By Alex Horton, Andrew Ba Tran, Aaron Steckelberg and John Muyskens
WASHINGTON – Surrounded by police on all sides, Camellia Magness feared the military helicopter descending on downtown Washington could trigger a final attack on protesters.
It was June 1, nearly three hours after federal police in riot gear charged largely peaceful protesters as they gathered near the White House to protest the murder of George Floyd. Magness and others had lingered downtown after the 7 p.m. curfew.
Military helicopters flew above their heads, appearing to follow their movements. But shortly before 10 p.m., a Black Hawk swept through protesters in Chinatown and held its position, producing gusts that smashed thick tree branches and swirled the air with bursts of dust and shattered glass, sending many people running for cover in panic and confusion.
“I thought they were going to land,” said Magness, 24, fearing the soldiers would spill over and force protesters into waves of police.
The Washington Post reconstructed the movements of the two District of Columbia Army National Guard helicopters that were almost always hovering above protesters in Chinatown that night, using data, flight tracking images and videos.
One of the helicopters fell to an estimated height of 45 feet, according to a 3D model created by The Post.
That altitude meant the helicopter, a Lakota painted with the red cross of a medical evacuation plane, was below the height of taller buildings nearby, according to the analysis.
On the streets, the maneuvers created wind speeds equivalent to a tropical storm, according to calculations by aerospace engineers who reviewed the Post’s data.
The two helicopters flew over the protesters for a combined 10 minutes, first one then the other, as the protesters took cover.
The maneuvers – which did not appear to result in any reported injuries – were a surreal coda to a day of protests in Washington after the police murder of Floyd in Minneapolis that stunned human rights groups, experts in military law and former pilots, who described them as a show of force most commonly used to disperse civilians in war zones.
DC Guard officials, who opened an investigation into the incident, declined to discuss the altitude of the helicopter, whether senior officers ordered the low-level flight tactics, whether the pilots had received unclear indications of their mission or whether pilots were grounded during an examination.
“It was clear that they were trying to intimidate us,” Magness said.
Magness and her roommate arrived in downtown Baltimore around 7 p.m., after law enforcement had previously used chemicals, smoke and batons to clear the streets outside the White House to for President Donald Trump to walk around Lafayette Square for a photo op.
Previously, the president berated local and state leaders as “weak” for not doing more to quell the unrest, and he pledged decisive action. “We’re going to do something that people have never seen before,” he said, “but you have to have total domination, then you have to put them in jail.”
Magness and her roommate, Dzhuliya Dashtamirova, 22, fell into a crowd near the White House, meandering east on U Street near the convention center before heading south into Chinatown.
Along the way, there were members of the National Guard and law enforcement everywhere they looked, the women said – including the sky.
At least nine planes were on top, according to publicly available flight tracking data. At least three were DC Guard helicopters.
DC Guard helicopters typically hovered hundreds of feet above the city, The Post found, except for the intense nearly 10 minutes captured in numerous videos when a pair dove low, beating protesters with the rush of air from the rotating blades, known as the rotor wash. .
The Black Hawk and Lakota departed Fort Belvoir, Virginia just after 9:30 p.m. Fifteen minutes later, the Lakota roared past the Lincoln Memorial at about 460 feet and east above the mall at about 72 mph. These calculations used signals tracked from helicopter transponders from the ADS-B Exchange flight tracking website.
Magness and Dashtamirova were convinced the Black Hawk was going to land directly on the street.
“We were all distracted and vulnerable,” Magness said. The rotor wash ripped off the face masks and blew torrents of branches and leaves across the street before moving up west.
Broken car windows and storefronts littered the ground, lashing protesters with tree branches and trash, videos and interviews. Dirt and sand collect in the mouth. Anyone without glasses had a hard time keeping their eyes open. The roar of the blades was deafening.
