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Soaring Eagles: U.S. Park Police Aviation Division

By By Ernie Stephens, Editor-at-Large | July 1, 2012

U.S. Park Police Bell 412EP performing an ice rescue scenario while training for SAR. United States Park Police

When asked to list some U.S. government law enforcement agencies, outfits such as the FBI and Secret Service come to mind. But it’s the rare person who will think of the oldest uniformed, federal law enforcement organization in the country; a proud agency that was established in 1791 by order of President George Washington. It is the United States Park Police (USPP).

USPP, a branch of the Department of the Interior’s National Park Service, has jurisdiction over all National Park Service areas, and certain other Federal and State lands. It has physical stations in San Francisco, New York City, and Washington, D.C.—the latter of which serves as the agency’s headquarters and largest component. The District is also home to the USPP’s Aviation Division.


Chief Teresa Chambers was kind enough to grant Rotor & Wing permission to visit the USPP hangar, which is located just 1.6 nm southeast of the U.S. Capitol. I was met there by the unit’s commander, Lt. Michael Libby, and given the executive tour by 27-year veteran Sgt. Kenneth Burchell, one of several officers there whom I have known for years.

The unit’s hangar, affectionately known to both the department and air traffic controllers as the “Eagle’s Nest,” is the USPP’s only aviation base. Its 11,400 square feet of hangar floor space houses the division’s three helicopters: a 1998 Bell 412EP (N22PP), a 1990 Bell 412 (N412PP) and a 1983 Bell 206L-3 (N33PP). It is also where the unit’s sworn complement of one commander, one executive officer, five pilots, seven certified paramedics (rescue technicians), and one contract civilian maintenance director report for work.

“The primary mission of the Aviation Division is to provide aerial support to the law enforcement mission of the United States Park Police,” said Burchell, who spent the first five years of his 22-year stint in the unit as a rescue tech before becoming a pilot. “Our other functions are search and rescue, medevac and dignitary protection.”

To help USPP aircrews perform their duties, the Bell 412s are equipped with a FLIR 8500 thermal imaging/video system, Spectrolab SX16 Nightsun searchlight, Sierra Wireless digital downlink and Goodrich rescue hoist. The aft cabin is fully equipped for rescue missions, as well as priority one-level trauma care for two patients in the aircrafts’ normal configurations. 

Both U.S. Park Police Bell 412s are equipped for multiple missions. The left side of the cabin is setup for medical services, while the right side holds a variety of gear for hoist rescues. Forward-looking infrared, moving map and search light systems round out the helicopter’s mission tools. Photo by Ernie Stephens

Due to the wide variety of police, fire, EMS and hospital personnel USPP communicates with, each aircraft boasts a mixed suite of radios, consisting of Wulfsberg, Motorola and Bendix/King transceivers. To help crews find their way to an incident, each ship is equipped with an AeroComputers moving map system, and either a Garmin MX20, Garmin 400, or Universal US-1 GPS. 

Burchell explained that USPP crews have an immediate launch requirement within a 50-nm radius of the White House. But as a Department of the Interior asset, they go wherever they are sent, which included Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina disaster relief in 2005. Sgt. Burchell’s description of the unit’s responsibilities, while both succinct and accurate, belies the size of its area of responsibility, and the particularly critical nature of its missions.

Because the USPP is not only a true police agency tasked with protecting the 28 million people who visit National Park Service property in the Washington area, it is “first due” for all medevac missions in the District of Columbia, all national parks as far away as West Virginia, and any neighboring jurisdiction in need of backup for their police or medevac services. It is also reasonable to assume that the USPP Aviation Division shares homeland security duties with other government agencies, though the unit’s personnel would not comment on that subject in even the slightest way. 

Pilot Sgt. Ken Burchell slides closer to Old Rag Mountain as rescue technicians Sgt. Mark Varanelli (in doorway) and Sgt. Dave Tolson prepare to transfer a severely injured hiker from the care of two park rangers to Eagle-2. SAR missions are not uncommon for the unit. United States Park Police

Rough numbers indicate that USPP aircrews conduct an average of 400-600 police sorties, 200-400 medevac missions, and around 200 search and rescue operations per year. This means that the Aviation Division’s blue and white ships—callsign “Eagle”—are no strangers to residents of the national capital region. They are frequently seen patrolling the highly restricted airspace above the National Mall, lighting up search areas for ground officers, and airlifting accident victims to trauma centers. And on many occasions, they are caught on camera doing what they do best: serving the public in very heroic ways.

