A surprising event that occurred in Maryland on February 17, 1974

The soldier who stole a UH-1B Huey helicopter and landed it in front of the White House

Robert Kenneth Preston was a young man from Panama City, Florida, who had a great passion for aviation and the Army.

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A young man who wanted to be a soldier and pilot

When he was a teenager, he enrolled in the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC), a United States Army program to guide young people from secondary schools and colleges towards military life. In 1972, when Robert was 19 years old, he enlisted in the Army. He had already fulfilled his first dream and now he wanted to fulfill his second: to be a pilot. At Fort Wolters, Texas, he began training as a helicopter pilot flying a Hughes TH-55 Osage.

The UH-1B stolen by Robert Kenneth Preston on the South Lawn of the White House (Photo: Smithsonian Magazine).

Unfortunately for Robert, two events worked against him. First, he suspended the instrumental phase of his training. That ended his chances of becoming a pilot. At another time he might have had more options, but by then the US was beginning its withdrawal from Vietnam and there were more helicopter pilots than necessary, so the selection became stricter.

A frustrated dream: he became a helicopter mechanic

Robert's dream of flying had been dashed, but he had signed a four-year commitment to the Army, so he became a helicopter mechanic, being sent in January 1974 to Fort Meade, Maryland, a major joint military base, with the rank of Private First Class (PFC). Within that base, Robert was stationed at Tipton Field, a US Army base that would close in 1995. At that time there were 30 Bell UH-1 Huey helicopters there. The proximity of those aircraft and Robert's frustration over his broken dream of being a pilot, in addition to a failed love affair, ended up pushing him to do something crazy.

The UH-1B stolen at the time of takeoff from the White House, when the Army removed it from there (Photo: Task & Purpose).

The theft of a UH-1B helicopter at Tipton Field

After midnight on Saturday, February 17, 1974, 50 years ago today, Robert returned to Tipton Field after going out to dinner and dancing. Moved by his desire to fly, after parking his car he got into a UH-1B, with serial number 62-1920, and began to do the pre-flight checks . He took off in the middle of the night, without turning on the helicopter's lights and without communicating with the control tower. When a controller saw him take off, he called the Maryland Police to report the theft.

Robert could have gone anywhere he wanted with that helicopter, but he decided to fly to downtown Washington DC, located 20 miles southwest of Tipton Field. Robert oriented himself by the lights of Baltimore and the national capital, but since his helicopter was flying in the dark, Maryland State Police were not able to locate him. Finally, the one who detected it was the District of Columbia Police, when Roberto was flying very low in his UH-1B between the Capitol (the building that houses the US Congress) and the Lincoln Memorial. It was a restricted area, through which only authorized aircraft could fly.

The stolen helicopter, with the marks of the numerous bullet wounds it received (Photo: nguoivietdallas.com).

Robert managed to land the UH-1B at the White House

After several minutes flying over the Washington Monument area, Robert passed over the Capitol again and directed his UH-1B towards the White House, the residence of the US president. At that time his tenant was Richard Nixon, who would resign a few months later due to the Watergate scandal, but at that time he was in Florida. Robert managed to land on the south lawn of the White House, without the Secret Service, in charge of protecting the premises, opening fire on him. After a brief landing, Robert resumed flying and headed to Fort Meade.

Shortly before 1:00 a.m., Washington National Airport spotted Robert's helicopter. Initially, the Maryland State Police sent an old Bell 47 to chase him, but it was too slow a helicopter compared to the Huey. Finally, Maryland State Police sent two Bell 206 Jet Rangers, as well as ground patrol cars. In a scene from a movie, Robert caused one of the police cars to crash after flying a few centimeters over its roof and managed to evade one of the Bell 206s using techniques typical of aerial combat.

Robert Robert Kenneth Preston, smiling, being taken to a military hospital after his arrest (Photo: nguoivietdallas.com).

The UH-1B was shot down by the Secret Service but Robert survived

Finally, Robert managed to return to the White House, landing again on the south lawn at 02:00 in the morning. This second landing was not as calm as the first: the Secret Service illuminated the UH-1B and fired their weapons at it. Of the 300 projectiles fired, 5 hit Roberto, although causing him minor injuries. Robert abandoned the helicopter and ran towards the White House, but with an injured foot, Secret Service agents ended up arresting him. They took him to a military hospital to treat his wounds. There, Robert was seen smiling. He had fulfilled his dream of flying.

The stolen UH-1B taking off from the White House back to its military base (Photo: Smithsonian Magazine).

During the morning of February 17, 1974, the UH-1B that Robert posed in the White House became a magnet for the curious, being photographed by many people until it was retired by the Army that noon. Curiously, despite having received numerous bullet hits, the UH-1B was airworthy. Robert was sentenced to one year in prison and fined $2,400 for misappropriation and disorderly conduct. Once out of military prison, he served two more months of service and was discharged. After leaving the Army, Robert moved to Washington State, in the northwest of the United States, where he married and had two daughters. He died on July 21, 2009, aged 55, due to cancer.

The UH-1B 62-1920 currently preserved at Biddle Military Base in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania (Photo: U.S. Navy).

UH-1B 62-1920 was displayed at Willow Grove, Pennsylvania Air National Guard Base in Biddle (known as Horsham until 2021), where this old aircraft is still on display today as the vestige of a surprising history and as proof of the Huey's great resistance to bullets.

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