No one seems to know who they are.
On three nights last week, several county residents observed low-flying aircraft assumed to be helicopters that were hardly visible except for an engaged spotlight pointed straight down at the ground. The sightings occurred between 8:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights, and to date, no private, government or military agency has claimed the crafts.
“Without actually seeing the aircraft, it will be very hard to find out who is flying overhead,” said Lt. Col. Robert Ditchey a Department of Defense spokesman by telephone earlier this week. He added that even if he knew who it was, he wouldn’t necessarily reveal that information. “Since it is relatively open airspace, you have to go through a process of elimination to find out who isn’t flying there to give you a general idea of who is.”
Blacksmith and metal artist Nol Putnam’s report last week, of sighting an unidentified helicopter near his Huntly home, ignited a burst of posts to Rappnet, the county’s email list-serve. Putnam, like many longtime Rappahanock residents, recalls similar spates of sightings over the years. He says he’s not the conspiracy-theory type, but is still bothered by the after-dark flyovers.
“It seems like needless secrecy. It’s kind of like the military saying, ‘My Big Brother is bigger than your Big Brother.’ It seems like after 9/11 it was no longer okay to ask what our military or government is up to,” he said.
Even Rappahannock County Sheriff Connie C. Smith – whose office fielded several calls from concerned residents on weeknights last week about helicopters flying at no more than 200 feet, with a fixed spotlight over property and near residences – said she has had no luck in finding out who is manning these aircraft. Smith said she’s been notified of similar complaints to sheriff’s departments in the counties of Madison, Fauquier, Culpeper, Page and Orange County.
“We don’t have anybody flying right now, and because of all of the complaints we tried to figure it out,” Smith said, who has placed several calls to officials with the Virginia State Police, Shenandoah National Park, local and national airports including Dulles, and the Pentagon. She hasn’t had much luck, and still doesn’t have an explanation for residents.
According to Jim Peters, a public affairs official for the Federal Aviation Administration [FAA], much of the area surrounding and including Rappahannock County is Class E airspace, also called uncontrolled or unrestricted airspace.
“There is really no information we can offer as to who is making these flights, or who is manning these aircraft; you guys are out of our jurisdiction,” Peters said, though he added that, aside from potential military training, the FAA was aware of recent helicopter activity around Rappahannock County and adjacent Shenandoah National Park by utility companies checking power lines and recent law enforcement activity involved in drug investigations.
“We don’t have any helicopters doing utility checks right now,” said Brian Wolfe of the Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, which serves 22 counties in Virginia, including Rappahannock. “Twice a year, in the spring and fall, we use a contractor flying a small two-seater to check equipment issues in some of the more remote locations that are more easily accessed from the air. These checks are typically performed at dawn or before early evening; it would be very difficult to do that at night, because you need visibility.”
Capt. Gary Settle of the Virginia State Police said he was not aware of any recent night flights by the state police. “We don’t typically fly at night, unless it’s an emergency situation,” Settle said. “And if we are going to make flights, we usually make a courtesy call to the local sheriff’s department.”
Rappahannock resident (and Virginia State Police first sergeant) Wayne Sumner agreed: “My house in Boston got buzzed last Tuesday night [Sept. 20],” Sumner said. “It was two helicopters with spotlights, and I just figured it was some sort of military training.”
An active duty naval helicopter pilot based in Maryland who requested anonymity said that he has not flown over Rappahannock County personally, but allowed that the Army and Marine Corps are known to conduct military training operations in mountainous areas to mimic wilderness engagements.
“They may also be doing maneuvers in rural areas like Rappahannock because they don’t have to call ahead to local airfields, which close down at dark,” he said. “They’re not breaking any rules, though.”
Lt. James Sullivan, a media officer for the Quantico Marine Corps Base in northern Virginia, claims to be very familiar with the Rappahannock area, and noted that the base has two helicopter squadrons.
“The only training with helicopters we do is to support the lieutenants here, and they typically don’t fly at night, especially in an area like Rappahannock,” Sullivan said. He said he would look into the Marine flight patterns to determine whether or not they had been in the area on the nights of Sept. 20, 21 and 22. He did not call back.
Sullivan had suggested contacting the Army at Fort Belvoir and A.P. Hill, which conduct helicopter landings and related maneuvering. Multiple attempts to reach officials at those bases were unsuccessful this week.
“I find it surprising that since I started calling [military agencies] about this and asking questions, no one has gotten back to me,” Smith said of her attempts to identify the mystery aircraft. She said that the best explanation she received was from a Pentagon official on her first call, who said that sometimes military forces at Quantico or Belvoir will do night training. That official said he would meet with a colonel at Quantico immediately and provide her with an answer.
He did not call back, Smith said, and has not responded to several further messages.
“We’re curious, too,” said Shenandoah National Park spokesperson Karen Beck-Herzog, who has heard of helicopter sightings from co-workers in Page County and now Rappahannock. “If they [the military or government] are flying over the park, we want to know, because we have very specific regulations for any flights under 500 feet.”
Beck-Herzog said that military agencies have applied for special-use permits to conduct helicopter operations in wilderness areas of the park, but that for safety reasons, those permits have not been granted. She also added that any helicopter-based investigations conducted on behalf of the park are performed during the day and typically in the winter months when visibility is better in wooded areas. She said she was not sure what the repercussions would be if they were to find out that the military was utilizing park wilderness areas without permission.
“We can’t police the air,” Smith said, when asked what could be done about the low-altitude nighttime flights. “At least a phone call from whoever is flying over would be nice, so I can have an answer for these people who call in about these helicopters. It’s not us. And it’s dark and the helicopters are dark, so no one’s gotten a good look.”