A trio of mysterious gray Bell 407 helicopters equipped with unique antennas, which may belong to an especially secretive U.S. military aviation unit, was up in the skies again over greater Los Angeles yesterday.
During their most recent flights, two of them landed multiple times on rooftops in downtown L.A.
I filmed one of the mystery unmarked Bell 407s practicing landings at the City Hall East building tonight. Seemed to be doing rooftop pattern work. Approach, land, depart 20 seconds later, repeat. https://t.co/MChApXm8DM pic.twitter.com/tsgnJZvUAz— Scott Lowe (@tropicostation) January 16, 2021
This is very reminiscent of realistic urban training exercises that the U.S. Army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment has conducted in the same general area in the past, among other locations across the United States.
All three of the helicopters – which have the serial numbers 12-1141, 12-1142, and 12-1143 painted on their tail booms – left Bob Hope Airport, also known as Hollywood Burbank Airport or KBUR, just north of Los Angeles, at around 6:00 PM local time on Jan. 14, according to online flight tracking data from ADS-B Exchange.
The helicopters had first arrived at that airport on Jan. 12 and have made multiple flights around the area since then.
Mysterious flight routes over LA
12-1141 and 12-1142 subsequently flew routes that took them south to Long Beach, then down the coast to Laguna Beach, and eventually back to downtown L.A. via Anaheim.
12-1143 appears to have made it to Long Beach before turning straight back for Burbank for unclear reasons. These flights generally followed major freeways and occurred at altitudes below 1,000 feet.
Landing on downtown LA skycrapers
After arriving over the center of L.A., 12-1141 and 12-1142 flew numerous orbits and touched down briefly on a number of rooftop helipads.
Both helicopters visited the tops of the James K. Hahn City Hall East building and Two California Plaza, while 12-1142 also stopped on the roof of One California Plaza.
One and Two California Plaza are commercially-owned skyscrapers that are approximately 577 and 750 feet tall, respectively.
There was also flying activity nearby at Dodger Stadium and elsewhere in the Downtown Los Angeles area where the helicopters were or had been, by aircraft that whose IDs were not showing up.
It is unclear if these were the same helicopters or other aircraft, although, in the past, additional overwatch assets have also taken part in these exercises. So, it wouldn’t be surprising if other assets were involved.
Interestingly, the available flight tracking data indicates that 12-1142 flew the entire route, including going all the way down to Laguna Beach, flew around downtown, and headed back to Burbank, twice. It finally returned to KBUR hours after the other two helicopters had touched down at that airport.
Why were these mysterious helicopters flying over LA?
What 12-1141 and 12-1142 were doing in downtown L.A. yesterday looks extremely similar to previous urban training that elements of the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) have conducted in the city in recent years.
As seen in the videos below, the 160th has carried out these kinds of exercises in other cities across the country over the years, as well.
Other U.S. military aviation units, as well as top-tier federal law enforcement units, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Hostage Rescue Team (HRT), do the same. Conventional military units and state and local law enforcement entities are often also involved.
The purpose of these weird heli flights over LA
The prospect of fighting in a dense, urban environment has only increased in the past few decades. The U.S. military, as a whole, is acutely aware of the various challenges Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT) pose compared to conflicts in more stereotypical locales, like deserts or open plains. The number of dedicated MOUT training facilities has steadily increased, as has the scope of what kind of simulated environments they provide.
There is no substitute for the real thing, though, especially for aviation units. A “live” urban area, especially one as big and bustling as the greater Los Angeles area, is full of real-life potential hazards and bystanders, from power lines to other helicopters, which need to be navigated around.
Atmospheric conditions, including the bright lights of the city, can impact what pilots see through their night vision goggles, as well. Buildings like James K. Hahn City Hall East and the towers at California Plaza provide a valuable break from routine training involving landing and taking off from and otherwise flying around better-known structures, no matter how realistic they might be, at established training facilities.
Unfortunately, these exercises, which sometimes include machine guns firing blank rounds, have often occurred with little forewarning for the general public, subsequently prompting great concern among average citizens down below who have no idea what’s going on. With that in mind, these gray Bell 407s could certainly provide a more discreet platform for pilots from various aviation units, especially the 160th, to carry out this kind of training.