Jan. 14, 1982

Shortly after 4 p.m., Air Florida Flight 90 took off from National Airport during a snow event that had crippling the Washington Metropolitan area. As the airline pilots climbed their Boeing 737 to the north, ice on its wings caused it to lose lift. As it dropped, it clipped the traffic-packed 14th Street Bridge before taking its 74 occupants into the icy waters of the Potomac River.

Less than three miles away at the Eagle’s Nest, USPP pilot Officer Don Usher and rescue technician Officer Gene Windsor received word of the crash. With low ceilings and only a few miles of visibility, they launched in their Bell Long Ranger—the only model aircraft in their fleet at the time—and made their way to the scene.

They arrived to find only a small portion of the green and blue airliner’s frame protruding above the surface. Looking closer, they also saw several passengers fighting to stay alive in the mix of freezing water, floating ice, and jagged aircraft aluminum.

Usher pulled into a hover above the wreckage as Windsor lowered a hand line (the aircraft had no hoist) to Air Florida flight attendant Kelly Duncan. With time being of the essence, Windsor didn’t bother to pull her aboard. Instead, he left her dangling below the aircraft as Usher flew them to shore.

In Dec. 2008, a water main in Potomac, Md. broke, quickly turning a popular commuter route into a swift-water nightmare. USPP pilot Sgt. Kevin Chittick and rescue technician Officer Jeff Hertel were called, and hoisted several trapped motorists to safety. United States Park Police

After leaving Duncan on the river bank, Eagle-1 returned to a group of two women and a man, who were clinging to a piece of floating wreckage. Windsor lowered a line with a life ring to Joseph Stiley, who placed it around himself, then clutched Priscilla Tirado and Patricia Felch, so they could be rescued as a group. But just before reaching the safety or the river bank, Felch fell back into the water. Acting quickly, Windsor released the others close enough to the shoreline to be grabbed by other responders, then went back for Felch. Seeing that she was too numb from the cold to grab a line or rescue device, Windsor had Usher lower the skids of Eagle-1 into the water, so that Windsor, who was still standing on the skids in the aft cabin doorway, could reach down and hold her for the trip back to the river’s edge.

Only five people survived the crash that day. And all but one of them was saved through the gallant efforts of the USPP Aviation Division.

Sept. 11, 2001

On the morning of 9/11, Sgt. Burchell was at the hangar training with DoD health services personnel when other members of the unit summoned him inside to watch breaking television news coverage of the terrorist attack in New York. When Burchell and fellow pilot Sgt. Ron Galey stepped back outside, they heard a thud, and saw a plume of black smoke a few miles west of their hangar. The two officers would soon learn that what they saw was the aftermath of an American Airlines Boeing 757 slamming into the Pentagon in Arlington, Va. It went without saying that their services in the medical transport role would be desperately needed, so they prepared to launch.

As luck would have it, several off-duty members of the Aviation Division were at the facility helping to clean the hangar floor. This allowed the unit to launch the duty aircraft, as well as a second Bell 412.

Within five minutes, Galey, along with rescue technicians Sgt. John Marsh and Officer John Dillon, were making the 5-nm dash to the Pentagon in Eagle-1. Burchell, along with Lt. Philip Cholak, Sgt. Keith Bohn, Sgt. Bernie Stasulli, and two Dept. of Defense medics from the group that was there training, quickly configured Eagle-2 for mass casualty transports, and headed to the scene a few minutes later.

Upon their arrival, a portion of Eagle-2’s crew assisted military medics with triage, while the others used their now-reconfigured Bell 412 to transport up to four patients at a time to area hospitals in multiple flights. 

Meanwhile, a cloud of thick, black smoke had engulfed the control tower at Reagan National Airport a little over a mile south of the scene. In an unprecedented move, FAA personnel abandoned the tower, and enlisted Galey aboard Eagle-1 to take over local air traffic control from a position aloft. While airborne, air defense authorities gave Eagle-1 an additional mission: to be on the lookout for another hijacked airliner that might be en route to Washington, D.C. That plane was United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania before reaching its target.

At the end of the day, the USPP Aviation Division had helped transport dozens of critically injured people to area trauma centers; centers which ambulances could not have reached in a timely manner due to the gridlock caused by frightened people fleeing the area.

Dec. 24, 2008

Based in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Park Police patrols an area that includes a number of national parks and iconic monuments. It is a regular feature in the skies above the White House (left foreground), Executive Office Building (right foreground), Washington Monument, and Jefferson Memorial (background). United States Park Police

From time to time, the USPP Aviation Division conducts river rescues from the swift, turbulent waters of the Potomac River, which makes up the western border of Washington, D.C. But on Christmas Eve in 2008, the term “river rescue” took on a whole new meaning. On that day, river rescues took place on a suburban street!

