Press Club

Why Helicopters Land in a Local Elementary School Field

Arlington resident Liam McBride was playing Spikeball with friends one August night on the grass field at Arlington Traditional School when a helicopter prepared to land.

Soon, the Arlington County Fire Department was on the field, clearing out McBride and his friends.

“They placed flares onto the ground, and a helicopter started flying around,” he said. “We thought Biden was landing to get medevaced. The helicopter landed around 9:50, and a drunk dude went to try and talk to them.”

The helicopter did not contain President Biden. But at 10 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 6, the ATS field in the Bluemont neighborhood was being used by the Virginia Hospital Center and MedStar Transport for a helicopter landing.

The healthcare providers work with ACFD to use the field for helicopter landings when patients need to be moved to other facilities. This happens fewer than five times a year, according to ACFD spokesman Capt. Justin Tirelli. On even rarer occasions, the center uses helicopters to transport organs as well, he said.

The field at ATS is one of around 20 designated landing zones for helicopters in the county. Most of the zones are used only for emergencies.

“Let’s say we have a serious car accident or a serious burn patient, and we want to get them to the burn center in D.C., but we know that it’s gonna be a significant ground transport time. If we have a landing zone close to us we can designate that as a place to rendezvous with the helicopter,” Tirelli said.

The ATS field is mostly used by the hospitals and is the site of most of the landings, in part because patients don’t often choose to be medevaced since they, or their insurance companies, have to pay the high costs.

In the event of a landing, firefighters arrive to clear out a landing zone. A team of four sets up flares, removes people and other obstructions from the field, and lets the pilot know of any potential hazards, such as antennas and power lines. The helicopter operator coordinates with ACFD’s dispatch center to let them know that an aircraft is inbound.

“It can be in as little as five minutes, or sometimes it can be scheduled well ahead of time,” Tirelli said.

Shortly after the helicopter lands, the patient is picked up from VHC in a private ambulance and brought to the chopper.

In some cases, the fire department calls helicopters to the ATS field themselves to medevac a patient from the hospital.

“That’s very rare. We do that maybe one time a year,” said Tirelli.

Not every helicopter landing in Arlington has been planned, however. Five years ago a military helicopter experiencing mechanical problems landed on Yorktown High School’s football field on a Friday night. It took back off after repairs were completed.

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