Black helicopters is a term which became popular in the United States militia movement and associated political groups in the 1990s as a symbol and warning sign of an alleged conspiratorial military takeover of the United States, though it has also been associated with men in black and similar conspiracies. Rumors circulated that, for instance, the United Nations patrolled the US with unmarked black helicopters, or that federal agents used black helicopters to enforce wildlife laws. The concept may arise from the fact that many government agencies and corporations do use helicopters, and that some of these helicopters are dark-colored or black. Metonymic use of the phrase black helicopters sometimes occurs in reference to conspiracy theories in general.
Stories of black helicopters first appeared in the 1970s, and were linked to reports of cattle mutilation. It is possible that the idea originated in Hal Lindsey's book The Late, Great Planet Earth, published in 1970 and popular among conspiracy theorists. Lindsey theorized that the locust-like creatures referenced in the Book of Revelation were actually helicopters, which John had never seen and thus did not know how to describe.
Jim Keith wrote two books on the subject: Black Helicopters Over America: Strikeforce for the New World Order (1995), and Black Helicopters II: The End Game Strategy (1998).
Media attention to black helicopters increased in February 1995, when first-term Republican northern Idaho Representative Helen Chenoweth charged that armed federal agents were landing black helicopters on Idaho ranchers' property to enforce the Endangered Species Act. "I have never seen them," Chenoweth said in an interview in The New York Times. "But enough people in my district have become concerned that I can't just ignore it. We do have some proof."
The black helicopters theory resonates well with the belief held by some in the militia movement that troops from the United Nations might invade the United States. The John Birch Society published an article in The New American detailing how the existence of the covert aircraft was mostly the product of possible visual errors and a tendency towards overboard caution.
The following explanations have been provided by various organizations and experts, including government agencies, regarding the alleged black helicopters:
U.S. Army and National Guard helicopters painted olive drab will appear to be black in the reddish light of dawn or dusk, or under other low light conditions during the day when their shadow side is viewed against the sky with the naked eye. The Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment use helicopters primarily painted black.
In the early 1970s, the CIA operated two black Hughes 500P helicopters in Vietnam, in order to place phone taps. Test flights began at Culver City, California, in 1971. It was noted for its low noise emission, and given the nickname "The Quiet One". After the mission assigned to it had been completed, one helicopter was returned to California and had most of the special features stripped out by mechanics. It was transferred to the ownership of the Pacific Corporation of Washington, D.C. The second helicopter currently flies for the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office in Washington State.
The U.S. Army regularly conducts both exercises and operational missions in American airspace. Some of these exercises have taken place in densely populated cities, including Los Angeles, New York, Detroit, San Francisco, Oakland, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. Most operational missions are tasked in narcotics interdiction in the American Southwest and out of Florida and Puerto Rico. By extensive use of IR, radar, GPS and night vision devices, as well as other classified means, they are able to fly in zero visibility conditions with no running lights. At this high intensity level of operation, training is necessarily almost as dangerous to pilots, other air traffic, and the public as actual combat. Frequent practice is necessary to retain proficiency. Frequent practice results in frequent sightings by concerned members of the public.
Many defense contractors and helicopter manufacturers also conduct public flight testing of aircraft and components or fly aircraft in public view to test ranges or other corporate airfields for training or demonstrations. Occasionally, some of these aircraft will be made for military clients and are painted in black or dark colors.
In the UK, police helicopters are required by the CAA to be marked in a standard "high conspicuity" paint scheme, to make them more visible and avoid the possibility of air proximity hazards with other low flying aircraft. This paint scheme, also used by UK military training helicopters, can require them to be black on the sides and underneath, and yellow on top, however the Metropolitan Police use a dark blue color scheme with yellow underneath. Unlike covert helicopters, gloss black is used rather than matte black. When seen from the ground, these helicopters are black but this is to make them more visible against the sky as a safety feature (and yellow against the ground when seen from above).
Many US law enforcement agencies use black helicopters for surveillance, transportation, and patrol. Some of the agencies that use them are U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the US Marshals Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The term has also been used to ridicule other conspiracy theories or conspiracy theorists. For instance, a Slate article on basketball refereeing, said: "In the wake of this scandal, every game will be in question, and not only by fans disposed to seeing black helicopters outside the arena." Vice President Joe Biden had recourse to the term in a speech responding to the National Rifle Association during the 2013 White House campaign for background checks on all gun purchasers, saying, "The black helicopter crowd is really upset. It's kind of scary, man."
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