Helicopters over downtown Washington protests: A low-flying 'show of force'
By ALEX HORTON, ANDREW BA TRAN, AARON STECKELBERG AND JOHN MUYSKENS | The Washington Post | Published: June 23, 2020
WASHINGTON — Hemmed in by police on all sides, Camellia Magness feared that the military helicopter descending on downtown Washington might unleash a final assault on protesters.
It was June 1, nearly three hours after federal police in riot gear charged largely peaceful demonstrators as they gathered near the White House to protest after the killing of George Floyd. Magness and others had lingered downtown past a 7 p.m. curfew.
Military helicopters had been flying high overhead, seeming to track their movements. But shortly before 10 p.m., a Black Hawk swept low over protesters in Chinatown and held its position, producing gusts that snapped thick tree limbs and swirled the air with volleys of dust and broken glass, sending many running for cover in panic and confusion.
"I thought they were going to land," Magness, 24, said, fearing soldiers would pour out and force protesters into waves of police.
The Washington Post reconstructed the movements of the two District of Columbia Army National Guard helicopters that parked nearly still in the air over protesters in Chinatown that night, using flight-tracking data, images and videos.
One of the helicopters dropped as low as an estimated 45 feet, according to a 3-D model created by The Post.
That altitude meant that the helicopter, a Lakota painted with the red cross of a medical evacuation aircraft, was below the height of the tallest nearby buildings, the analysis shows.
On the streets, the maneuvers created wind speeds equivalent to a tropical storm, according to calculations by aerospace engineers who reviewed The Post's data.
The two helicopters hovered over the protesters for a combined 10 minutes, first one and then the other, as protesters ran for cover.
The maneuvers — which did not appear to result in reported injuries — were a surreal coda to a day of demonstrations in Washington following the police killing of Floyd in Minneapolis that stunned human rights groups, military law experts and former pilots, who described them as a show of force more commonly used to disperse civilians in war zones.
D.C. Guard officials, who have launched an investigation into the incident, declined to discuss the helicopter's altitude, whether senior officers ordered the low-flying tactic, whether the pilots received unclear guidance about their mission or whether the pilots were grounded amid a review.
"It was clear they were trying to intimidate us," Magness said.
Magness and her roommate arrived downtown from Baltimore around 7 p.m., after law enforcement already had used chemical agents, smoke and batons to clear streets outside the White House for President Donald Trump to walk through the Lafayette Square area for a photo op.
Earlier, the president had berated local and state leaders as "weak" for not doing more to quell unrest, and he pledged decisive action. "We're going to do something that people haven't seen before," he said, "but you got to have total domination, and then you have to put them in jail."
Magness and her roommate, Dzhuliya Dashtamirova, 22, fell into a crowd near the White House, snaking east on U Street, near the convention center before swinging south into Chinatown.
Along the way, there were National Guard and law enforcement personnel everywhere they looked, the women said — including the sky.
At least nine aircraft were overhead, according to publicly available flight-tracking data. At least three were D.C. Guard helicopters.
The D.C. Guard's helicopters generally soared hundreds of feet over the city, The Post found, except for the nearly 10 intense minutes captured on numerous videos when a pair swooped low, battering demonstrators with the downward rush of air from spinning blades, known as rotor wash.
The Black Hawk and Lakota left Fort Belvoir in Virginia just after 9:30 p.m. Fifteen minutes later, the Lakota roared past the Lincoln Memorial at about 460 feet and east over the Mall at about 72 mph. Those calculations used signals tracked from the helicopters' transponders from the crowdsourced flight-tracking website ADS-B Exchange.
Magness and Dashtamirova were convinced the Black Hawk was going to land right on the street.
"We were all distracted and vulnerable," Magness said. The rotor wash tore away face masks and blew torrents of branches and leaves through the street before it ascended to the west.
Glass from shattered car windows and storefronts littered the ground, whipping demonstrators along with tree branches and trash, video and interviews show. Dirt and grit collected in mouths. Anyone without goggles had trouble keeping their eyes open. The roar of the blades was deafening.
