Home / News / New Details About Controversial Army Helicopter Flights In DC Emerge Ahead Of Tense Election

New Details About Controversial Army Helicopter Flights In DC Emerge Ahead Of Tense Election

“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.


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