After failing training, an Army PFC stole a helo and landed it at the White House
Some men handle rejection in different ways, be it the ending of a relationship or being cut off at the past when it comes to trying to forge their own future.
In such trying times, some men give up, some soldier on, and others just snap.
Robert Kenneth Preston was the third kind of man, and he made it look glorious.
Born in Florida back in 1953, Preston had long dreamed of military service and earned his pilot’s license in hopes that he would be shipped to Vietnam as a helicopter pilot.
Put that into perspective: in a time when military service was not a desired fate for many young American lads, one young man actually learned to fly so that he could be shipped off to an unpopular conflict, performing one of the most dangerous jobs at the time.
While one would think that the US Army would roll out the red carpet for Preston, it was not the case. During his training with light helicopters in Texas, an alleged “deficiency in the instrument phase” was the reason he was not accepted as a pilot, though the US withdrawal from Vietnam and subsequent surplus of qualified helicopter pilots may have also been a factor.
Stripped of his war and his dream, Preston was sent to Fort Meade in Maryland in January of 1974 to work as a helicopter mechanic and serve out his military term.
By the time February 17 had rolled around, Preston had been bottling his issues and, after a relationship crashing down at a nearby restaurant, finally reached a breaking point. Hopping in his private vehicle, he drove to Fort Meade where a flightline of 30 UH-1 “Huey” helicopters were fueled up and ready to go.
With nothing else to lose, Preston fired up UH-1 #62-1920 and headed out.
“I wanted to get up and fly and get behind the controls,” Preston later said of his decision, “It would make me feel better because I love flying.”
Taking off without lights or announcing his departure, Preston’s flight soon drew the attention of the Maryland State Police, who dispatched two helicopters to pursue him.
Flying incredibly low over the restaurant he had visited earlier, Preston set his sights for Washington, DC, following the lights along the parkway until he reached the Capitol and Lincoln Memorial. Going into a hover near the Washington Monument, Preston then turned towards the White House, loitering for a short period. At the time, the White House had no air defense systems, and the Secret Service were told to fire upon the Huey if it returned.
Heading to Fort Meade, he found the two Maryland State Police helicopters chasing after him and decided that if he was going down, he would surrender to President Richard Nixon.
Outmaneuvering one of the police Bell JetRangers with what was described as “fighter pilot tactics,” he eventually reentered the White House grounds, where he went into a hover and was fired upon by Secret Service agents, who riddled the helicopter with bullets.
Hit in the foot, Preston landed the helicopter, and was taken down by security forces.
The shot-up helicopter became a spectacle on the lawn, and photographers ogled the wounded bird until Army crews determined it was airworthy and flew it away.
Initially slapped with a slew of charges that could have landed him life in prison, he eventually pleaded guilty to “wrongful appropriation and breach of the peace,” which landed him a year in jail a $2,400 fine, and a general discharge.
His military life behind him, Preston settled down in the northwestern USA and lived a quiet life, marrying and starting a family. He died of cancer in 2009.
UH-1 #62-1920 is currently on display at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove in Pennsylvania.
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