nixon aerial

Forty-one years ago today, on February 17, 1974, a strange thing happened near the White House. A Huey helicopter flew over from Maryland, descended near the executive mansion and hovered for 6 minutes. It was not supposed to be there. The aircraft was stolen a few hours earlier from a U.S. Army base at Fort Meade, Maryland. Before it arrived at the White House, the chopper buzzed several locations in the Washington area, including the airport, and even landed briefly. When it finally ended up on the South Lawn of the White House, however, strangely the intrusion caused little alarm. Taking off again, the Secret Service initially didn’t try to shoot at the chopper. It was, however, pursued by two helicopters from the Maryland State Police.

After the State Police got involved, an aerial chase began. The pilot of the intruding helicopter managed to force one of the cops’ aircraft down, and then ominously returned toward the White House. By now the Secret Service definitely was involved. They began shooting at the chopper with handguns and shotguns. Finally the State Police forced it to land. The chase had taken about an hour and fortunately injuries were only slight.

The man flying the helicopter was Robert Preston (not the actor), a 20-year-old helicopter mechanic from Panama City, Florida. Preston had enthusiastically joined ROTC in high school hoping to become a pilot. After joining the Army for real following high school, though, the training program proved too much for him and he dropped out (or may have been forced out). Evidently he really liked helicopters. He somehow got to Fort Meade, stole the chopper and took it to the White House supposedly to prove his skill as a helicopter pilot to the Commander in Chief, President Richard M. Nixon. Unfortunately for Preston, Nixon wasn’t home at the time. He was, ironically, in Preston’s home state of Florida.

This video contains actual audio recordings by Samuel Byck, the man who attempted to fly a plane into the White House on February 22, 1974.

His disturbing ease of entry into White House airspace notwithstanding, Preston himself seemed relatively harmless. Five days later, however, another strange incident occurred that was much more serious. On February 22, a former Army soldier and tire salesman from Philadelphia, Samuel Byck, read in the papers about Preston’s intrusion and suddenly put into effect a plan he’d been hatching for a long time. He would hijack an airliner, crash it into the White House and kill Nixon. Byck, who had a history of mental problems, was very bitter at the government for a number of reasons. He thought the government was no longer responsive to the people and that they must “take back” their government. He was also personally angry because the Small Business Administration turned down his request for a loan to start a company. He had been in and out of psychiatric wards, and threatened Nixon as early as 1972. He was arrested for protesting in front of the White House wearing a Santa Claus suit.

Byck was already known to the Secret Service for his previous threats and the Santa stunt; he had also sent tape recordings of a rambling “manifesto,” containing threatening statements, to various celebrities including polio researcher Jonas Salk and composer Leonard Bernstein. Fearing that buying a gun would tip off the feds, Byck decided to steal one, a .22, from a friend. He made two crude bombs out of gallon jugs he filled with gasoline, which were pretty ineffective. (He could have learned a thing from George Metesky). Off and running, he high-tailed it to Baltimore/Washington International Airport to carry out his plan, for which he expected to be received as a hero. Nixon had just returned from Florida.

Byck decided to choose as his target a flight that was in the final stages of boarding. He quickly encountered an airport policeman, however, George Ramsburg. When Ramsburg challenged him, Byck pulled out his .22 and began blazing away. Sadly Ramsburg was killed. Byck bolted for a flight boarding, headed for Atlanta. The ruckuss caused by his murder of the police officer probably doomed his attempt, because authorities now knew he was a live threat; had he not fired on Ramsburg he might have been able to sneak onto the plane and hijack it in midair–just as the Al-Qaeda terrorists would do on 9/11, some 27 years later. As it was, Byck got to the Delta Airlines plane with several policemen chasing him, one armed with Ramsburg’s gun.

Here is the original theatrical trailer for The Assassination of Richard Nixon, a 2004 film based on the events described here, starring Sean Penn as Byck.

Bolting into the cockpit, Byck began raving at the pilots that he had a bomb and he would blow up the plane. He fired several more shots, killing one of the pilots; he later shot the man again even though he was already dead. Grabbing a terrified passenger, Bick shouted at her to fly the plane. The remaining pilot managed to close the cockpit door and call for help. By now the police had caught up to the gate. The officer armed with Ramsburg’s gun took aim and fired four shots through the airplane door. One of them caught the would-be hijacker. It didn’t kill him, but in the next few minutes Byck finished himself off, committing suicide with his own gun. He had never gotten close to Nixon.

Byck’s hijacking was one of the more bizarre and elaborate attempts to assassinate a U.S. President. He certainly fit the profile of a would-be assassin, sharing with the likes of Guiteau, Czolgosz, Hinckley and Oswald both a resentment of the man in power and elements of mental illness or at least a dark and loner-ish existence. The sad story of Samuel Byck was deemed interesting enough that in 2004 it became a movie, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, starring Sean Penn as Byck. Although Byck faded from public consciousness, the idea of an aerial assault on the White House did not die. It was a central feature of the 9/11 terrorist attack–United 93, the plane that ultimately crashed in Pennsylvania, was thought to be headed for the White House.

Neither the Preston nor Byck incidents seem to have caused Richard Nixon to lose much sleep. It’d be a stretch to call them judgment from on high, but Nixon, as it turned out, was ultimately assassinated, at least politically, and the assassin’s name was…Richard Nixon. In February 1974 he was deeply embroiled in the Watergate affair, which forced him from office just six months later. The administration that Preston tried to impress and Byck tried to overthrow was ultimately undone from within.

The header image for this article incorporates an image (the helicopter) by Flickr user Rennett Stowe, used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license.