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Profile: Philip W. Cholak

Philip W. Cholak was a participant or observer in the following events:

A US Park Police helicopter on the road outside the Pentagon.A US Park Police helicopter on the road outside the Pentagon. [Source: Michael Garcia]The US Park Police Aviation Unit becomes one of the first agencies to respond to the attack on the Pentagon, with its two helicopters arriving on the scene within minutes of the crash. (Goldberg et al. 2007, pp. 161-162) The aviation unit is located in Anacostia Park in southeast Washington, DC, across the Potomac River from the Pentagon. It has two Bell 412 helicopters—a modern version of the “Huey”—that are prepared for virtually any emergency. They are equipped with mass casualty kits, which allow them to carry up to four critically injured patients, along with a large amount of additional medical and rescue apparatus, and other sophisticated equipment. (Wagstaff 10/1/2001; Forror 11/2001; Forror 2/2002; National Park Service 10/16/2004; Hawley 10/25/2007) The unit had been running a large training event (see 8:30 a.m. September 11, 2001) when personnel there learned of the first crash in New York from television reports. After seeing the second plane hitting the World Trade Center live, they realized this was a deliberate act. Sergeant Ronald Galey, one of the unit’s helicopter pilots, will later recall that at that point, “[W]e just started talking, ‘Hey, we’d better get ready.’”
Personnel Hear Explosion from Pentagon - Personnel at the aviation unit hear the explosion when the Pentagon is attacked at 9:37 a.m. Galey and Sergeant Kenneth Burchell, another of the unit’s helicopter pilots, hear a loud thud and then look up to see a column of smoke rising from the vicinity of the Pentagon. Galey will recall, “We all knew” this was another terrorist attack. He will add, “[W]e’ve all been expecting something like this, for an attack of some sort.” However, Galey does not initially realize the smoke rising up in the distance is coming from the Pentagon. He will say he only “suspected it was some military installation over there.” (Bohn 11/19/2001; Galey 11/20/2001; McDonnell 2004, pp. 19-20 pdf file)
Controller Reports Crash, but Accounts Conflict - Soon, the “aircraft crash phone” in the aviation unit office rings, setting off a distinctive horn alarm. This phone is a direct communications line from the control tower at Washington’s Reagan National Airport, which enables the aviation unit to respond quickly to incidents at the airport. Galey answers the call. (McDonnell 2004, pp. 20 pdf file; Goldberg et al. 2007, pp. 161-162) On the other end of the line is air traffic controller David Walsh (see (9:38 a.m.) September 11, 2001). According to author Lynn Spencer, Walsh yells down the phone: “Aircraft down at the Pentagon! Aircraft down at the Pentagon!” (Federal Aviation Administration 9/18/2001; Spencer 2008, pp. 158-159) Galey will give a similar account in a January 2002 interview, recalling that Walsh tells him that “they had a 757 go into the Pentagon and they needed us to respond to the incident.” (Galey 1/17/2002) But in November 2001, Galey will recall that Walsh says, “We have a 757 down somewhere in the vicinity of the 14th Street Bridge”—a bridge over the Potomac River, near the Pentagon. (Forror 11/2001) Later that month, Galey will state that Walsh says the tower has “lost a 757 somewhere in the vicinity of the Pentagon.” (Galey 11/20/2001)
Controller Reports Crash at Airport, according to Some Accounts - However, on another occasion Galey will say that Walsh tells him, “[W]e have a 757 down on the north end of the airport.” (Line 9/21/2002) And Sergeant Keith Bohn, another of the Park Police helicopter pilots, will give a similar account, recalling that in the initial phone call the aviation unit receives about the attack, it is informed that there is “an aircraft down at the end of the runway at National Airport.” Bohn will say he only learns the correct location of the crash while he is starting up his helicopter to respond, at which time he talks with someone in the unit’s other helicopter, and “they told me, in disbelief, that the aircraft had in fact hit the Pentagon.” (Bohn 11/19/2001)
Helicopters Reach Pentagon Minutes after Attack - The crew of one of the unit’s helicopters, which has the call sign “Eagle I,” comprises Galey as pilot, rescue technician Sergeant John Marsh, and rescue team officer John Dillon. The crew of the other helicopter, “Eagle II,” comprises pilots Burchell and Bohn, aviation unit commander Lieutenant Philip Cholak and assistant commander Sergeant Bernard Stasulli, and two Defense Department medics, Keith Kettell and Jason Kepp. (US Congress. House 9/11/2002; Line 9/21/2002; McDonnell 2004, pp. 20 pdf file) Eagle I is the first of the two helicopters to take off and arrive on the scene of the attack, according to most accounts. (Bohn 11/19/2001; US Congress. House 9/11/2002; NBC 4 9/11/2003) According to National Park Service reports, it is in the air less than two minutes after the aviation unit hears of the attack, and Eagle II follows it a minute later. (Line 9/21/2002; National Park Service 10/22/2002) But according to the Arlington County After-Action Report, Eagle I takes off at “approximately 9:43 a.m.” and Eagle II takes off eight minutes later, at 9:51 a.m. (US Department of Health and Human Services 7/2002, pp. A-45 pdf file) Furthermore, according to Galey, Eagle II is in fact the first of the helicopters to launch, while Eagle I, in which he flies, takes off right after it. (Galey 11/20/2001) The two helicopters arrive at the Pentagon within six minutes of the attack there, according to Rotor and Wing magazine. (Forror 11/2001; Forror 2/2002) They are the first helicopters to arrive at the scene of the crash. (NBC 4 9/11/2003)
One Helicopter Lands, Other Circles Overhead - Eagle I remains airborne, circling overhead and assuming command and control of the airspace. Eagle II lands on a paved roadway 150 to 200 yards from the crash site, according to the National Park Service’s account of 9/11, and then some of its crew members grab their emergency medical equipment and run toward the building. After a time, Bohn moves the helicopter closer to the Pentagon. (Galey 11/20/2001; McDonnell 2004, pp. 20-21 pdf file) According to Bohn’s recollections, Eagle II initially lands in “the grass area of the cloverleaf” of Route 27 and Columbia Pike. But after “maybe 10 minutes,” Bohn takes off and moves the helicopter to the road by the Pentagon helipad. (Bohn 11/19/2001)
Helicopter Takes Off with Two Patients - The triage officer at the Pentagon indicates that there are 11 individuals requiring medical evacuation, but eventually only two severely burned patients are carried onto Eagle II. Minutes after landing outside the Pentagon, the helicopter takes off and flies the patients to the Washington Hospital Center. (USU Medicine 12/2002 pdf file; McDonnell 2004, pp. 20, 22 pdf file) While most accounts describe Park Police helicopters only taking off in the minutes after the attack on the Pentagon, Navy historian John Darrell Sherwood will later say that at least one of the aviation unit’s helicopters took off before the Pentagon was hit, and it was directed to intercept the aircraft approaching the Pentagon (see Shortly Before 9:35 a.m. September 11, 2001). And several witnesses will report seeing a helicopter near the Pentagon just before the attack there (see (9:35 a.m.-9:36 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Parsons 12/13/2001; Washington Post 9/5/2002; Goldberg et al. 2007, pp. 258)

