• CopterSpotter 2022 Report


    HelicoptersofDC is dedicated to bringing DC residents the most accurate and up-to-date information on what's overhead and to foster collaboration and education about helicopter identification and mission profiles. 20201's GAO report found that 96.3% of helicopter noise complaints to the MWAA from 2018-2021 were unattributed to any specific operator, DC helicopters have endangered peaceful protesters, and there is proposed legislation in the House to manage DC's helicopter traffic. This is why we feel it's important to educate the community on helicopter identification in addition to reporting what is happening currently and why.

    I'd like to thank our Patreon supporters, their contributions cover server costs and allow me to invest in hardware to bring radio calls to the platform.

    Unique Strengths of the CopterSpotter System

    Many flight tracking sites like Flight Aware, Plane Finder and Radar Box remove flights at the owner's request. Even ADSBExchange, which doesn't filter any flights, does not receive tracking information from most military helicopters due to the Code of Federal Regulations Title 14, Chapter I, Subchapter F rule 91.225 which makes an exemption to mandatory flight transponders for "sensitive government mission for national defense, homeland security, intelligence or law enforcement." We have found this exemption to be broadly applied to flights as innocuous as honorary funeral flyovers at Arlington Cemetery and Air Force recruiting events. This makes an enormous amount of helicopter flights over the NCR untraceable in any systematic way. As a result, we rely on user submitted photos and identification of helicopters in addition to a separate system that allows users to categorize helicopter radio calls to/from DCA tower.

    Acknowledgement of Data Shortcomings

    All CopterSpotter reports are voluntarily submitted, and thus cannot be considered a measured random sample of the full population of like events. One thing that can be reasonably expected from Copterspotter data is that the number of reports received represents the lower measure of the true number of such events that are occurring.

    A unique quality to Copterspotter data - unlike ADSB - is it inherently represents the helicopters that people notice. In other words: if a helicopter flies over a forest and no one is around to hear it, as far as CopterSpotter is concerned - it didn't happen. Another way of thinking about it: CopterSpotter is like the Nielsen ratings of DC helicopters: what helicopters D.C. residents are currently watching.

    One bias we acknowledge is what we will call "rarity bias," or that someone would decline posting a medical helicopter, for example, because it is too common and does not interest them. As a spotter, you can mitigate this bias by deciding whether you will post a CopterSpotter sighting before you see or attempt to photograph the helicopter.

    Types and Operators

    Luckily the DC area is uniquely positioned to benefit from CopterSpotter data because:

    1. The high proportion of military and government agency flights that are not reported on ADSB

    2. Operators can be reasonably inferred by aircraft type. If a user can identify type based on blades on the primary rotor, landing gear and tail shape, we can infer the operator with a high degree of accuracy.

    *See "Proportional Comparison of our Data to GAO/DoD" below for examples of operator overlap

    Transparency Statement

    We want researchers and residents to have access to this data so we have made an anonymized copy of the 2022 data set, after corrections were made to types based on provided images, available for download in the CSV format here. In addition, the last year of our data is browsable on The CopterSpotter Map, our computer vision model is public and it is available on the Roboflow Universe.

  • Data Overview

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    Over 7,000 Spots in 2022

    Most spots on a given day:

    9/28: 64 Spots
    3/2:61 Spots
    3/22:59 Spots
    3/10: 58 Spots
    4/21:58 Spots

    The leaderboard to the left shows our most active spotters, who collect 1 point for each spot and an additional point for attached media. Presently transcriptions of helicopter radio traffic are worth 2 points each. @DCSkyCam, an automated camera that submits Copter Spots, contributed 1,300 photos this year, more than double its 2021 contribution.

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    Monthly Spots by Type

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    Year-To-YEAR Comparison

    This year we saw a dramatic shift in the percentage of DHS S76 helicopters reported. Unknown spots were down though we attribute this to fewer night spots and not enhancements of the computer vision program. Air Force 1st Helicopter Squadron UH1N and Army/National Guard H60 consistently dominate our data set, demonstrating the necessity of tracking these types that not even the FAA has data on.

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    2022 Distribution of Helicopters by Operator

    Interestingly, news helicopters only make up "the tip of the iceberg" while Park Police spots grew dramatically since last year.

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    1084 Radio Calls Transcribed in 2022

    The first full year of our radio transcription program included almost 90 uses of the undocumented helicopter route across NW "split the P's" between prohibited zones of the Naval Observatory and White House/National Mall (highlighted in red).


    We also intercepted a transmission of Coast Guard helicopter Blackjack 2 declaring a "near miss" over Haines Point. This is a near collision of two helicopters, documented with the tower but rarely discussed in the media.

  • #FlightTrackingisFreeSpeech

    In December 2022 our Twitter account was suspended for 16 hours because of a June Tweet mentioning @ElonJet and linking to ADSBExchange's public flight tracking page. The day before Elon Musk, Twitter's new owner and CEO, had declared war on flight tracking on the behalf of m/billionaires being "doxed" by the sharing of public information revealing the whereabouts of his private jet. I tried to explain to DCist, Washingtonian, on background to LA Times , the issue with these overly broad policies and their implications on journalists - lo and behold it took less than 24 hours for journalists critical of Musk to be targeted and suspended from the platform indefinitely.

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  • Insight into Military Reliability and Spending

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    USGAO: Weapon System Sustainment: Aircraft Mission Capable Goals Were Generally Not Met and Sustainment Costs Varied by Aircraft

    This year the US Government Accountability Office published a report on military aircraft reliability and cost.

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    Rotorcraft Reliability

    The chart on the left shows Number of Years Selected Aircraft Met Their Annual Mission Capable Goal, Fiscal Years 2011 through 2021.

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    Costs of DC Area Helicopters

    These are figures of DC area helicopters taken from the report:

    Army and National Guard operate H60 Blackhawks as part of the Priority Air Transport group (callsign PAT) tasked with transporting 3 and 4 star generals to the Pentagon and elsewhere.

    Per 2020's GAO helicopter report, the Air Force operates 21 UH1N hueys from Joint Base Andrews, more information below.

    The MV-22 is part of the presidential squadron ferrying press pool to Joint Base Andrews to board AF1.

  • 2022 #CopterSpotter Most Spotted Award

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    Winning the most spotted for the 2nd year in a row, the Air Force 1st Helicopter Squadron's primary mission is to be prepared to evacuate high-ranking personnel from the Capital area in the event of a national emergency. It also supports Washington D.C. area airlift for high-ranking Executive Branch, dignitaries, military leaders and other VIPs. The squadron also supports search and rescue missions. [Wikipedia]


    Spotting tips:

    • UH1N type helicopters have been in use since Vietnam, frequent breakdowns mean you might see this helo landed at your local playground or sports arena
    • Goes by call sign MUSEL
    • two blades on the main rotor when photographed
    • distinct whooping noise
    • dark blue with gold or blue and white stripe, commander flies grey livery with a yellow tail
  • The President's New Copter

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    The Sikorsky VH92A has continued its grinding testing to replace the president's VH3D. This year was a relatively quiet one, but our friend Dan Parsons with WarZone reports "without fixes to the Mission Communication System, the VH-92 can’t carry the U.S. president and other top government officials."