National Park Service helicopters played vital role on 9/11

U.S. Park Police helicopter
File photo. A U.S. Park Police helicopter patrols downtown Washington, DC. Credit: USPP

The two helicopters of the U.S. Park Police, a division within the National Park Service, played a vital role after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Established in 1973, the missions of the USPP Aviation Unit include aviation support for law enforcement, medevac, search and rescue, high-risk prisoner transport, and Presidential and dignitary security. The unit has provided accident-free, professional aviation services for over 28 years.

Their base at the “Eagle’s Nest” in Anacostia Park is two to three air miles from the Capitol building, the White House, and the Pentagon.

When a hijacked 757 airliner crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. on 9/11 shortly after two others were flown into the World Trade Center in New York City, the two USPP Bell 412 helicopters, Eagle I and Eagle II, responded to the Pentagon immediately. The crews transported injured personnel to hospitals, served as a command and control platform, used their Forward Looking Infrared equipment to provide firefighters with intelligence about the scope and spread of the fire through the five rings of the structure, and took over air traffic control for the Washington, D.C. airspace after the controllers at Washington National Airport had to evacuate due to thick smoke.

In an effort to document the events of 9/11 and how the National Park Service responded that day and the months that followed, Park Service historians and ethnographers conducted more than a hundred oral history interviews with Service employees in parks, regional offices, and the Washington headquarters. Janet McDonnell, a Historian for the NPS, started with those interviews and adding her own research wrote the 132-page report, “The National Park Service: Responding to the September 11 Terrorist Attacks.” It is very well written and comprehensive, broken down by geographic area, Washington and New York City. It also covers the use of multiple incident management teams that helped to mitigate the wide-ranging effects across the country.

One of the sections concentrates on the Aviation Unit of the USPP. It is below:

Lieutenant Wallace and Sergeant Beck [of the USPP Motorcycle Unit] were not the only Park Police officers to respond at the Pentagon in those first devastating minutes. Officers in the aviation section also played an important role at the scene. At the aviation hangar in southeast Washington along the Anacostia River, some of the crew were taking advantage of the warm weather and bright sunshine by washing the floor out in the aviation hangar with the door open. Meanwhile, in an open field next to the hangar, one of the helicopter pilots, Sgt. Kenneth Burchell, was conducting riot training for the Defense department’s uniformed health services unit in preparation for the upcoming World Bank/International Monetary Fund protest demonstrations.

One crew member saw the news account of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center and called in the others. Sergeant Burchell, his fellow pilot Sgt. Ron Galey, and a few others went inside to watch the television coverage. After seeing the second plane strike and noting the clear blue sky, they quickly concluded that the crash was not an accident. Burchell and Galey headed back out to the hangar. They heard a loud thud and looked up to see a column of smoke rising from the vicinity of the Pentagon. Burchell immediately ran back inside, yelling for his crew.

Minutes later, the “aircraft crash phone” rang, setting off a distinctive horn alarm. The crash phone was a direct communications line from the control tower at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to the hangar so that the aviation unit can respond quickly to incidents at the airport. Sergeant Galey took the call. On the other end of the line, the air traffic controller indicated that a 757 commercial airplane had crashed in the vicinity of the Pentagon. Meanwhile, a call had also come in on the police radio indicating that the Pentagon had been attacked.

Sergeant Keith Bohn
Sergeant Keith Bohn retired in November, 2018. From the NPS: “Congratulations to Sergeant Keith Bohn, who retires from the USPP after 35 years. His work in Patrol, SWAT, and Aviation was invaluable to the Force. A hero pilot of the Eagle on 9/11, but may be known best for his straightforwardness.” NPS photo.

The helicopter crews scrambled to gather their equipment, get to the helicopters, and launch. The duty crew that day, which included Sergeant Galey, rescue technician Sgt. John Marsh, and Officer John Dillon, ran out to Eagle I, a Bell 412 helicopter, and took off within two or three minutes. Sergeant Burchell grabbed Sgt. Keith Bohn and two Defense department medics with Uniformed Services University and Health Sciences who were there for the training. They began installing a mass casualty kit on Eagle II, another Bell 412 helicopter, which allowed them to carry four patients instead of two. The installation took a few minutes. Then Eagle II took off with pilots Burchell and Bohn, the two medics, aviation unit commander Lt. Philip Cholak, and assistant commander Sgt. Bernie Stasulli.

Shortly after launching, Eagle II received its first report that there was an unauthorized aircraft inbound. Eagle I directed Eagle II to land at the Pentagon to conduct medical evacuations. Eagle II quickly landed on a paved roadway 150 to 200 yards from the area of impact. Some of the crew grabbed their emergency medical equipment and ran toward the Pentagon building. At this point, with the reports of an unauthorized inbound plane, Sergeant Burchell realized they needed not only to evacuate the casualties but also to be ready to get as many people as possible away from the site before there was another attack.

