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Not ready for rumble

Sleepers alarmed by helicopter-borne commandos

Friday, March 19, 1999

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In the black of a peaceful winter night in the Beaver County countryside, the first mean machines came chop-chop-chopping low and loud over Don and Phyllis Wilfong's house at 3:27 a.m. yesterday, rattling the windows and obliterating any hope of sleep.

  Phyllis and Don Wilfong stand by their kitchen window and recount how low-flying helicopters woke them at 3 a.m., rattling the windows of their New Sewickley home. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

A second intimidating ruckus followed about five minutes later.

Then, five minutes after that, another.

"It sounded like they were landing on the house," said Phyllis, 57, of New Sewickley, who bolted up in bed with Don and the couple's suddenly very alert Chihuahua. "It shook everything. Our house was shaking. Our bed was shaking. I don't know how anyone couldn't hear that. I couldn't figure out what the heck was going on."

Short answer: A squadron of 12 military helicopters was on maneuvers, and lots of people got scared.

The Wilfongs were the first of 40 people to call the Beaver County 911 center. In Westmoreland County, about a dozen people called. One woman in Lawrenceville told KDKA-Radio that she saw 14 choppers heading in the direction of the airport. Her grandson said no, it was 12.

So, were these the dreaded black helicopters of legend? Were they filled with commandos out to sabotage the nuclear power plant in Shippingport? Was this a prelude to an invasion? And wasn't that the Cigarette-Smoking Man in the lead chopper?

"We've been taking calls all morning," said Capt. Michael Mastroianni of the Penn Township police in Westmoreland County. "We don't know who they were. Needless to say, the military doesn't check in with us."

Patrolman Corey Ceccarelli was sitting in his patrol car in a Dairy Queen parking lot when the choppers rumbled overhead at 2:50 a.m. Shortly after, residents in Hempfield and Penn called 911, and the center even dispatched a fire truck and ambulance after receiving a call about a "low-flying plane" in Hempfield.

Everyone had the same question: What's up with these helicopters?

"I'm not a conspiracy buff. I have enough problems dealing with what's really going on," said Mastroianni. "So a few people got woken up by some helicopters flying over Westmoreland County. I don't know what the problem is."

Maybe Beth Nicholson and her husband, Shawn, could explain. At 3:30 a.m., a group of choppers churned over their house on Stiefel Avenue in Franklin, Beaver County. Fifteen minutes later, another group blasted by, and 25 minutes later, a third.

"The whole house was vibrating," said Beth. "My husband didn't hear them at first, but I'm a lighter sleeper than he is. I said, 'Oh, my goodness.' It scared me half to death. I went over to our spare bedroom and stuck my head out. It was just a faint sound by then. This wasn't anything like LifeFlight. Those helicopters fly over here all the time. This was nothing like that. This was something that vibrates your bed. I said to Shawn, 'It's like having a war outside.'"

Not a war, but a one-day training operation, the exact details of which remained sketchy yesterday.

According to the Army, the choppers were taking part in a joint Army and Air Force Special Operations training mission called "Exercise Laser Cup." The name doesn't mean anything; it's just a random moniker chosen by a computer. Twelve Black Hawk, Pave Low and MH6 helicopters flew from Youngstown, Ohio, to Lake Lynn, Fayette County, where special forces officers were to practice finding buried items near an old mine. After that, they all flew back to Youngstown. Yesterday, they returned home to their bases at Fort Bragg, N.C., and other installations.

Walt Sokalski, a civilian spokesman at the Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, said the crews flew between 500 and 1,000 feet and were supposed to avoid the most heavily populated areas.

As for those people who said they saw helicopters flying around earlier in the week, Sokalski said crews had been mapping out the route during daylight in preparation for night navigation.

Flying at night is necessary because almost all special forces missions are conducted in darkness.

"If you're not used to helicopters flying over your house, it can sound like they're right on top of you. We apologize for that," said Sokalski. "We didn't realize just the overflights would cause such a reaction."

It wasn't the first time a military training exercise shook up Western Pennsylvania. In June of 1996, 200 troops and nine choppers from the Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg and Fort Campbell, Ky., descended on McKeesport, the Strip District, Brighton Heights and the former Allegheny County Jail.

Soldiers practicing urban warfare techniques slid down ropes from hovering helicopters amid simulated explosions and gunfire. The city Emergency Operations Center got 100 calls between midnight and 2:30 a.m.

By comparison, yesterday was just a flyby. Trouble was, no one seemed to know about it, and finding out who owned the choppers proved an exercise in frustration.

When asked if the helicopters might have come from his unit, for example, an officer at the Army Reserve base in Oakdale said the outfit "has no rotary-wing assets."

Translation: We don't have choppers.

Sokalski and Pentagon officials said the Army coordinates its training exercise with local authorities. But Lt. Col. Bill Darley, a spokesman at the Pentagon, said officials don't contact every agency because they want to "avoid a bunch of people out there taking photos."

He didn't know which agencies were contacted, but apparently county 911 centers and local police departments were not among them.

"We made some inquiries, but nobody would tell us who they were," said Jay Schall, a supervisor at the Westmoreland County 911 center. "I would prefer they notify us so we can tell the people who call. But [the military] doesn't have to tell us anything. They're federal and we're county. There's nothing we can do about it."

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