By Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News
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“Here's my commitment,” Col. H. Charles Hodges Jr. said from behind a lectern at City Hall on Tuesday night.
“We will have a better notification process to make sure what happened last Thursday night and Friday morning doesn't happen again.”
Hodges' statement included an apology for the training exercise that sent four large, loud Army helicopters, flown by pilots with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment based out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, over Port Angeles between about 11:30 p.m. and 2 a.m. last week.
Afterward, he received a standing ovation.
Some in the audience told Hodges an apology was not necessary, and a man chastised Mayor Cherie Kidd for asking for one in the first place.
“You do not owe us an apology; we owe you our deepest heartfelt thanks,” resident Robert Summers told Hodges during a public comment period after Hodges' address.
“And you, Mayor Kidd, I hope you liked your 15 minutes of fame. A simple oversight blown to this, it's disgusting.”
Residents were surprised and alarmed by the unannounced helicopters that circled overhead. Several reported that the helicopters trained searchlights on their homes.
Kidd said, “They terrorized my city.”
Pilots based out of Lewis-McChord flew the tandem-rotor MH-47 Chinook helicopters and MH-60 Black Hawks helicopters, circling over the city as they took off and landed at the Port Angeles Coast Guard base on Ediz Hook.
Hodges said the pilots followed Department of Defense and Federal Aviation Administration regulations. He didn't comment on the lights but in the past had said they were landing lights.
The error was in the lack of prior notification to local law enforcement and the public, Hodges said.
The Coast Guard was aware that the exercise would be held.
“We didn't do the public notification that we would normally do,” Hodges said.
“Again, I apologize for that particular fact.”
Hodges' trip to Port Angeles followed a meeting with Kidd at Lewis-McChord on Monday morning.
At that meeting, Hodges discussed the flight path of the helicopters and apologized for the lack of communication.
“I want to thank you so much for the spirit of cooperating you've shown,” Kidd told Hodges at the Tuesday meeting.
Comments from other council members and members of the public echoed Kidd's sentiment.
“Thank you and all those that serve with you,” Councilman Patrick Downie told Hodges, who was dressed in Army fatigues.
“The initial apology we received over the phone was more than satisfactory, sir,” Councilman Max Mania told Hodges.
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.
The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known as the Night Stalkers, is recognized for proficiency in nighttime operations, according to the regiment's website.
The 160th provides transport for Army special operations forces, the website said, and has been engaged in combat operations since October 2001.
The regiment's website describes the dark green Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters used as “highly modified” and shows numerous pictures of them flying and landing in various surroundings.
Hodges said the training exercise involved flying to and from the Coast Guard station, and the flight paths took the helicopters over the city.
The aircraft stayed above 750 feet in altitude, Hodges has said.
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.
Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.