Black Hawks, one possibly belonging to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, have been flying extremely low-level show-of-force maneuvers over areas of Washington, D.C. in obvious attempts to try to disperse groups protesting the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota last week. Some of the helicopters have held a hover right over groups of people, hitting them with their rotor wash and the deafening sound of their rotors and engines. This comes after President Donald Trump announced he had ordered hardline measures against protesters and rioters in the nation's capital, including the deployment of additional national guardsmen, federal troops, and federal law enforcement officers.
Daniella Cheslow, a reporter for WAMU 88.5, American University Radio, in Washington, D.C. posted the video seen below of one UH-72 Lakota "parked" above a group of people on Twitter. Steven Dengler, the co-founder of XE Currency, a FOREX software tools and services company, and a licensed helicopter pilot, chimed in to point out that, at least under Federal Aviation Administration rules, this maneuver was very illegal.
It also seems bizarrely dangerous. If something were to have happened to the helicopter, it could have quickly fallen into the crowd, offering them little chance to get out of the way. The risk of rotor wash sending debris flying either into the helicopter or toward people on the ground is another risk from this kind of flight profile, especially in a dense urban environment. There is no surveillance value added by hovering at that low of an altitude, quite the contrary actually.
There have been examples of military units, particularly the Army's elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, conducting similar flights in domestic urban areas for training in the past, but with the cooperation of local authorities to help keep bystanders safely away and areas clear of potential dangers.
The UH-72 in this instance has red crosses on white square backgrounds on its door and under the fuselage, denoting that its primary mission is as an air ambulance. It's not clear what unit the Lakota, or a standard Black Hawk that was also seen performing similar maneuvers, are assigned to. Both the D.C. National Guard and the active Army's 12th Aviation Battalion, the latter of which is based at Davison Army Airfield in Virginia, have UH-72s, including examples in the air ambulance role, as well as UH-60 Black Hawks.
There is also a possibility, albeit much less likely, that the helicopters might have come from somewhere else given that the Trump Administration has called in substantial additional federal military and law enforcement support.
As we noted, UH-60s have been conducting similar shows of force, as well. New York Times reporter Thomas Gibbons-Neff said that one of the Black Hawks had flown so low that it broke a large branch off a tree with its rotor wash, which fell, but thankfully didn't injure anyone on the ground below.
While some of the UH-60s may be from the 12th Aviation Battalion, Doug Davies, who also goes by the Twitter handle @Dougilis, spotted a Black Hawk flying around D.C. just as the curfew took hold that appears, by every indication, to be one that belongs to the FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team (HRT). He was kind enough to share some pictures of it that he took, seen below, with us. This raises the possibility that at least some of the UH-60s involved in these show of force missions may belong to the FBI.
As you can see, the UH-60 in question has fully equipped operators, replete with suppressed carbines, hanging out of their doors, some of which have four-tube night vision goggles mounted on their helmets. HRT is America's most elite special tactics unit.
To say that this kind of activity is unprecedented would be putting it mildly. Washington, D.C. is under a curfew order, but it's unclear what legal authority there is to employ Army helicopters in this way against citizens that were not rioting. It may also be a sign of the kind of response, at least in the nation's capital, that we can expect to see going forward to these ongoing protests.
Other assets are involved in the overwatch missions beyond the usual police and agency helicopters, as well. U.S. Customs and Border Protection Dash-8 turboprops, which are heavily modified with advanced sensors, are flying missions out of Reagan National Airport. A Cessna Citation registered to the National Aircraft Leasing Corporation, but linked to the FBI, is also now orbiting over the D.C. area. Other fixed-wing aircraft have been seen flying high overhead, as well, some of which do not have their transponders on—which is another highly peculiar move.
We will continue to update this story as more information becomes available.
Update: 12:35 AM EST—
This show of force tactic apparently hasn't been limited to D.C. Video has emerged online showing a New York Police Department Bell Model 429 helicopter conducting a similar maneuver over protesters in Manhattan.
In D.C., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Army General Mark Milley has been out on the street in fatigues observing the situation assessing the increasing military presence.
There are also reports that the elements of the 82nd Airborne Division's Immediate Response Force, which last deployed to Iraq to bolster security there following an attack on the Embassy in Baghdad in December 2019, are arriving in D.C. from the unit's home base at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. This would be in line with Trump's earlier statement that thousands of troops were heading to the capital.
Units assigned to the secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) have reportedly been put on alert, too. JSOC, which is the U.S. military's premier counter-terrorism force, has something of a nebulous mission in the greater D.C. area, also known as the National Capital Region, as part of a unit known as the Joint Interagency Task Force-National Capital Region (JIATF-NCR), also sometimes referred to as SOCOM-National Capital Region (SOCOM-NCR) or just the Interagency Task Force (IATF).
There have been other reports of C-17s and C-130Js flying in from other posts, as well, including Fort Drum in New York, home of the Army's 10th Mountain Division, and Fort Riley in Kansas, where the 1st Infantry Division is based.
UPDATE: 11:28 PM PST—
We have reached out to the U.S. Army Military District of Washington to try to get an idea of how or even if these helicopter tactics were approved, and if so why?
Also, the airlift operations continue out of Andrews AFB:
Contact the author: email@example.com