35 Years After Air Florida Crash, Helicopter Used in Daring Rescue Gets New Mission

Thirty-five years ago Friday, in the midst of a blizzard, an Air Florida jetliner crashed into the 14th Street Bridge and the frozen Potomac River, killing 78 people.

Despite the dangerous weather, U.S. Park Police pilot Don Usher and his rescue technician Gene Windsor took off in their helicopter and performed what is now considered one of the greatest rescues in aviation history.

"The weather as bad as it was, I don’t think anyone thought a helicopter would get up on that day, but that helicopter got up and it went out and it saved lives," said U.S. Park Police Deputy Chief Scott Fear.

One by one, Usher and Windsor plucked five people from the icy water and delivered them to the safety of rescue workers on shore.

While the weather made the rescue dangerous, pulling the victims and bringing them to the shore was a greater challenge.

"Had that tail rotor come in contact with the water, this might be a very very different story," said Sgt. Ken Burchell, a pilot for the U.S. Park Police.

Burchell trained in that chopper with Usher and said he and Windsor pulled off a highly dangerous maneuver that day.

When the last survivor struggled to stay afloat, Usher made the decision to dip the skid of the helicopter into the river so Windsor could reach the victim and get her to safety.

"That is not something we hope to ever do," Burchell said. "A tremendously risky maneuver. High risk for high results."

The rescue inspired a future generation of park police officers.

After the rescue, the chopper spent a few more years in service with the park police. But, like a lot of government equipment, it was eventually set to be retired and scrapped.

That's when the National Law Enforcement Museum stepped in and through an act of Congress, it managed to save the helicopter and have it restored.

"It was pretty rough and it didn't look like - it didn’t have the U.S. Park Police colors anymore. The interior had been changed over. It had worked hard," said Rebecca Looney, with the National Law Enforcement Museum.

The helicopter is now fully restored and is back at the park police hanger in Anacostia.

It will be the centerpiece of the National Law Enforcement Museum, which is set to open in 2018.

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