PORT ANGELES — An Army official traveled 80 miles from Joint Base Lewis-McChord to apologize in person Tuesday night for an unannounced, late-night training exercise that the Port Angeles mayor says “terrorized” her city with low-flying helicopters.
The Lewis-McChord garrison commander, Col. H. Charles Hodges Jr., told City Council members and about 30 residents that the Army “didn’t do the public notification that we typically do” before dispatching the helicopters last Thursday night.
“Again, I apologize for that particular fact,” he said.
Some residents thanked Hodges for his apology, while others made clear they felt no apology was needed.
On Monday, Mayor Cherie Kidd went to Lewis-McChord, located near Tacoma, and met with Hodges and two officers with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
She said they listened to her concerns about the thundering choppers that shook residents, awakened children and startled animals — and said they would try to keep that from happening again.
“You do not owe us an apology; we owe you our deepest heartfelt thanks,” resident Robert Summers told Hodges during a public comment period. “And you, Mayor Kidd, I hope you liked your 15 minutes of fame. A simple oversight blown to this, it’s disgusting.”
Resident Richard Lord said he was concerned about the military’s presence over the city and the lack of notification.
“We’re all wondering why we’re being treated this way,” Lord said.
Neither the city nor its emergency officials had been informed of the training exercise.
The pilots flew four tandem-rotor, heavy-lift Chinooks as well as an unspecified number of Black Hawk attack helicopters.
Hodges said the exercise involved flying to and from the Coast Guard station on Ediz Hook across Port Angeles Harbor from the downtown area.
The flight paths to and from the Coast Guard station took the helicopters over the city, he acknowledged.
Reports from residents indicated that the helicopters arrived about 10:30 p.m. and stayed in the area until shortly before midnight Thursday. Some residents claimed they heard helicopters until 2 a.m.
The aircraft stayed above 750 feet in altitude, Hodges said, and were not shining lights on homes, although they were using landing lights that could have been perceived as shining downward.
Dozens of people called emergency dispatchers late Thursday and early Friday to ask about the helicopters.
Dispatchers didn’t have anything to tell them. The Clallam County sheriff’s office didn’t find out until later Friday that the choppers came from Lewis-McChord.
The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known as the Night Stalkers, is recognized for proficiency in nighttime operations, its website says.
“Port Angeles is very patriotic town. We support our military,” the mayor said earlier. “This incident we felt was inappropriate.”