Gyrocopter lands on Capitol's West Lawn in apparent protest; pilot arrested
WASHINGTON (WJLA/AP/CNN/ABC News) - Police arrested a man who caused a melee Wednesday when he steered his tiny gyrocopter onto the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol after flying through restricted airspace around the National Mall - undetected by NORAD - in a bizarre plot that was apparently more than two years in the making.
The pilot was Doug Hughes, 61, a Postal Service worker from Ruskin, Florida, according to a Capitol Police statement released Wednesday evening. On his website, Hughes also took responsibility for the afternoon stunt and said he simply wanted to deliver letters to all 535 members of Congress to draw attention to campaign finance corruption.
"As I have informed the authorities, I have no violent inclinations or intent," Hughes wrote on his website, thedemocracyclub.org. "An ultralight aircraft poses no major physical threat - it may present a political threat to graft. I hope so. There's no need to worry - I'm just delivering the mail."
A Congressional official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Capitol Police knew of the plan shortly before Hughes took off. Meanwhile, the Secret Service confirmed Hughes had been interviewed by agents in Oct. 2013 after a tip was received that he wanted to land his gyrocopter at either the Capitol or the White House. The agents that interviewed Hughes at the time deemed him not dangerous.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi, the top minority member on the House Homeland Security Committee, told CNN he had "deep concern" about Wednesday's incident and the fact that the Secret Service knew about the pilot.
"Obviously we should have kept a little closer tabs on him, especially within the prohibited airspace," Thompson said.
"It shows that we still have some areas that are vulnerable and while we can have prohibited airspace it shows that certain kinds of flight patterns are still problematic, and a really bad guy could have caused significant harm if had been armed with explosives or things like that," he said.
Capitol Police said charges were pending against Hughes, who remained in custody Wednesday evening, for violating federal aviation laws - but law enforcement sources indicated there was no evidence so far that he intended any harm.
Capitol Police identified the open-air aircraft, which sported the U.S. Postal Service logo and landed at 1:30 p.m. about half a city block from the Capitol building, as a "gyrocopter with a single occupant." About two hours after the device had landed, police announced that a bomb squad had cleared it and nothing hazardous had been found. The authorities then towed it off the Capitol lawn to a secure location.
Hughes has been a rural letter carrier with the U.S. Postal Service since 2003, according to a USPS official. The official would not comment on Hughes' status with USPS following the incident, any disciplinary issues during employment or if anyone at USPS was aware of his plans.
Hughes flew to D.C. from Gettysburg, Pa., which took about an hour, said Ben Montgomery, a reporter with the Tampa Bay Times. The Secret Service sent a team to Gettysburg to investigate.
Montgomery said Hughes discussed his plan in advance with the newspaper, had meticulously plotted his flight and considered himself on a mission that was "sort of a mix of P.T. Barnum and Paul Revere."
"He pulled it off, he did exactly what he said he was going to do," Montgomery said. "Honestly, I didn’t think he’d make it anywhere close to here."
"This is a guy who thought for two and a half years about doing an act of civil disobedience -- I'm glad he wasn't hurt," the reporter said. "He was hoping not to die, but he knew he'd get arrested."
Hughes wanted to make a big, bold point about the corruption that results from money in politics, according to the newspaper.
“No sane person would do what I’m doing,” Hughes reportedly said.
House Homeland Security panel Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said the pilot landed on his own, but authorities were prepared to shoot him down if he had made it much closer to the Capitol. "Had it gotten any closer to the speaker's balcony they have long guns to take it down, but it didn't. It landed right in front," McCaul said.
As the gyrocopter approached, a call went out over the Capitol Police radio that a something was landing on the west front of the Capitol, a law enforcement source told ABC News.
The call was followed by an urgent request to get as many long guns as possible to cover the aircraft, the source said. Capital Police carry M-4 rifles routinely on patrol. Within seconds, officers converged on the west front with guns drawn, ready to take a shot.
Officers reported that they saw the pilot holding a wire. There was immediate concern about whether it was some kind of detonator. It turned out to be the aircraft’s flight control, the source said.
The Federal Aviation Administration said the pilot had not been in contact with air traffic controllers and the FAA didn't authorize him to enter restricted airspace.
Airspace security rules that cover the Capitol and the District of Columbia prohibit private aircraft flights without prior coordination and permission. Violators can face civil and criminal penalties.
White House officials said President Barack Obama had been briefed on the situation. The White House along with the Capitol were briefly on lockdown following the incident.
Outside of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing room, a half-dozen police were running through the hallways, speaking into their radios during the lockdown. In the room waited Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who had stopped by for a photo op and was posing a challenge for officers discussing safe ways to get the prime minister out of the building if necessary.
Witnesses told ABC7 News that the craft approached the Capitol from the west, flying low over the National Mall and the Capitol reflecting pool across the street from the building. It barely cleared a row of trees and a statue of Gen. Ulysses Grant.
John Jewell, 72, a tourist from Statesville, North Carolina, said the craft landed hard and bounced. An officer was already there with a gun drawn. "He didn't get out until police officers told him to get out. He had his hands up" and was quickly led away by the police, Jewell said. "They snatched him pretty fast."
Elizabeth Bevins, a tourist from Atlanta, said she was standing across the street from the Capitol when the little gyrocopter flew in around 20 or 30 feet high, and it "just sort of plopped down on the lawn."
Police with rifles yelled at the pilot not to move and told bystanders to run with their heads down, said Nora Neus, 21, a junior at the University of Virginia who was in town for a job interview. "I thought it was a joke at first. My next thought was this is something really bad," she said.
Amid the initial commotion, the small craft presented a strange sight sitting on the green lawn of the Capitol, its rotors slowly spinning.
The gyrocopter might qualify as what the FAA calls an "ultralight" aircraft. These aircraft weigh under 254 pounds empty, have a fuel capacity of 5 gallons or less and aren't capable of flying faster than 55 knots. The FAA doesn't certify the safety of these aircraft and their pilots are not required to have a license.