Published on February 17, 2013
By Thomas Van Hare
It was after midnight on the night of February 17, 1974 — today in aviation history — when Private First Class Robert K. Preston, US Army, a helicopter pilot who had washed out of training, crept across the tarmac at Fort Meade, Maryland, and boarded a UH-1 Iroquois helicopter. The aircraft was unarmed and, as was usual, was kept fueled on the flight line. With the practiced hand of his training, he quickly went through the start up sequence. Without clearance, he pushed in the power, pulled up on the controls and took off into the night. For a time, he orbited the base at night, enjoying the view and hovering over base housing. Finally, bored with this, he set out for a new destination — the White House.
Background of the Events
Over the previous months, PFC Preston had washed out of his training for failing his instrument check ride. It was a shock and a serious personal blow to a man who had dedicated himself to the US Military, having joined JROTC and slowly worked his way into a course to become a combat helicopter pilot. The Vietnam War was winding down and the US withdrawal was largely complete, leaving the South Vietnamese military to fight against the North. For PFC Preston, he was concerned that he might have missed the big show, but nonetheless continued to pursue his dream.
Failing the check ride, however, meant that he was done. A future in another MOS or duty type might await, to be sure, but this had been his dream. Further, he considered himself a damn good helicopter pilot, at least when not flying instruments. Even there, however, he didn’t consider himself a complete failure. But with the Army’s upcoming cuts, washing new helicopter pilots out for failures in training was the unrelenting norm. He considered himself just a victim of circumstance. Yet he wanted to prove himself and he could think of no other way than to show his skills to the President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, in person.
The Flight of the Intruder
When he left Fort Meade, Army controllers had no idea he was headed toward the White House — it appears at first that neither did he, in fact, since he took a rather meandering course to get there. The Secret Service had no idea he was on the way and air defenses around the nation’s Capitol in those days were somewhat lax. Policies regarding shooting at aerial intruders who might threaten the President were defined but not air-tight — not by any means. There wasn’t much of a concern that night, however, because President Nixon wasn’t in the White House anyway. The President was traveling in Florida at the time. Even the First Lady, Pat Nixon, was out — she was in Indianapolis on a visit to the “First Daughter”, Julie Nixon, who was sick.
PFC Preston flew first at low level across Anne Arundel County, landing at one point at a car park, where he shut down and got out, running a couple of times around the helicopter to check it out for damage, before restarting and continuing on. He landed several more times as he flew at dramatically low levels across the town of Dorsey. At one point, a pursuing police car was of interest to him and he buzzed it so low that he cut the car’s radio antenna. He then buzzed Baltimore-Washington International Airport before turning southeast and flying at low altitude along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, dodging between electrical wires and trees in what pursuing police described as “masterful” flying.
When PFC Preston arrived in Washington, he took a flight down the Anacostia River, turned north at the Capitol Street Bridge and then flew directly to the White House. It was about 1:00 am. At first the Secret Service was somewhat miffed. He buzzed the White House itself and then hovered overhead for six long minutes. At the time, policy was that they would not fire on a helicopter or other aerial intruder if it might endanger innocent bystanders, and so they waited. Finally, he flew down the South Lawn and landed about 100 yards toward the south fence. The Washington Monument towered in the background and he remained there on the ground for a minute. Two Maryland Police helicopters that had flown down from around Baltimore hovered nearby.
Suddenly, PFC Preston took back off into the night skies and the police gave close pursuit. An extended tail chase ensued at low level. In fact, it turned out that PFC Preston was indeed quite an expert pilot after all, as he managed to not only outmaneuver the two helicopters at ever turn but even managed to drive one down in the process. The second helicopter broke off but stayed nearby after what officials called, “a modern day dogfight”. PFC Preston returned to the White House once more. It was nearly 2:00 am and he had led the officials on a prolonged chase — certainly, his fuel was running low.
The Final Shootdown
This time he flew up to the Washington Monument, hovering at seven feet of altitude along the base for a bit before flying back straight north onto the White House’s South Lawn. There too he hovered just a few feet over the grass and it seemed to officials that this time he might be preparing to make a dash to crash into the building. The second Maryland Police helicopter set down quickly between him and the White House as Secret Service agents moved toward the helicopter. Then, without warning, they opened fire with handguns and shotguns hoping to cripple the helicopter. They also fired and hit PFC Preston with a shotgun blast, injuring slightly. He landed the damaged helicopter at once — though it seemed also that the damage from the gunfire had knocked the aircraft out of the sky, leaving the Secret Service to conclude that it had downed the helicopter.
Once on the ground, the Secret Service and Maryland Police rushed in. PFC Preston jumped clear and fought them hand to hand, though he was badly outnumbered. It wasn’t long before he was subdued, however. Handcuffed, he was taken into the White House for questioning before being transferred to Walter Reed hospital for treatment for his light injuries — mainly shotgun pellets. The following day, when being escorted into a police car, he was smiling. When asked why he had flown back to the White House a second time, he said that he knew it was wrong to fly over the White House so he had flown back “to turn himself in”. The Secret Service ordered psychological testing. Ultimately, all civil charges were dropped and he was left to the military court system.
In the end, PFC Preston had proven two things — first, he was a pretty darn good helicopter pilot after all; and second, that he was certainly not up to the moral and ethical standards of the US Army. He was sentenced to a year in prison.
Today’s Aviation Trivia Question
PFC Preston’s landing on the White House South Lawn is not the only unwelcome aviation visitor in the history of Presidency. What other planes have landed or crashed on the South Lawn and what were the circumstances in each case?