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.

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