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This Day In History: U.S. Army Private First Class Robert K. Preston Stole A Helicopter & Landed It At The White House

February 17, 2017

This day in history, February 17, 1974, 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 before setting off for the White House.

He hovered for six minutes over the White House before descending on the south lawn, about 100 yards from the West Wing. There was no initial attempt from the Executive Protective Service to shoot the helicopter down, and he later took off and was chased by two Maryland State Police helicopters. Preston forced one of the police helicopters down through his maneuvering of the helicopter, and then returned to the White House. This time, as he hovered above the south grounds, the Executive Protective Service fired at him with shotguns and sub-machine guns. Preston was injured slightly, and landed his helicopter.

He was quickly subdued and 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”.

In a plea bargain, he pleaded guilty to “wrongful appropriation and breach of the peace,” and was sentenced to one year in prison and fined $2,400. This amounted to a six-month sentence, since he had already been in prison for six months at the time.