New Details About Controversial Army Helicopter Flights In DC Emerge Ahead Of Tense Election
Revelations about the potentially dangerous low-level flights this summer come amid new concerns about post-election disturbances.
A recent report has revealed a convoluted and in some cases disturbing chain of events that led to D.C. Army National Guard UH-72 Lakota and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters flying dangerously low over groups of protesters in Washington, D.C., this summer, actions that were improperly authorized and broke Army regulations. The new information about the incident, which had immediately drawn widespread criticism, comes as the nation's capital, as well as other cities around the country, are bracing for protests and other potential unrest that may result from the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
Defense One got the inside scoop on the helicopter flights that occurred on the night of June 1-2, which The War Zone was among the first to report on. You can get up to speed on what was known about what happened at the time in our initial stories on these events here and here. Defense One's Katie Bo Williams also reported that the final report into the investigation appears to now be in bureaucratic limbo as the D.C. National Guard and the Department of Defense's Inspector General wrangle over who is responsible for what.
The individual who appears to have been most centrally at fault is Army Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Wingblade, the D.C. Army National Guard's top aviation officer. At around 7:00 PM on June 1, Wingblade sent an Email to his immediate superior, Army Brigadier General Robert Ryan, who is the head of the Army component of the D.C. National Guard, to let him know Secret Service had given them special permission to conduct helicopter flights inside Washington's heavily restricted airspace.
Before the night in question, Army Major General William Walker, the head of the D.C. National Guard, as a whole, had ordered two UH-72s and three UH-60s to be put on alert at Davison Army Airfield in nearby Fairfax County, Virginia, in case there was a need for conduct medical evacuations, rapid troop movements, or other missions on short notice. At the time, the nation's capital, among other cities, was seeing continued protests, and some associated violence, in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota the month before.
The D.C. National Guard had approximately 1,200 troops on the street on the night of June 1-2 for crowd control operations, augmented by the controversial deployment of National Guard personnel from other states in a federal capacity, as well as federal law enforcement officers from various agencies. Active U.S. Army forces, including elements of the 82nd Airborne Division, were also in staging areas just outside the city, but were ultimately never employed in response to the protests.
Shortly after he got Wingblade's Email, Ryan called the aviation officer to get the five helicopters on alert into the air over the National Mall. Wingblade told investigators that he was under the impression that there was a desire to have the Lakotas and Black Hawks actively help disperse the protestors in line with a nightly curfew, beginning at 7:00 PM, which was in place in Washington at the time. “I need you to orbit around the cross [the center of the National Mall] to disperse any type of looting, mayhem, whatsoever," is how he remembers the Brigadier General's instructions.
Ryan denied this, in his own sworn statements, in which he said that that intent of his order was to have the helicopters airborne to simply obverse the protests, as well as be on station for other missions, with the hope that their simple presence in the skies above might have a deterrent effect. Army Command Sergeant Major Michael Brooks, the D.C. National Guard's Senior Enlisted Leader, who was also on the call said "At no time in the conversation did I hear BG Ryan instruct or authorize aviation assets to fly at low altitudes. Nor did BG Ryan speak of utilizing aviation assets to disperse crowds."
It's not clear where the disconnect may have occurred. It's worth noting that Wingblade was, unbeknownst to any of his superiors, driving in his car, heading home at the time.
“They may very well be trying to protect the secretary of the Army and the chief of staff,” said Taheri, the retired National Guard Bureau two-star. “I suspect there was a lot more involvement from the highest level that they don’t want to highlight.”Regardless, after apparently misinterpreting Ryan's instructions, Wingblade called an operations officer at Davison from the road and relayed the orders as he had understood them. "The tasking that I received was to kinda go over the crowds wherever there was any type of looting and then just try to orbit around the crowds, if there was any looting, and whatever that mission is, but just show a presence there if there is anything kinda crazy going on," the aviation officer said he told his subordinates over the phone, despite his other comments about what he thought his superior officer was asking the helicopters to do.
What happened next is well known from videos of UH-72s and UH-60s hovering at potentially dangerously low levels over groups of protesters, which quickly went viral online. Initially, there seems to have been some positive reaction within at least the D.C. National Guard to this use of these helicopters.
“LTC Wingblade, your helicopters are looking good!!" one message in a group text chain, which accompanied a picture of one of the helicopters flying over the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, said, according to one of the reports as seen by Defense One.
"OMG! I am out here too. Incredible. I got special permission to launch. Full authorities," Ryan responded.
Criticism came swiftly, though, including from at least one other Army official. "Presidential approval…Fully vetted," Ryan retorted.
Major General Walker quickly ordered an investigation, which laid essentially all of the blame at the feet of Wingblade for misinterpreting his superior's orders. It also found that no one in the chain command had secured the proper approval, under Army regulations, to employ air ambulance helicopters for non-medical missions. Four of the five helicopters on alert on June 1-2 were designated air ambulances.