Park Police helicopter 9/11
Two casualties are loaded on Eagle II.

Sergeant Bohn kept the helicopter engine running and Sergeant Stasulli stood outside to secure the landing zone. Stasulli was particularly concerned that people moving away from the building, particularly those who seemed somewhat dazed, would inadvertently step too close to the aircraft’s tail rotor blades and be seriously injured. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Cholak, Sergeant Burchell, and the two medics moved closer to assess the situation. They initially anticipated ferrying hundreds of patients to hospitals all day long so they wanted to set up an orderly process for this first. They checked in with the triage officer who indicated that there were only eleven casualties in need of medical evacuation. Cholak and one of the medics went to the triage area to assist. Burchell headed back to get Sergeant Bohn to move the aircraft closer, which he did.

Although both crews saw many frightened and injured Pentagon employees fleeing the building, they saw others actually moving toward the burning building to help with the rescue operations. In contrast to other response operations in which they had participated, the crews were struck by the calm, orderly nature of the scene. They attributed this in part to the military training and discipline of many Pentagon employees. Sergeant Burchell found the response to be better organized than most. To illustrate this, he later recounted an incident soon after they landed where military personnel quietly spread out around the helicopter. When Lieutenant Cholak saw a number of military officers quietly encircle the aircraft, he became concerned that they might be injured by the tail rotor blade and directed them to move back. The officers immediately stepped back but calmly explained that they were simply securing the landing zone for him.

While the Eagle II crew stood by to transport the injured victims, Eagle I circled overhead. From the air initially the damage did not look extensive. The crew saw the fire and a great deal of smoke pouring from the building, but like Lieutenant Wallace, they had difficulty identifying what was left of the hijacked airplane. The hole where the plane pierced the building appeared relatively small and there seemed to be little debris. The plane seemed at first to have simply disappeared into the building. On Eagle I’s third pass over the building, however, Officer Dillon saw that the plane had penetrated from one ringed corridor of the building to the next, nearly reaching the center courtyard. Soon after, he and the others watched as the side of the building crumbled and collapsed.

Eagle I was still circling overhead when the control tower at the airport warned of another unauthorized aircraft about twenty minutes out. Then just as Eagle I prepared to land, the air traffic controller radioed the crew that the smoke from the Pentagon had overtaken them and they were abandoning the airport control tower. In an unprecedented move, at the controller’s request, Eagle I assumed control of the airspace for the entire Washington area. The task was simplified somewhat by the fact that the airspace had been closed down. The controller gave Sergeant Galey the radio frequency for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which had taken over control of the national airspace. Since NORAD typically only performs this function during wartime, the crews interpreted this shift as a strong indicator of the severe nature of the threat. No civilian plane would be allowed to fly in or out of the airspace without authorization from NORAD.

Park Police helicopter 9/11
Eagle II landed
near the area of impact
and transported several
seriously injured victims
to the hospital. NPS photo.

Meanwhile, Burchell had asked Bohn to move the aircraft in closer, and they boarded two patients who were suffering from severe burns. As noted, Eagle II was prepared to carry four patients, but the triage officer did not have any other patients for transport at the time. The crew carried the patients to the MedStar unit of Washington Hospital Center, the region’s only advanced burn center.

While Eagle II was at the hospital, Eagle I landed in the same area that Eagle II had vacated. Sergeant Galey was preparing to land when two F-16 fighter jets screamed past without warning. As soon as Galey landed, the two paramedics left the aircraft. The crew waited another ten minutes or so for additional patients. Sergeant Marsh came back and reported that there were no patients ready for transport but the helicopter should stand by. Then Eagle I received an update that the unauthorized inbound plane was now only a few miles out. They decided to move to a safer area a quarter mile from the Pentagon.

The crew realized it could not conduct medical evacuations and provide command and control of the airspace at the same time, so they requested assistance from other departments that had helicopters which were equipped to transport injured patients, such as the Maryland State Police and Fairfax County Police Department. They also asked that a metropolitan police helicopter be put in the air to provide command and control, and stood by for medical evacuations. The metropolitan police helicopter arrived and relieved Eagle I of its command and control function.

Sergeant Burchell had received the same reports of an inbound plane and knew there was an effort to disburse the aircraft at the scene. When it returned from the hospital, Eagle II set down at the western end of Memorial Bridge where it was somewhat sheltered by some trees and waited. The reported inbound plane never materialized. Not long after, both helicopters learned that there were no more patients to evacuate. Presumably some of the eleven had been taken away by ambulance.

After learning that there were no more patients to transport, Eagle II returned to the aviation hangar to pick up a Secret Service agent to patrol the airspace around the White House. As the helicopter climbed out of the Pentagon grounds, Sergeant Burchell spotted an F-16 fighter jet coming in from the opposite direction. He later recalled a particularly tense moment when the fighter jet flew by so low and close that he could see the brand name on the fighter pilot’s sunglasses.

