Soldier Steals Helicopter Unleashes Havoc on D.C.

Army PFC hovers in a UH-1 Iroquois helicopter above the White House lawn in Washington, D.C. in 1974

This is one of the most bizarre aviation anniversaries I have ever known to exist. When the article was sent to me for consideration about two weeks ago, I really didn't believe it actually happened. In fact, after reading the event's Wikipedia article, which is the source of the details below, a part of me still thought that maybe Wikipedia was returning to its wicked ways of being an unreliable source.

Yet finally, after seeing actual photographed articles about the incident, I'm confident in saying that this odd yet thoroughly entertaining tale of a disgruntled U.S. Army Private First Class stealing a UH-1 Iroquois helicopter to joyride it around Washington, D.C. leading to an airborne pursuit by two Maryland State Police helicopters, one of which he out maneuvers, only to be slightly injured by small arms fire from the ground convincing him to safely land his aircraft on the White House lawn did in fact take place.

Quite a story but according to the article:

At 2 A.M. on February 17, 1974, Robert K. Preston, a United States Army private first class, stole a United States Army Bell UH-1 Iroquois ("Huey") helicopter from Fort Meade, Maryland, flew it to Washington, D.C. and hovered for six minutes over the White House before descending on the south lawn, about 100 yards from the West Wing. There was no initial attempt from the Executive Protective Service to shoot the helicopter down, and he later took off and was chased by two Maryland State Police helicopters. Preston forced one of the police helicopters down through his maneuvering of the helicopter, and then returned to the White House. This time, as he hovered above the south grounds, the Executive Protective Service fired at him with shotguns and submachine guns. Preston was injured slightly, and landed his helicopter.

In a plea bargain, he pleaded guilty to "wrongful appropriation and breach of the peace," and was sentenced to one year in prison and fined $2,400. This amounted to a six-month sentence, since he had already been in prison for six months at the time. He eventually served two months of hard labor at Fort Riley, Kansas, before being granted a general discharge from the Army for unsuitability.

As for the attributed motivation for the flight, the article states:

Preston was a 20-year-old private first class in the U.S. Army, stationed in Panama City, Florida. Although he was training to become a helicopter pilot, he abandoned the training due to "deficiency in the instrument phase". Preston had enrolled in the JROTC program at Rutherford High School in Panama City, Florida and had longtime aspirations to a military career. After being taken into custody Preston indicated he was upset over not being allowed to continue training to be a helicopter pilot, and staged the incident to show his skill as a pilot.

I may not have believed the details of the flight nor the slap on the wrist as a punishment were real but having heard the motivation behind the pilot's unique showcasing of his own self-perceived skill, there's no denying that some among us may have taken a similar route. So what did learn on this day in aviation? Just because you can take a man's wings doesn't mean he can't fly; and even more boldly put: just because a man can fly doesn't mean he's smart. 

"Everyone is a student in a helicopter." - Attribution Unknown
Soldier Steals Helicopter Unleashes Havoc on D.C. Soldier Steals Helicopter Unleashes Havoc on D.C. Reviewed by Joe Burlas on February 17, 2017 Rating: 5