Solving the mystery of the big yellow helicopter flying over D.C.

Helicopters flying over Washington, D.C. are not uncommon. Those of us who live here are used to seeing all types of helicopters fly over, including those belonging to the D.C. Police Department, the U.S. Park Police, or the famous green and white presidential helicopters.

While I was walking my dog on Wednesday morning, I saw an unusual helicopter fly over the Dupont Circle neighborhood. It was a large yellow helicopter, one I had not seen before. Being an aviation enthusiast (nerd), I opened up FlightRadar24 on my phone, an app that shows near-live air traffic. Sure enough, the mystery copter was on there.

Flightpath of the big yellow helicopter via FlightRadar24

The helicopter, a Sikorsky S-92A, can transport up to 19 passengers. It’s quite a big helicopter, with a length of over 56 feet. As best as I could tell, the helicopter did not have any government or military markings, which is unusual for air traffic over D.C. since private flights are highly restricted and very rare.

A search of the helicopter’s registration, N948PH, revealed the owner to be Fifth Third Equipment Finance Group (a bank). An additional search turned up a photo and the information that the operator is a company called Petroleum Helicopters.

Photo of N948PH via aeroboek.nl

The photo above matches what I saw on the helicopter flying over D.C. I thought it a bit odd that a company that mainly provides transportation to and from offshore oil and gas operations had a helicopter flying over D.C. The flightpath on Flightradar24 indicated the aircraft had been flying all over the District and out in Maryland and Virginia.

A few searches of the helicopter’s callsign, DBDN667, showed that the aircraft had been flying around the D.C. area for a few weeks, often landing in Quantico, Va. and Patuxent River, Md. Those are both Naval Air Stations, so I suspected this privately-owned helicopter was doing some sort of work for the government.

It turns out there is a fairly simple explanation. The S-92A helicopter is contracted to the Department of the Navy as a pilot proficiency training aircraft.

The S-92A has been selected as the base model for the Navy’s VH-92A helicopter, which will eventually go in service for presidential transport, serving as the Marine One aircraft.

Naval Air Systems Command Rendering of the VH-92A in presidential livery

If you see a large yellow helicopter emblazoned with “PHI” flying low around the D.C. area, now you know why.