The helicopters had microwave “downlink” capability that proved to be extremely valuable. With this technology, the crews could fly over a crime scene, demonstration, or other event and transmit instantaneous video images back to the chief’s command post and other locations. Soon after Eagle I arrived on-site, the FBI asked the crew to turn on its microwave downlink. Dillon, who operated the downlink, found that in his first few passes over the Pentagon, the terrible images on the monitor looked so surreal that he occasionally had to take his eyes off the monitor and look down to confirm what he was seeing. The crew was able to transmit real-time images and information to people who needed them to make decisions.

In addition to the downlink capability, the cameras on the helicopters could be switched to a forward-looking, infrared heat detection device known as FLIR. This technology proved to be extremely valuable. The fire department was having some difficulty getting its equipment to the proper locations to fight the fire. The crew took up the chief of the Arlington County Fire Department several times and flew low over the Pentagon so that he could locate the hot spots. The infrared imagery helped him locate the fire under the roof and enabled him to better position his firefighting crews and equipment. Flying in this environment was challenging because of the thick smoke, poor visibility, and the risk of inhaling hazardous materials, but Eagle I spent the next four or five hours flying overhead and transmitting video images to the FBI.

As the only aircraft on-site initially, the Park Police helicopters performed missions in support of the military. Eagle I also took up the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division so that he could get an aerial view that would assist him in deploying his troops around the building. By late afternoon, a number of military aircraft had arrived and the crews decided to complete their missions, leave the area, and go back to the hangar to refuel and prepare for whatever missions were ahead.

During the recovery of victims from the Pentagon and collection of evidence, the unit supported the FBI with photo missions, crime scene search, and the use of the FLIR system in recovery of potential survivors. On September 11 and in the days following, the unit performed a number of missions in support of and in coordination with the FBI and Secret Service. The crews later described a new spirit of cooperation. Eagle II supported the Secret Service in protection of the president and White House and conducted additional flights in support of FBI. By the time Eagle I returned to the hangar, the Eagle II crew was already arranging to perform patrols for the Secret Service and to fly FBI agents out to Dulles International Airport, where the hijacked plane that flew into the Pentagon had originated. They were also developing their own plan for patrolling the metropolitan area.

The crews spent the next few days patrolling along the Potomac River and checking bridges and overpasses in the city for potential threats. Major Pellinger deployed the aircraft around the White House. The areas around the White House and the U.S. Capitol were restricted airspace, and for several days the Park Police, in conjunction with the Secret Service, flew hourly around-the-clock security patrols around the White House and other restricted zones in the Washington area. Pellinger arranged for twenty-four-hour coverage for the monuments and memorials. Four months later, these patrols had ended, but crews continued to work twelve-hour shifts. As a result of the September 11 attacks, the unit’s priorities changed. Security became “paramount,” Ron Galey explained. As noted, the crews began to routinely conduct aerial checks of the monuments and memorials, something they had not done in the past in part because of concern that the noise would disturb tourists.

The aviation unit’s response activities involved a great deal of coordination with other departments and agencies. Fortunately, the crews had all the radio frequencies they needed to communicate effectively with the Arlington County Fire and Police Departments and the other agencies. They were also in frequent contact with Alexandria City and some of the other fire departments on the scene. They relayed information between fire departments on the ground that could not communicate directly with each other. The fact that the unit had experience dealing with the Arlington agencies, as well as Fairfax and Montgomery Counties, and had a good working relationship with those agencies made coordination easier.

After September 11, the Park Police continued to use three-person crews for most missions. Although this approach added to their costs, they had found the three-person crews to be “invaluable.” Crews could operate more efficiently and effectively with a third person. The helicopters were packed with sophisticated equipment such as the microwave downlink, FLIRs, video cameras, moving display maps, and radio communication equipment. The pilot had to devote all his attention to flying, and the second person had difficulty operating all this sophisticated equipment effectively. Three-person crews were ideal: one person flies the helicopter, the second operates the radios, and the third handles all the other equipment. The management sought to maintain the expanded crews for as long as possible. The Park Police also learned that it was better to use 120- rather than 30-minute videotape because the tape compartment is mounted on the outside of the aircraft and changing tapes during an ongoing operation could be difficult.

The contributions of the aviation unit were great both in the immediate aftermath and in the weeks that followed. As Sergeant Burchell observed, although the military had tremendous assets, “when you have an emergency in downtown Washington, D.C., …you don’t get Air Force Special Operations. You get two park policemen in a blue-and-white helicopter.” The unit responded at the Pentagon within minutes of the attack and provided considerable support to the victims; to the military; and to various federal, state, and local agencies. “We did our part the best that we could,” Burchell concluded.

The entire report can be downloaded. (Large 4 MB file).

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