During the morning commuter rush, a 66-inch water main burst just north of the District of Columbia, sending a torrent of water resembling white-water rapids down (ironically) River Road in Potomac, Md. Between the volume of water, the amount of dangerous debris in it, and the velocity with which gravity was pulling it all downhill, drivers who were traveling on dry pavement one minute were literally surrounded by fast-moving water the next. With their doors being held shut by the rushing waters, frightened motorists found themselves trapped inside of their cars; sometimes floating, and sometimes pinned against obstacles in the roadway.

Swift-water rescue specialists from the Montgomery County Fire Department were able to use boats and ropes to reach some of the people trapped in their automobiles, but on-scene commanders quickly recognized the need for air support, and summoned Eagle, as well as Trooper-2, a Maryland State Police helicopter stationed at Andrews Air Force Base.

Local and national news organizations broadcasted the action live as Eagle-1 rescue technician Jeff Hertell (now a pilot) and pilot Sgt. Kevin Chittick used a rescue basket to hoist citizens from cars that were quickly filling with ice-cold water. Operating in close proximity to Eagle-1 were pilot Jim MacKay and paramedic Sgt. Nate Wheelock, who were pulling others aboard their state police Eurocopter AS365 Dauphin.

The operation was a grueling, hour-long affair that resulted in the rescue of nine citizens. Ground personnel called the efforts of both crews “extraordinary.”

April 1, 2012

It was March 31 when things went very wrong for Art Webb, a hiker and rock climber who had spent the day exploring Old Rag Mountain in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. A fall, which left Webb with a shattered ankle, forced him to spend a long, cold, painful night on the mountain with park rangers, who could not safely extract him from the rugged terrain without air support.

Burchell and rescue techs Sgt. Dave Tolson and Sgt. Mark Varanelli drew the mission, and headed for the scene 65 nm west-southwest of the Eagle’s Nest. Little did they know that getting there would be the only portion of the mission that would go smoothly.

At an elevation of approximately 3,000 feet MSL, Old Rag is part of a mountain range that is notorious for unkind weather patterns.

That particular Sunday, it was solid IFR just a few miles east of and directly above the pick-up zone; a zone that was totally unsuitable for landing, thanks to its tall rock face. And the nasty weather was pushing in towards Eagle-2’s position.

As Burchell kept the Bell 412 parked in a precarious hover a few feet out from the rock face, Varanelli lowered the line from the aircraft’s hoist to the rangers on the outcropping below. After getting the Stokes basket containing Webb onto the helicopter’s cable, Varanelli immediately began reeling him aboard. But neither the aircrew nor Webb were out of the woods just yet.

The park rangers had inadvertently attached the Stokes basket in a manner that had Webb’s head facing aft once arriving at the threshold of the helicopter door. This orientation would make caring for Webb difficult, since the cabin is set up to work on patients whose heads are facing forward. Up front, Burchell was getting nervous, because his gages were telling him that he was four minutes into his helicopter’s five-minute torque limit. And knowing that the clouds were creeping ever closer to the aircraft, he was more than ready to get going.

Tolson and Varanelli abandoned the idea of reorienting the basket for the time being, and went about disconnecting the two tag lines—the ropes used by ground rescuers to keep the basket from spinning while it’s being lifted—so they could get underway. But as if from a bad dream, Tolson and Varanelli were having trouble disconnecting the lines. Fully aware that Burchell had just seconds left to fly in that power range, the sergeants cut the tag lines so that he could break away from the mountain and reduce his power demand.

Before heading back, Eagle-2 landed at the nearby ranger base, correctly positioned Webb in the aircraft, and safely circumnavigated the clouds for the trip home.

But Murphy’s Law was not done with them, yet. The rescue had cost the crew more fuel than they had originally counted on, which might have caused Burchell to dip into his emergency fuel reserve to complete the trip to the hospital. Rather than create a safety issue, the crew took the prudent route, and arranged to have a Fairfax County (Va.) Police medevac helicopter meet them at Manassas Regional Airport (HEF), the halfway point between the rescue scene and the trauma center.

Once there, Tolson and his patient quickly transferred to Fairfax-1 for the rest of the trip, while Eagle-2 took on enough fuel to guarantee a safe flight back to the base.

Safety Culture

The Aviation Division of the USPP has had an accident-free flight record since its inception in 1973. When asked what the unit attributes this record to, the answer came without hesitation. “One is literally Tom Greer,” said Burchell, referring to the unit’s maintenance person, who is contracted to USPP from Sikorsky Aerospace Services’ MRO division. Sgt. Burchell also identified Bell Helicopter’s factory training, and a “safety-minded culture” within USPP as playing very significant roles, too.

To see more images and videos of the United States Park Police Aviation Division, visit

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