To calculate the approximate altitude of the Lakota, The Post used geospatial data, building elevations, street widths and measurements of other street objects to create a precise scaled model of the intersection. It also used metadata from a photograph of the helicopter taken at 10:03 p.m. in the same spot to further build the 3-D environment.
Sam Ward stood on 5th Street NW and watched the Lakota blast the nearby trees into a frenzy.
"It was pretty wild, and it certainly appeared they were using it as an intimidation tactic," Ward, 27, said.
The Lakota's descent felt different, Dashtamirova said. She and Magness no longer believed the helicopters would land but interpreted the actions as focused efforts to scatter remaining protesters.
The two women fled the area and walked to the home of Dashtamirova's boyfriend two miles away.
"The military wasn't there to protect our rights," Dashtamirova said. "It was the opposite."
In the following days, the D.C. National Guard launched an investigation into the use of its aviation assets as lawmakers and District officials decried the maneuvers.
"It was a potentially very dangerous scare tactic that was meant to intimidate D.C. residents," said Mayor Muriel Bowser, D, at a news conference two days after the June 1 incident. "And it was wholly inappropriate in an urban setting."
District officials were not forewarned that the helicopters would be coming in and using such tactics, according to an official familiar with the events who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
"I was appalled to see our military using low-flying Black Hawk and Lakota helicopters as a show of force to intimidate peaceful protesters exercising their first amendment rights in our nation's capital," Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a former Black Hawk pilot who served in Iraq, said in a statement.
"The use of these helicopters in that manner violates everything I learned in my military training and many FAA restrictions designed to keep Americans safe."
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy authorized the use of helicopters, he said on a call with reporters on June 7. Maj. Gen. William J. Walker, the commander of the D.C. Guard, told reporters they were there to "observe and report disposition, composition of the protesters" and provide any needed medical support.
But the use of a helicopter's rotor wash is a common military tactic to incite fear, disperse crowds and warn of other capabilities, like rockets and guns, said Kyleanne Hunter, a former Marine Corps pilot who flew Cobra attack helicopters in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Black Hawk's rotor wash produced estimated gusts of 54 mph, while the Lakota had an estimated 48 mph rotor wash, according to Atanu Halder, an aerospace engineering researcher at Texas A&M University. The estimates reflect a median value in a range that would vary according to the weight of fuel and personnel on board.
That force was strong enough to snap a thick tree branch outside the National Portrait Gallery, a Smithsonian official said. The tree was later cut down and removed by the city.
The helicopters' maneuvers, particularly with the red cross displayed, drew rebuke from military law experts, who said use of the emblem is carefully regulated because of its global symbolism for mercy.
"This was a foolish move," said Geoffrey Corn, a former Army lawyer and professor at the South Texas College of Law in Houston. "The symbolic significance of the red cross is pervasive: It denotes a 'noncombatant' function of the armed forces."
Eric Hildebrandt, a former Army helicopter pilot who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and has flown Black Hawks and Lakotas, said the helicopters in Washington were far too low for what is necessary to scout from above and could have observed the crowd without dipping below 200 feet.
"It was pretty irresponsible," Hildebrandt said, acknowledging he didn't know what the pilots were ordered to do.
Flying at such low altitudes deprives pilots of many safe options in the case of engine failure or malfunction.
Pilots train for such events, including a scenario for the Lakota losing one of its twin engines. A pilot would point the nose down to gain speed at the cost of altitude to make the single engine more efficient.
But at the estimated altitudes of the Lakota, "they would have maybe 2-3 seconds to determine what's wrong, react appropriately, and adjust the flight controls to save the aircraft and crew."
Two to three seconds, he said, "might still be generous."
It is unclear why medevac helicopters would be chosen to fly. The helicopters were not on a medical mission, Defense Secretary Mark Esper acknowledged in a June 3 briefing.
The use of medevac helicopters for non-medical missions is carefully scrutinized, said Hildebrandt, who flew medevac helicopters at the Army's training center in Fort Irwin in California. They are permitted only to carry medical supplies and medical personnel, he said, even in training scenarios.
Seeing them hovering over protesters, he said, left him "pretty shocked and horrified."