Dangerous and Illegal - A Marine Aviator's Perspective on the DC Guard's Protest Response
On June 1st of 2020, Washington DC National Guard helicopters (specifically UH-72A Lakota medevac aircraft under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Wingblade of the DC Air National Guard) conducted low-level operations over the streets their home city in response to peaceful protests by American citizens. As an experienced Marine aviator and a Washington DC resident, I was shocked and disgusted by this misuse of military assets and the danger this operation posed to the public. While this action was anti-democratic on its face, it is hard to emphasize how deeply it broke with the culture of responsibility and safety that has defined military aviation since WWII.
As a Marine aviator, I spent much of my fifteen years of flying military aircraft focused on minimizing risk and maximizing safety. Aviation safety does not come simply from following the rules, but from setting out to accomplish the mission with risks in mind and taking proactive steps to minimize them. To an experienced pilot, this operation was clearly both reckless and illegal. Defense News has published an excellent piece on the operation, which shows how "mission creep" led to procedures being violated and pilots believing, without evidence, that they were cleared to operate outside of the regulations. Here is my perspective as an aviator on why this is not a mere misunderstanding, but a reckless act that should lead to immediate and severe consequences for the entire chain of command.
First, we must consider if this operation was even legal. Army regulations prohibit the use of medevac helicopters for non-medical missions without special permission, which was not obtained. So, the operation broke military regulations. What about civilian regulations?
Federal Aviation Regulations state that -
Except when necessary for takeoff or landing, no person may operate an aircraft below the following altitudes:
(a) Anywhere. An altitude allowing, if a power unit fails, an emergency landing without undue hazard to persons or property on the surface.
(b) Over congested areas. Over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement, or over any open air assembly of persons, an altitude of 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet of the aircraft.
(d) Helicopters, powered parachutes, and weight-shift-control aircraft. If the operation is conducted without hazard to persons or property on the surface—
(1) A helicopter may be operated at less than the minimums prescribed in paragraph (b) or (c) of this section, provided each person operating the helicopter complies with any routes or altitudes specifically prescribed for helicopters by the FAA
(14 CFR § 91.119 - Minimum safe altitudes: General.)
Some quick math tells us that a 6,0000 lb helicopter hovering at 100' above the ground near sea level will generate a downforce wind on the order of 40-45 miles per hour, which the national weather service would define as gale force. Unsecured objects can be lifted and thrown. Ears and eyes can be injured. This is not "without hazard" by any reasonable definition.
Additionally, although the internal investigation concluded that the operation was safe because the helicopters could have conducted an emergency landing following a single engine failure, any qualified pilot knows that a single engine failure is not the only possible emergency. Contaminated fuel could cause a dual engine failure. A failure of flight control systems or hydraulics could lead to dangerously uncontrolled flight inputs. A failure of the tail rotor or its drive system could lead to an emergency autorotation (essentially a controlled crash). These risks, while unlikely, are inherent in any helicopter operation, and responsible planning must account for them. In a 50 foot hover surrounded by buildings the margin for error is miniscule. An emergency that would have been dangerous over a runway at 100 feet or over a city at 500 feet would have been catastrophic in these circumstances.
Even in the absence of mechanical failure, low altitude helicopter flight is inherently risky. In 2020 alone, the Army published mishap reports including an account of a Black Hawk helicopter striking a tree at 50' above ground level (the same altitude as the Lakota in DC), and damaging four rotor blades, leading to an emergency landing, as well as an AH-64 Apache striking powerlines while conducting low-altitude flight leading to a crash. These dangerous scenarios, far from being unlikely, are part of the Army's recent history. To state that this operation was "conducted safely" is to disregard the most basic rules of aviation safety.
Over the course of my career in military aviation, I participated in countless mission briefings, every one of which included detailed discussions of safety and contingency plans. I can't tell you on how many occasions I had to explain to my superiors why a plan I developed was both safe and legal, and how many times I held my subordinates to the same standard. This culture of care, safety, attention to detail, and planning ahead to prevent unsafe conditions is one of the main reasons I was able to fly over 2,000 mishap-free hours. It is the defining aspect of our professional military aviation community, and it is essential to our warfighting a
bility. All of this was totally disregarded on June 1st, and a dangerous precedent of illegal operations was set. A unit that operates illegally and endangers American civilians in peacetime will operate illegally and endanger American soldiers in wartime. LTC Wingblade and his ready room have shown that they are not worthy of the trust placed in them, and although it pains me to say this about my fellow military aviators, they no longer deserve their wings. If this was a Marine unit, there is no doubt in my mind that the pilots would never fly again, and that the commander would be promptly relieved of command. That the Army is "still investigating" shows an alarming lack of oversight and leadership. We are supposed to be professionals, and we should be held to professional standards. Where are the DC National Guard's standards today?