Port Angeles mayor angry at Army's unannounced exercise

PORT ANGELES — The mayor wants answers from the Joint Base Lewis-McChord garrison commander about an unannounced Army helicopter training exercise that alarmed many Port Angeles-area residents late Thursday night.

“I’m demanding answers Monday morning, and I’ve been told I’m going to get them,” said Cherie Kidd, who will meet with Army Col. H. Charles Hodges Jr. at the base near Tacoma.

“[The helicopters] terrorized my city,” Kidd said.

Kidd said she also plans to invite Hodges to Tuesday’s City Council meeting, set for 6 p.m. in council chambers at City Hall, 321 E. Fifth St., to address the council and public.

No prior notice was given to local law enforcement or the public about the exercise in which four large helicopters circled the city .

“We support our military. We just think in this instance, things were not handled properly,” Kidd said.

Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters with lights shining toward the ground were reported flying over Port Angeles and nearby areas to the west, south and east Thursday between the hours of about 10:30 p.m. and midnight.

Some witnesses said they saw the helicopters as late as 2 a.m. Friday morning.

Dozens of alarmed residents called police to ask what was going on and said the noise and lights panicked horses and other livestock, and woke up sleeping children.

Hodges said Saturday it was an oversight that officials in Port Angeles were not notified before the training missions began.

“Part of [our] good-neighbor flying program [is] we notify folks this is going to happen, and that was the piece we didn’t get,” Hodges said.

“In this particular case, that was an oversight, that we didn’t actually communicate with the city in the way we should have.”

It took until about noon Friday to find out that the Army was responsible for the helicopters flights.

That was when Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict, who made repeated calls to Puget Sound military bases, was finally able to determine that the helicopters had come from Lewis-McChord.

Hodges said pilots with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, flew the helicopters, tandem rotor heavy-lift CH-47 Chinooks and MH-60 Blackhawks — though he did not know how many of each.

The 160th transports Army special forces units during missions, Army officials said.

Hodges said the training mission involved flying to and from the Port Angeles Coast Guard base on Ediz Hook — Coast Guard Air Station/Sector Field Office Port Angeles — and that involved flying over the city itself.

“To get out to [the Coast Guard base], they had to fly a route from land, and that was the route that was chosen,” Hodges said.

Hodges said he could not offer any other details on the training exercise.

He said the mission’s pilots, flying at about 750 feet in altitude, followed all Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, regulations for flying over populated areas.

“They weren’t hovering over the city or hovering over homes,” Hodges said.

The training exercise lasted from about 11:30 p.m. Thursday to 2 a.m. Friday, Hodges said, and the pilots did have landing lights on while flying “that people could have perceived as shining onto homes.”

Cmdr. Craig O’Brien, operations officer at the Coast Guard base, said the Department of Defense had announced through the FAA’s Notices to Airmen that “there would be heavy military activity in the vicinity of Port Angeles.”

Such notices are not sent out to the media or local law enforcement, but the system is accessible to the general public, O’Brien said.

The notice — which has expired but was obtained from Capt. Keith McTigue, commanding officer of the Coast Guard base — warns of “extensive military operations” within 20 nautical miles of the base and below 20,000 feet in altitude.

The notice was in effect from 1 a.m. Wednesday to 7 a.m. Friday.

The Coast Guard was not involved directly in the training mission and had no helicopters or crew participating, O’Brien said.

“We don’t have insight of what was going to occur with the Army exercise,” he explained.

The Coast Guard met with DoD officers before the exercise, O’Brien said.

“In pre-coordination meetings, we discussed entering and exit procedures to the air station,” he said, adding that “in Coast Guard aviation, we operate in accordance with minimum safe altitudes as prescribed by the FAA.”

The approach to the base is dependent on the weather, he said.

“In relative terms, the lighter helicopters used by the Coast Guard in Port Angeles tend to make less noise than some DOD heavier helicopters,” he said.

“Depending on the airframe, it may sound louder and seem lower than it is.”

Kidd said the noise from the helicopters woke her from a sound sleep Thursday night in her home on 10th Street in central Port Angeles.

“I was awakened with alarm to a sound like a helicopter that sounded like it was over my house,” Kidd said.

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 off Sherburne Road between Port Angeles and Sequim, said the sound of her two mules and two cows panicking because of the noise of the helicopters and the lights woke her up.

“[My livestock] nearly went through the fences because they were so scared.”

Bonifazio said the helicopters were likely over her home for about 10 minutes after she woke up, adding that they were within a mile of her house for about 20 minutes until what she estimated as 2 a.m.

“They were just really low,” Bonifazio said.

“The trees were blowing from the blades.”