1974 White House helicopter incident
|Date||February 17, 1974|
|Site||White House, Washington, D.C., United States|
|Aircraft type||Bell UH-1 Iroquois|
|Operator||United States Army|
|Flight origin||Fort Meade, Maryland|
|Destination||White House, Washington D.C.|
On February 17, 1974, Robert K. Preston stole a helicopter and landed on the south lawn of the White House, allegedly as a publicity stunt to "show his skill as a pilot."
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.
Motivation of perpetrator
Preston was a 20-year-old private first class in the U.S. Army, originally from Panama City, Florida. Preston had enrolled in the JROTC program at Rutherford High School in Panama City, Florida and had longtime aspirations to a military career. He enlisted in the Army, and was training to become a helicopter pilot, he was washed out of training due to "deficiency in the instrument phase". 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.
It has been suggested that news reports of Preston's actions inspired Samuel Byck to attempt to crash a passenger airplane into the White House on February 22, 1974. This implication has also been used as a plot device in the film dramatization of Byck's attempt, The Assassination of Richard Nixon.
In 2005 there were several incidents when unidentified planes flew into the Washington, D.C. airspace. In comments on these incidents, Timothy Noah of National Public Radio reminded his audience of the 1974 Preston incident, when he suggested that Washington, D.C. security officials had an unacknowledged policy to not fire on unidentified aircraft when doing so might lead to injuring bystanders on the ground. He pointed out that security officials had held their fire until Preston's helicopter was hovering low over the deserted South Lawn, where a crash would not have injured bystanders. "But here's the nub: Neither the Maryland police nor the Secret Service fired on the helicopter at any time when its downing threatened the lives of any bystanders."
Robert Kearns (1995-05-25). "'Jumpers' Have Intruded On White House For Years". New York Daily News. Retrieved 2009-12-03.
In February 1974, Army Private Robert Preston buzzed the White House grounds in a stolen helicopter and was shot down.
- "Guards fire on 'copter in White House drama". The Age. 1974-02-17. Retrieved 2009-12-03.
Robert Kearns (1994-09-12). "Uninvited guests are nothing new". Deseret News. Retrieved 2009-12-03.
But the Secret Service, assigned to protect the president, has become increasingly wary of aerial intruders since Feb. 17, 1974, when a disgruntled soldier hijacked a helicopter from Fort Meade, Md., and landed on the South Lawn just yards away from where the plane crashed on Monday.
Ann McFeatters (2001-02-08). "Could Bush keep his campaign promise to reopen Pennsylvania Avenue? The White House has been scene of attacks before". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved 2009-12-03.
Army Pvt. Rober Preston got further with a similar plan that year. He stole a helicopter from Fort Meade, Md., flew to the White House, touched down briefly near the West Wing, then flew back toward Fort Meade with Maryland State Police helicopters in pursuit, returned to the White House and was shot down on the South Lawn.[dead link]
Timothy Noah (2005-05-12). "Slate's Chatterbox: The D.C. No-Fly, No-Shoot Zone". National Public Radio. Retrieved 2009-12-03.
Back in February 1974, a flipped-out Army private named Robert K. Preston stole an Army helicopter, hovered over the White House for six minutes, landed on the South Grounds, flew off, then returned. The stolen helicopter did get shot at over the Mall by a Maryland State Police helicopter. Later, while it was hovering a mere 30 feet [9 m] above the unoccupied White House lawn, the Secret Service shot at it and forced it down. But here's the nub: Neither the Maryland police nor the Secret Service fired on the helicopter at any time when its downing threatened the lives of any bystanders.
"Copter attacks White House". Daily Collegian. 1974-02-18. Retrieved 2009-12-03.
Sewell, who had chased the helicopter in an erratic, stunt-filled flight through several Maryland suburbs and the capital city, said he thought the runaway pilot intended to "end it all" by crashing into the White House.
- PUBLIC REPORT OF THE WHITE HOUSE SECURITY REVIEW, Federation of American Scientists Archived December 2, 2006, at WebCite
- "Robert Preston". Kentucky New Era. 1974-10-24. p. 26. Retrieved 2014-03-01.
"Mental Observation Ordered For Pilot Of Stolen Helicopter". The Evening Independent. 1974-02-18. Retrieved 2009-12-03.
Sewell said: 'What intrigues me was that through all of this there were only two Maryland helicopters in the air.' Asked about the apparent lack of protective measures against the helicopter, Jack Warner, the Secret Service's top spokesman, said only that 'the response speaks for itself.'
- Freeze, Christopher. "The Time a Stolen Helicopter Landed on the White House Lawn - Robert Preston's wild ride". Air & Space. Smithsonian. Retrieved 22 March 2017.
- The Samuel Byck Assassination Attempt
- Public Report of the White House Security Review (See the section entitled "Air Incursions and Attempted Air Incursions".)