“Wait a minute. This doesn’t look like this is supposed to be here,” U.S. helicopter pilot Bobby Wayne Hall said to his copilot right before the helicopter shook violently with a thundering explosion, the windshield caving into the cockpit.
Losing power, the helicopter began a treacherous downward spiral. In those last moments, the copilot, Chief Warrant Officer David Hilemon, said to Hall, “I’ve been hit.” “Are you okay?” the pilot replied. An ominous silence followed as the helicopter descended.
The OH-58D military helicopter collided with the ground, catching fire and throwing copilot Hilemon from the cockpit. Hall, uninjured in the crash, looked in vain for a fire extinguisher before moving frantically to drag his copilot away from the flaming wreckage. DPRK troops quickly surrounded the two men.
Hall pointed emphatically at his unmoving copilot as the flames engulfed the downed helicopter. A North Korean soldier ran over and helped pull Hilemon away from the fiery crash. At that moment, two stark realizations surged through the mind of Chief Warrant Officer Hall: his copilot was dead; he was in North Korea.
DPRK soldiers quickly bound and blindfolded the U.S. helicopter pilot, taking him away from his lifeless comrade.
On the afternoon of December 17, 1994, Hall—with a little under 11 hours flying time under his belt along the DMZ —offered to take David Hilemon on a routine orientation flight. “I knew a little bit about the area,” he later recalled, “so I was taking him up there so he could be a little more familiar.” The pilots, members of the same company in the 501st Aviation regiment, did safety checks on the OH-58D helicopter and lifted off into the sky from Camp Page, South Korea.
Approximately forty-five minutes into that flight, the two pilots lost track of their position. Snow on the ground concealed DMZ landmarks, and their navigational system failed to alert them as they unintentionally flew into DPRK airspace. The pilots only realized their perilous mistake as a missile slammed into the helicopter.
Once in North Korean custody, Hall explained after his release, he was treated quite well, considering the circumstances. He was kept in a room with a bed, toilet, and bathtub; he ate “rice, meats, pickles and a bread that resembled sponge cake.” He was never harmed or mistreated.
The crash set off a series of urgent requests from Washington, D.C. for the quick release of Hall and the return of Hilemon’s remains. Pyongyang, however, decried the incident as an act of espionage and refused to sit down with American officials at Panmunjom until December 21. On that day, the two sides met for over twenty-one hours of intense negotiations.
On December 22, DPRK officials returned the body of David Hilemon—accompanied by Rep. Bill Richardson, who had been in Pyongyang when the incident occurred—in a coffin covered with a blue United Nations flag.
Coming just months after the signing of the U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework, many feared the incident would reignite tensions on the peninsula. The United States, however, took quick steps to express contrition. On December 24, for example, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. John Shalikashvili explained in an interview that: “we consider this to be a most, most unfortunate incident with no intent to cross the border.” The White House went further on Christmas day, delivering what was essentially a letter of apology to Pyongyang explaining the border violation as a genuine accident. Thereafter, U.S. and North Korean officials reached a “written understanding” at Panmunjom, admitting that the American helicopter violated DPRK airspace.
Hall, in a statement to North Korean officials, admitted that he and his copilot had illegally crossed the border. According to the Korean Central News Agency, Hall described the encroachment as: a “criminal action…inexcusable and unpardonable…a grave infringement upon the sovereignty of the DPRK and a flagrant violation of international law.”
Following these events, North Korea freed the U.S. pilot at Panmunjom on December 29, 1994. Taken away in an ambulance, safely in American custody, Hall broke down in tears for the first time during the ordeal after inquiring about his copilot’s wife, Berit Hilemon.
“At the beginning and for a long time, I blamed everything on myself,” he explained after returning home. “I was the senior person. I was in charge of the situation and Dave had to be carried back and I got to walk across.”
Just the same, Hall received a phone call from President Bill Clinton shortly after regaining his freedom and returned home to his wife and children amid a chorus of warm cheers in Brooksville, Florida, his hometown of 7,440 people. The American pilot returned to active duty in South Korea less than a month later.
The U.S. military, for its part, ordered new GPS systems installed in all American military helicopters in South Korea.