To calculate the approximate elevation of the Lakota, The Post used geospatial data, building elevations, street widths, and measurements of other street objects to create an accurate scale model of the intersection. He also used metadata from a photograph of the helicopter taken at 10:03 p.m. in the same location to further construct the 3D environment.
Sam Ward stood on 5th Street NW and watched the Lakota blast nearby trees in a frenzy.
“It was pretty wild, and it sure looked like they were using it as a bullying tactic,” said Ward, 27.
The descent of the Lakota was different, Dashtamirova said. She and Magness no longer believed the helicopters would land but interpreted the actions as targeted efforts to disperse the remaining protesters.
The two women fled the area and walked to the home of Dashtamirova’s boyfriend, three kilometers away.
“The army was not there to protect our rights,” Dashtamirova said. “It was the opposite.”
In the following days, the DC National Guard opened an investigation into the use of its aircraft assets as lawmakers and district officials decried the maneuvers.
“It was a potentially very dangerous fear tactic aimed at intimidating the residents of DC,” Mayor Muriel Bowser, D, said at a press conference two days after the June 1 incident. “And it was totally inappropriate in an urban setting.”
District officials were not warned that the helicopters would arrive and use such tactics, according to an official familiar with the events who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
“I was appalled to see our military use low-flying Black Hawk and Lakota helicopters as a show of force to intimidate peaceful protesters exercising their First Amendment rights in our nation’s capital,” said Senator Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., A former black Hawk Pilot who served in Iraq, said in a statement.
“Using these helicopters in this way violates everything I learned in my military training and many FAA restrictions aimed at keeping Americans safe.”
Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy has cleared the use of helicopters, he said on a call with reporters on June 7. demonstrators ”and provide all the necessary medical support.
But using a helicopter’s rotor wash is a common military tactic to incite fear, disperse crowds and warn of other abilities, like rockets and guns, said Kyleanne Hunter, a former pilot. of the Marine Corps, which flew Cobra attack helicopters in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Black Hawk’s rotor wash produced gusts estimated at 54 mph, while the Lakota had an estimated rotor wash of 48 mph, according to Atanu Halder, an aerospace engineering researcher at Texas A&M University. . The estimates reflect a median value within a range that would vary depending on the weight of the fuel and the personnel on board.
This force was strong enough to break a thick tree branch outside the National Portrait Gallery, a Smithsonian official said. The tree was then cut down and removed by the city.
The helicopter maneuvers, especially with the red cross displayed, drew rebuke from military law experts, who said the use of the emblem was carefully regulated due to its global symbolism of mercy.
“It was a crazy decision,” said Geoffrey Corn, a former military attorney and professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston. “The symbolic meaning of the red cross is omnipresent: it denotes a ‘non-combat’ function of the armed forces.”
Eric Hildebrandt, a former Army helicopter pilot who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and flew Black Hawks and Lakota, said the helicopters in Washington were far too low for what is needed to spot d ‘at the top and could have observed the crowds without diving below 200 feet. .
“It was pretty irresponsible,” said Hildebrandt, admitting he didn’t know what the pilots were ordered to do.
Flying at such low altitudes deprives pilots of many safety options in the event of an engine failure or malfunction.
Pilots train for such events, including a scenario for the Lakota losing one of its twin engines. A pilot would point the nose down to gain speed at the expense of altitude in order to make the single engine more efficient.
But at the Lakota’s estimated altitudes, “they would have maybe 2-3 seconds to figure out what was wrong, react appropriately, and adjust the flight controls to save the aircraft and the crew.”
Two to three seconds, he said, “could still be generous.”
It is not known why medical evacuation helicopters would be chosen to fly. The helicopters were not on a medical mission, Defense Secretary Mark Esper admitted in a June 3 briefing.
The use of medevac helicopters for non-medical missions is carefully considered, said Hildebrandt, who flew medevac helicopters at the Army Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif. They are only allowed to carry medical supplies and medical personnel, he said, even in the training scenarios.
Seeing them hover over the protesters, he said, left him “quite shocked and horrified.”