By Peninsula Daily News staff
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PORT ANGELES — Army special-operations helicopters on a training exercise buzzed the Port Angeles area late Thursday night in an episode that the mayor says “terrorized my city.”
An Army official apologized Friday for the unannounced training mission.
Dozens of alarmed residents called police to ask what was going on and said the noise and lights panicked horses and other livestock.
“They terrorized my city,” Port Angeles Mayor Cherie Kidd said Friday.
“No one had any warning about the helicopters, no one said anything afterwards, and today city officials had to spend hours just trying to find out what had happened — who had invaded Port Angeles.”
She plans to meet Monday morning with Army Col. H. Charles “Chuck” Hodges Jr., garrison commander of Joint Base Fort Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, about 90 miles south of Port Angeles, where the special-operations helicopters are based.
“I want to hold people accountable for this so it doesn't happen again,” Kidd said.
Hodges said Friday afternoon he had launched an investigation and was meeting with unit commanders at the base.
“I apologize, this is totally unacceptable,” he told the Peninsula Daily News.
“At the very least we should have notified local authorities of the exercise.”
Chinook helicopters used
The helicopters — Hodges said they were four CH-47 Chinooks, twin-engine, tandem rotor heavy-lift helicopters, “big, heavy machines, they make a lot of noise especially when they operate near water” — were over Port Angeles from about 11:15 p.m. to shortly before midnight Thursday.
Residents said they were awakened from their sleep, and that spotlights stabbed down from the low-flying helicopters into their backyards.
The helicopters also landed, then took off, from the small Port Angeles Coast Guard base on Ediz Hook, across Port Angeles Harbor from the downtown business area.
Deputy Police Chief Brian Smith said: “Our watch commander last night reported that we received 'dozens of calls' complaining about low-flying helicopters over the city.”
It took until about noon Friday when Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict — who made repeated calls to Puget Sound military bases — was finally able to determine that the helicopters belonged to the Army and had come from Fort Lewis-McChord.
Army Maj. Michael Burns later told the PDN that the training exercise over Port Angeles and the surrounding area was by units of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment at Fort Lewis-McChord and also included MH-60 Blackhawk attack helicopters.
Burns said the aviation unit is used to transport special forces units.
Interviewed by telephone from Fort Campbell, Ky., headquarters for the unit, Burns could not speak to many details of Thursday's training mission, but said such operations typically last between two and six hours at a time.
He added that he could not say specifically why the Port Angeles area was chosen for a training mission, only that “the particular area just gave a different training environment for the pilots, something unfamiliar.”
“We do our best to try to avoid populated areas, but [with] those aircraft being so large and so loud, even if we're not very low, it seems very loud,” Burns added.
Burns said specific law enforcement agencies in the area were not notified for Thursday's training mission, explaining that such notification is not typically done for operations as short as a one-night exercise.
The aircraft used in training missions can also cover a wide range of territory during a single mission, Burns said, making notifying each individual agency difficult.
“With helicopters, we cover such a wide area, it's tough to notify every agency,” Burns said.
Sheriff is upset
The Clallam County sheriff said he was upset.
“I want to register my concern over this activity,” Benedict said.
“Because of the volume of the complaints that we heard, I want to let the Army base know that if it's necessary to fly over populated areas, we want advance notice.”
After the helicopters departed, Smith, the deputy police chief, said dispatchers with Peninsula Communications, the Clallam County-wide emergency dispatch system, made calls to various agencies and were told by a petty officer at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, about 50 miles east of Port Angeles, that the aircraft were from there and were on training exercises.
Smith said he confirmed with the naval station's air traffic control chief later, however, that the helicopters were not from the naval station.
Eric Phillips, who lives at Liberty and Georgiana streets in Port Angeles, said he saw four helicopters traveling in two sets, with the leading set flying without lights.
The helicopters, which he described as “heavy, military helicopters,” were “spotlighting in town,” he said, adding that they circled the city for at least an hour beginning at about 11:30 p.m.
“I've never seen anything like this before,” Phillips said.
Michelle Bonifazio, who lives in the foothills between Sequim and Port Angeles, said the incident was "intolerable, irresponsible and un-American."
She said her family's horses and livestock "woke us up running in a panic trying to go through the fences to get away from the unfamiliar noises, objects and lights.
"Who would have been responsible had they injured themselves or been hit by a car and injured or killed the occupants?"
Other residents said jet aircraft were in the sky above the helicopters.
Facebook and Twitter users flashed hundreds of messages about the helicopters and speculated that they were linked to a possible drug raid in Port Angeles and mentioned police action earlier Thursday.
Port Angeles police officers had served two simultaneous search warrants at businesses Thursday afternoon, but Smith said this action and “the helicopters were completely unrelated.”
Smith said he could not elaborate on specific suspected crimes related to the search warrants, although he said both state and federal felonies might be involved.
(See related story, "Port Angeles police, federal agents serve warrants at two businesses; no arrests made," http://www.peninsuladailynews.com/article/20130712/NEWS/130719996 ).