A US Park Police helicopter flying above the burning Pentagon.A US Park Police helicopter flying above the burning Pentagon. [Source: Mark D. Faram / US Navy]A US Park Police helicopter that recently arrived over the Pentagon is contacted by an air traffic controller at Washington’s Reagan National Airport and given responsibility for controlling the airspace over Washington, DC, since the control tower at Reagan Airport is being evacuated. (Galey 11/20/2001; US Department of Health and Human Services 7/2002, pp. A-48 pdf file; McDonnell 2004, pp. 21 pdf file) The Park Police Aviation Unit’s two helicopters arrived at the Pentagon within minutes of the attack there (see Shortly After 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). (Forror 11/2001) While one of the helicopters landed to conduct medical evacuations, the other, which has the call sign “Eagle I,” circled overhead. (Galey 11/20/2001; McDonnell 2004, pp. 20-21 pdf file)
Airport Tower Being Evacuated - Eagle I has made three or four orbits around the Pentagon when a controller in the Reagan Airport tower radios its pilot, Sergeant Ronald Galey. The controller says the tower is currently evacuating. (Galey 11/20/2001; Galey 1/17/2002) According to some accounts, the tower is being evacuated due to reports of more hijacked aircraft heading in its direction (see (9:55 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (NBC 4 9/11/2003; Spencer 2008, pp. 215-216) But according to other accounts, the controller tells Galey the tower is evacuating because it is being affected by smoke that is drifting across from the burning Pentagon. (US Department of Health and Human Services 7/2002, pp. A-48 pdf file; McDonnell 2004, pp. 21 pdf file; Goldberg et al. 2007, pp. 162) Galey will recall the controller saying: “Eagle I, we can’t see anything outside the tower. [The smoke is] getting in our ventilation system. We’re abandoning the tower.” Therefore, the controller gives Galey control of the airspace for the entire Washington area, telling him, “You’ve got the airspace.” (Galey 11/20/2001; McDonnell 2004, pp. 21 pdf file)
Pilot Alarmed at Being Given Control of Airspace - The control tower at Reagan Airport is “normally the ‘nerve center’ for directing any response to this type of incident,” according to a National Park Service news article. (Line 9/21/2002) Galey is initially alarmed. He will recall thinking, “Exactly what I need right now is I’ve got control of the airspace.” (Galey 11/20/2001) However, he is unaware that the FAA has ordered that all airborne aircraft must land at the nearest airport (see (9:45 a.m.) September 11, 2001), which will make his task easier. (US Congress. House. Committee On Transportation And Infrastructure 9/21/2001; McDonnell 2004, pp. 21 pdf file; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 29)
NORAD Advises Pilot on Controlling Airspace - The controller gives Galey the radio frequency for NORAD, and tells him to contact NORAD. (Galey 1/17/2002; McDonnell 2004, pp. 21-22 pdf file) The person Galey then talks to at NORAD informs him: “Look, you have no [air] traffic in DC, except for the traffic that you’re calling. The aircraft that you’re calling in, we’re going to allow to come in. Other than that, there should be no one besides the military, and we’ll call you out the military traffic.” Galey will later reflect: “So that helped tremendously. That function alone was not very taxing.” (Galey 11/20/2001) The person at NORAD also tells Galey there is “an unauthorized aircraft inbound from the Pennsylvania area, with the estimated time of arrival approximately 20 minutes into DC.” Galey will recall that he and the rest of his crew discuss what they should do, and decide that “we’d take our chances and stay there [at the Pentagon], and do what we came there to do.” (Galey 1/17/2002)
Airspace Control Passed on to Metropolitan Police Helicopter - Eagle I becomes “the air traffic control function for the area, flying a slow racetrack pattern over the site and clearing aircraft in and out,” according to Lieutenant Philip Cholak, the Park Police Aviation Unit commander. (Wagstaff 10/1/2001) But after a time Galey asks his paramedic to request that a Metropolitan Police helicopter be launched to take over the command and control of the Washington airspace. He tells the paramedic: “You know we’re going to have to do a medevac mission here. We’re going to have to relinquish the command/control function to somebody else.” A Metropolitan Police helicopter subsequently arrives and relieves Eagle I of its command and control function. (Galey 11/20/2001; McDonnell 2004, pp. 22 pdf file)

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