If it happened again today, the story would probably have a much different ending.
At just past midnight on February 17th 1974, United States Army Private First Class Robert K Preston commandeered an unarmed Bell UH-1B Iroquois (Huey) helicopter from Tipton Airfield at Fort Meade, Maryland. After absconding with the aircraft, Preston went on a night time joyride over the countryside outside of Washington D.C. for roughly an hour before things went seriously awry.
PFC Preston, who washed out of the Army Helicopter Pilot training program during the instrumentation phase but still held a fixed-wing private pilot’s license, led several State Police helicopters on a wild catch-me-if-you-can chase in the skies over the Capital. Preston buzzed automobiles on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and landed briefly on the White House lawn. Yes…THAT White House. Although presenting as a huge target and potential disaster waiting to happen, Preston was not fired upon by the Executive Protective Service. Quickly returning to the night skies, Preston hovered near the Washington Monument- close enough to convince the State Police helicopters in chase that he intended to collide with the monument.
By now under fire from the escorting State Police helicopters, Preston returned to the White House and this time received fire from the Executive Protective Service on the White House grounds. Preston then hovered over the South Lawn for about six minutes before landing his buckshot and submachine gun-riddled chopper about 100 yards from the West Wing.
According to reports at the time, Preston had enrolled in the JROTC program at Rutherford High School in Panama City, Florida and had longtime aspirations to a career in the military. After being taken into custody for his antics over Washington that night, Preston indicated he was upset over not being allowed to continue his training to be a helicopter pilot, and staged the incident to showcase his skills as a rotary wing pilot.
By all accounts, Preston’s flying was exceptional. The word “masterful” was used to describe his flying. “One hell of a pilot,” said another witness. Preston was slightly wounded by the buckshot shot at him. After a short foot chase, he was tackled and taken into custody before he gained entry to the West Wing. At his court martial, Preston admitted stealing the chopper, saying that the Army had unjustly extended his term of enlistment after he had washed out of flight school.
Found guilty of “wrongful appropriation and breach of the peace,” Preston was sentenced to a year in prison and fined $2400. Because he had already served six months when convicted, this effectively amounted to a six-month sentence. Preston eventually served two months of hard labor at Fort Riley, Kansas, before being granted a general discharge from the Army for unsuitability.
At the time of the incident, President Richard Nixon, who was dealing with Watergate himself, was in Florida. First Lady Pat Nixon was in Indiana. In fact, none of the Presidential family was at the White House at the time of the incident.