Veteran Military Helicopter Pilot On Why Hovering Over Protestors Was Dangerous And Stupid

The maneuvers were absurd on every level and they put both the people below and the crews inside the helicopters in danger.

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Early in my career flying H-60 Seahawks in the U.S. Navy, our carrier air wing was operating down in the Caribbean. I planned and led a complex training mission involving about a dozen aircraft, including four helicopters, eight strike fighters, as well as some Navy SEALS.  We expended a lot of live ordnance, accomplished all our training requirements, and in general had a great time. 

Afterward, as we were celebrating at a bar just outside of Naval Air Station Roosevelt Roads on Puerto Rico, one of the senior officers in the air wing took me aside and said: "There is a fine line between being aggressive and being stupid. Right now you are nowhere near that line. You are operating all the way on the stupid side of that line, and you need to un-fuck yourself before you get somebody killed." I am reminded of this incident at random times and it usually brings a smile to my face, because he was right. I was being aggressive, but stupidly so, and putting everyone at risk. I changed my ways and became a much safer, more effective, more responsible Naval Aviator.

An Unjustified Act

On Monday, I saw something that reminded me of the fact that there is a fine line between aggression and stupidity, and the memory did not bring a smile to my face. Just the opposite. I watched military helicopters being used to conduct crowd control and dispersal operations on U.S. citizens engaged in protests in our nation's capital. You can see all the videos of these incidents and The War Zone's in-depth coverage on them here.

I don't know who thought this was a good idea, but it's not courageous, it's not smart, it's not effective, it's just stupid and counterproductive on every level. It's also both unjustified and unnecessary. 

Shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, I was trained how to use a helicopter as a "show of force" at low altitude to disperse crowds. Thankfully, I was never tasked with actually doing this mission while deployed. I know plenty of helicopter pilots who were tasked with these types of missions—used to disperse crowds so that insurgents couldn't hide in them—in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they all hated it. Even if it is necessary, using a helicopter to sandblast civilians is not what anyone thought they were signing up for. I never thought I would see U.S. military helicopters being used in this way on American soil. 

There is a legitimate use for helicopters in civilian law enforcement. Virtually every major local police department has a flight division operating helicopters and light fixed-wing aircraft. Washington, D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department has an Air Support Unit. I don't think anyone has a problem with local law enforcement using aircraft to conduct routine operations, but there is something fundamentally wrong with using military helicopters to disperse American citizens engaged in the protected exercise of free speech. 

The Crews Endangered Themselves And Everyone Below Them

I live just outside of Washington, D.C., so I am accustomed to hearing every major event, such as the current wave of protests, analyzed through a political lens, i.e., who does this hurt, who does it help, how does it change the political or electoral dynamic. That's just the way D.C. operates and this issue of an American military helicopter being used to disperse American citizens in the nation's capital is being analyzed in a similar fashion. With that said, over the last 24 hours I have talked to a dozen or so former or current Navy helicopter pilots about this incident and each of them pointed out that regardless of the political messaging or posturing, the real issue in their minds was just how dangerous it was, both for the protestors on the ground and for the flight crew. 

While hovering over a crowd at low altitude, the downwash from the rotor circulates debris and dust at high speed. While some of the protestors were wearing rudimentary Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), many were not. Those citizens were at risk of being seriously injured as a result. As far as the helicopter goes, kicking up that much dust and debris is almost certain to result in some Foreign Object Debris (FOD) ingestion into the engines. The worst-case scenario—an engine or control system failure while in a hover—would leave no room to maneuver to a safe landing spot and not enough altitude to enter an autorotation. It's far safer to be in forward flight at altitude than in a permanent hover. Both the American citizens who were subjected to the debris blast and the helicopter crew were placed in danger for no apparent reason. 

A Violation Of Longstanding Principle and Precedence

The most obvious objection to this incident is it violates long-standing precedence and principle that the American military should only be used for domestic security purposes when absolutely necessary, in highly atypical situations. While the recent deployment of U.S. Navy hospital ships in support of the COVID-19 response brought temporary attention to the U.S. military's role in responding to domestic emergencies, the fact is the U.S. military has a baseline capability and responsibility to support civilian authorities during natural disasters and other contingencies. These missions are generally referred to as Defense Support to Civil Authorities (DSCA) operations and each military service trains to do this. 

Far less common is the use of the U.S. military in case of a total breakdown of law and order. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the security situation deteriorated so quickly that local law enforcement was overwhelmed, and the U.S. military, primarily elements of the National Guard, temporarily assumed some law enforcement and civil order functions. The public supported that action because it was necessary and temporary. I doubt the American public will support the use of military helicopters to suppress and disperse American citizens.

Time For Answers

As this piece was being written, the District of Columbia National Guard announced that its Commanding General, Major General William J. Walker, was directing an investigation into the actions of the helicopter crew. The message was short, but emphasized that the National Guard is operating in support of civil authorities and that the priority was the safety of both the Guardsmen and citizens.  

With this message, it makes it much easier for critics of the action on June 1 to conclude that it was an unauthorized event—a mistake or an unfortunate choice by a small number of people—rather than a deliberate institutional decision. Let's hope this is the case and demand that it never happens again.

There are a time and a place for U.S. military helicopters to engage in crowd dispersal and show of force. It should never happen on American soil. 

Editor's update: Secretary of Defense Esper has since commented that he ordered the investigation into these incidents.

Chris Harmer is a retired Naval Aviator. He flew SH-60F and HH-60H helicopters, accumulating approximately 3,500 total flight hours. During his career, he was designated as both an Instructor Pilot and a Seahawk Weapons Instructor pilot, and is a graduate of the Navy's Mountain Flying School. He has flown training and operational missions in the airspace of over 50 different countries. He is a regularly scheduled military and national security analyst on multiple cable television networks including Fox, CNN, MSNBC, and BBC.

Contact the editor: Tyer@thedrive.com