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. 2020'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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Most spots on a given day:
|9/28||: 64 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.
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.
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.
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.
Insight into Military Reliability and Spending
This year the US Government Accountability Office published a report on military aircraft reliability and cost.
The chart on the left shows Number of Years Selected Aircraft Met Their Annual Mission Capable Goal, Fiscal Years 2011 through 2021.
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.
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]
The President's New Copter
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."
Due to Twitter's crackdown on flight tracking we are exploring the option of moving to Telegram. Of the major social network/communications apps, Telegram is the only one friendly to bots and allowing full use of geo-location. In preliminary testing it has offered some unique strengths - from user-friendly chatbot experience, to the ability to recursively update your latest spot, we are optimistic about our future on the platform.
Our computer vision program correctly identified DC area helicopters 77% of the time (out of a sample size of roughly 1000 identifications). Right now one computer vision model selects from 19 types (including one or two with different liveries). One change that might improve these results is implementing multiple stages of vision to first identify type and then refine the possible operator by looking at liveries in a second pass.
We saw numbers fall off a little this year, though that can partially be attributed to decreased traffic and interest in a non-inauguration year, I believe there is more than enough day-to-day interest to bolster our data if we continue to engage with users and make our system easier to use.