That initial investigation, which the Army conducted, also concluded the low-level flights were not dangerous based on the fact that the helicopters each had two engines and that absent a catastrophic failure of both of them, would have had enough power to safely avoid crashing into protestors below. There is no mention in Defense One's report about any response to criticism that injuries on the ground could have easily occurred due to the rotor wash kicking up debris, which might also have also subjected the helicopters and their crews to unnecessary risks, something The War Zone explored in detail shortly after the incident.
However, the Department of Defense's Inspector General subsequently reviewed the findings and voiced concerns that it did not suitably explore Brigadier General Ryan's role, or that of other superior officers in the chain of command, in the affair. Unlike state National Guards, since D.C. is not a state its chain of command goes through Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to the President of the United States, Donald Trump. When the final report, whatever its findings are, may become public is uncertain.
There is a belief among some, inside and outside the U.S. military, that the entire investigation, which Army officials have since resubmitted with unknown revisions to the Department of Defense, is becoming politicized on one or more levels.
"They may very well be trying to protect the secretary of the Army and the chief of staff," now-retired Air Force Major General Mike Taheri, who last served as the Director of Staff at the National Guard Bureau, told Defense One. “I suspect there was a lot more involvement from the highest level that they don’t want to highlight.”
"I don’t know what those conversations were, but at the end of the day Ryan was the task force commander and one of the units that he was responsible for violated nearly every FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] law to include international law by using a medevac [medical evacuation] helicopter to forcibly disperse peaceful protesters," a member of the D.C. National Guard who was in the city during the incident also told the outlet. "When you look at it in totality, you’re like, ‘Holy shit.’ Ryan needs to be held accountable."
The entire debacle has certainly stayed in the minds of many Americans who were critical of the use of the National Guard helicopters at the time, especially D.C. residents. A very low-level flight yesterday by a Department of Energy Bell 412 helicopter, carrying the U.S. civil registration code N412DE, caused something of a stir online among those in and around the capital, despite a public announcement in advance about the sortie by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).
"The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (DOE/NNSA) will continue to conduct low-altitude helicopter flights over downtown Washington, D.C., primarily over the weekend of Oct. 31-Nov. 1, including over the restricted airspace that includes the National Mall. The flights are expected to conclude by Nov. 6," NNSA said in a press release on Oct. 29. "The flights are part of a mission to measure background radiation in and around the Nation’s capital in preparation for the Presidential Inauguration, which is scheduled to take place Jan. 20, 2021."
NNSA had also conducted another round of these flights in the middle of October for the same purpose.
N412DE is one of two Bell 412s that are part of NNSA's Aerial Measuring System (AMS), which is maintained by its Nuclear Emergency Support Team (NEST) and also includes a number of Beachcraft King Air fixed-wing aircraft also configured for the nuke-sniffing mission. The helicopters routinely conduct aerial surveys well ahead of high-profile events, such as the Presidential Inauguration, to establish a baseline for what normal radiation levels are for a certain area. That way, flights conducted during the event in question will be more readily able to detect worrisome radiation spikes that might indicate the presence of a nuclear weapon or a "dirty bomb" full of radioactive material. AMS, which you can read more about in this previous War Zone piece, can also be called upon to assess the spread of radiation after a nuclear or radiological incident.
The incident has also come to be seen as indicative of heavy-handed reactions to protests and unrest around the country then and since, broadly, including the controversial subsequent deployment of federal law enforcement units to multiple cities as part of what the Trump Administration dubbed Operation Legend. There concerns now that demonstrations and violence following the election could be met with similar responses.
There are already reports that elements of the U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Prisons have been put on alert to respond to any unrest. Both of these agencies previously contributed SWAT-like tactical teams to Operation Legend.
Last week, the heads of the National Guards in Nebraska, Tennessee, Washington, and Wisconsin, all publicly came out against any decision to federalize their personnel to respond to demonstrations or upheaval, as the Trump Administration had done in D.C. in response to the George Floyd protests. At the same time, however, National Guard elements in various states have been preparing for crowd control duties under the control of state authorities.
“There would be no added benefit of federalizing those Guard forces,” Army Major General Jeff Holmes, the Tennessee National Guard's Adjutant General, told reporters last week. “We can do more in the Title 32 [status] but under the governor’s control as commander-in-chief."
State National Guards operating under state authority have more leeway to conduct law enforcement style activities than federalized National Guard troops or active duty military personnel, who are both legally prohibited from performing many of those functions by the Posse Comitatus Act. You can read more about these legal issues in this previous War Zone piece.
It very much remains to be seen what, if any, sizable protests or violence may erupt as a result of the election, the final results of which may not even be certified for some time. Several cities, including Washington, D.C., have been preparing for at least some disturbances, with some shops boarding up their windows. Authorities in the capital notably erected an additional anti-scaling fence around the White House overnight, as well.
After all the controversy these flights caused, it is unlikely we will see U.S. military helicopters being used for crowd dispersal domestically anytime in the future, but the investigation does highlight major failings in the chain of command. Hopefully, we won't see similar occurrences if indeed some sort of social unrest erupts following the Presidential election.
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