A more secretive U.S. government entity?
At the same time, the possibility remains that these could belong to a more secretive U.S. government entity.
As The War Zone explored in detail in its initial coverage of this trio of helicopters, Bell 407s are associated with the Army’s secretive Aviation Technology Office (ATO), previously known as the Flight Concepts Division. Other available information has also pointed to a connection between these particular helicopters and Felker Army Airfield at Fort Eustis in Virginia, where ATO/FCD is based.
The unit could be getting similar training as their closely-tied 160th SOAR brethren or testing out a new piece of equipment in realistic conditions using the Bell 407s as a surrogate.
FBI or another government agency?
There’s also the potential that the 160th may have acquired some number of Bell 407s, or that these could belong to another U.S. government agency. FBI’s HRT flies 407s, as does the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), but in different configurations from these three helicopters.
Though the 160th, in particular, has long operated AH-6s and MH-6s, variants of the MD 500-series, also commonly known as Little Birds, as its preferred light helicopters, due to their small size and overall performance characteristics.
ATO/FCD also has its own long history flying Little Birds, but there have indications that they gave them up in recent years for other light helicopter types, including the Bell 407. The latest version of the Bell 407 offers competitive, if not superior capabilities to the Little Bird in a package that can still land in and take off from many relatively constrained spaces.
Franz, a commercial fixed-wing aircraft and helicopter pilot with experience flying the Bell 407, and a good friend of The War Zone, explained it to us this way:
I’ve spent a lot of time flying the Bell 407 conducting power line inspections in the urban environment. The 407 really is a pilot’s machine, it’s very maneuverable and relatively fast for a helicopter. Typically cruising between 120-130 knots, It can handle heavier payloads with around 2.5 hours of endurance on a full tank of fuel. The biggest concern we had with hovering at low altitude in the urban environment was the rotor downwash. The helicopter is capable of putting out hurricane-force winds that can easily wreak havoc on things not secured to the ground.
The 407 is just over 10 feet longer than an MD500 allowing for landing in smaller LZs [landing zones] than a Huey or Blackhawk. The latest generation of the 407 has an even more powerful Allison turbine engine allowing for heavier payloads. The standard interior configuration allows for up to 6 passengers and a pilot.
Overall, I would equate the 407 to the sports car of the civilian Bell product line.
The mystery continues
In the meantime, we still don’t know with absolute certainty who is flying these helicopters in the skies about the greater Los Angeles area.
A reader in Lake Havasu in Arizona sent us videos of the three helicopters at the airport there on Jan. 11. This is a stopover we had already identified using existing flight tracking data, which also indicated that the trio had traveled all the way across the country before reaching Burbank. One of the videos shows the helicopters performing a very military-like maneuver in which they line up in formation on the runway before departing together in unison.
In addition, aviation photographer Owen O’Rourke sent us a picture of a Bell 407 helicopter at Charlotte Douglas Airport in North Carolina in 2016. This helicopter is the same color and has virtually the same configuration as the three that have been flying around L.A., with the exception of the “egg-beater” type satellite communications antenna on the tail boom.
Flight tracking data had previously indicated that one of the trio of helicopters now in southern California had flown to North Carolina, possibly in the direction of Fort Bragg, a hub of U.S. special operations forces activity, on multiple occasions last year.
The helicopter spotted at Charlotte Douglas five years ago also carries the U.S. civil registration code N407HP. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) database still lists a Bell 407 helicopter with this registration code and says the registrant is “TVXP Aircraft Solutions Inc. Trustee.” TVXP is a well-established broker of various aviation and other services, including providing trust services for registering aircraft with the FAA.
It’s not clear whether the Bell 407 presently registered with the FAA is the same one that O’Rourke photographed in 2016. FAA says that the helicopter carrying the N407HP registration code today received its current airworthiness certificate in 2019.
So, who exactly might be operating these helicopters remains murky, but they certainly look to have been conducting realistic urban training most typically associated with military special operations aviation units.