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?
12 thoughts on “Shot Down at the White House”
He was a great guy. And a great pilot. I wish I knew he was doing well now. Bless you Bob. It’s been a long time.
I was the 661st Transportation Company Reenlistment NCO at the time. He saved me a lot of work as I was started to process his discharge papers saying he felt the Army did not live up to their enlistment contract.
It was an interesting weekend. It wasn’t the first time our company (661st) was in the news. In 1971 , while the Company was near Harrisburg, PA we had 99 M-16 Rifles stolen from our arms room. In 1972 the 661st was moved to Ft. Meade, MD.
I remember when this happened. I was in the 581st Maintenance Co, in the same battalion as the 661st, just down the street. I knew Preston by sight. If I’m not mistaken, he wasn’t quite sober that night, and still did an amazing job flying. Would love to know what’s become of him.
My name is Nick Davies and I work as a producer from a documentary company based in the UK (www.raw.co.uk)
We are currently producing a documentary project for the History Channel and the 1974 White House incident was something we are interested in featuring. I am very keen to talk to anyone that may have known Robert Preston during his time in the army and I was wondering if you might be interested in talking to me over the phone about your memories of this incident for my research?
if you are interested in talking, you can reach me on firstname.lastname@example.org or on 011 44 207 456 0800 and we can arrange a time to talk.
Any help you could give me would be greatly appreciated.
Thank you ever so much for your time
All the best
I read somewhere he passed away in 2009…
Just came across this article. Very, very interesting. This is my first time ever hearing of this and I was born on Ft. Meade seven months after this incident. My father was an MP assigned there at the time. I too would like to know whatever became of the PFC Preston after the incident.
I was in his flight class at Wolters and Rucker. Nice guy, just couldn’t pass an instrument check ride. Also had a fixed wing rating before going in the Army if I remember right.
I just heard the story from one of the Secret Service agents that was involved in the incident. He claimed he was involved in the shooting of the helicopter and later testified. Very interesting. He said he was sympathetic to the soldier’s story and that the guard on duty at the time was asleep and that this is how he was able to obtain the helicopter. He also stated his flight skills were great. I am sympathetic to most people’s reasons to want to make them act out, however, to me nothing justifies this type of behavior.
I was the sergeant of the guard the night Preston took the helicopter. I remember being notified that a helicopter had just been launched from the helipad that we were protecting — Preston being one of the guards as well. I thought it was a joke until I arrived in the guard shack and was briefed. We were in the 581st Maintenance Company.
Tuning in to the local news and seeing that it was not a joke was shocking to say the least.
And, our weapons used for protecting the flight line? An unloaded rifle and a nightstick of sorts.
I remember hearing that the local law enforcement agency wanted to hire Preston after the military was through with him – as he was one of the best pilots they had witnessed.
It was said that he flunked the night flying portion of his training at Ft. Rucker, Alabama. I believe he made his point that he could fly at night and that his skills were proven by his joy ride.
There was a positive side to his adventure that the military adopted — the steel bar for securing helicopters doors.
SSG John H Ferrell, US Army, Retired
No, the ‘locking bar” was there before Preston. It was constructed of two pieces of light gauge sheet metal with a hole in the end that looped around the rear sliding door handle and the front swinging door handle, then a padlock was inserted in holes in the other ends to secure the two pieces together. All it took was a pair of snips to cut through the sheet metal straps and you were in.
AFTER Preston’s joyride, we (I was in the 661st maintenance shop) spent months modifying every bird with a new key switch that had to be turned before any power would flow to the start toggle switch, start fuel switch, etc.
Wrong about the actions taken by the Maryland State Police helicopter – they never
inserted themselves between the stolen Army helicopter and the White House. Also, they never step foot on the White House grounds. They came in after the Army chopper was shot down and told immediately to depart as they were now on Federal Government property and had no jurisdiction.
I knew Robert when he lived in Panama City, Florida. He worked with my wife at a restaurant called Snuffies Shaney. We became friends and he ate at our house a few times. His transportation was a Triumph Scout motorcycle, which he loaned to me a few times. He was kind of a quiet fellow, polite and kind. I don’t remember him having a girlfriend or many friends. He seemed to be fairly intelligent. It was a shame he didn’t get to fulfill his dream of becoming a military helicopter pilot.