U.S. Capitol Police detained a man who flew over and landed a gyrocopter on Capitol grounds, causing the building and visitor center to be locked down Wednesday afternoon.
The pilot landed on the west front grounds about 1:30 p.m. and was taken into custody.
Capitol Police didn't immediately identify the pilot or comment on his motive, but a man who said he is a Florida postal carrier named Doug Hughes took responsibility for the stunt on a website where he said he was delivering letters to all 535 members of Congress in order 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.
Capitol Police identified the aircraft as a "gyro copter with a single occupant." A gyrocopter is similar to a helicopter in appearance, but uses a different type of propulsion and lift.
The USCP Hazardous Devices Section (bomb squad) was called in to investigate the gyrocopter. It gave the all clear around 3:30 p.m.
The following temporary street closures were implemented for vehicular and pedestrian traffic:
- First Street between Independence Avenue SW & Constitution Avenue NW
- Maryland Avenue between 1st & 3rd streets SW
- Pennsylvania Avenue between 1st & 3rd streets NW
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Hughes had been hatching the plot since 2013.
"I have carefully planned it so that nobody will get hurt," he said.
And he understood the risk.
"No sane person would do what I'm doing," he said.
But he trusted the government not to harm him.
"I don't believe that the authorities are going to shoot down a 60-year-old mailman in a flying bicycle," he said.
Hughes loaded the gyrocopter on to a trailer Friday and began towing it to Pennsylvania Saturday. Authorities found the truck he used at Gettysburg (Pa.) Regional Airport.
Downtown Washington is blanketed by restrictions on air traffic that generally prohibit aircraft from flying over the White House, the Capitol, the National Mall and key buildings without special permission.
House Homeland Security panel Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said the pilot landed on his own but had he made it much closer to the Capitol, authorities were prepared to shoot him down.
Witnesses said 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."
An NBC station in Tampa, Florida, received an email from a man who said he was going to fly to the Capitol to deliver letters to every member of Congress. The man in the email said his name was Douglas Hughes, 61, and that he is employed as a mailman.
In his email to the television station, Hughes said he intended to deliver 535 letters to the members of Congress, protesting alleged corruption in the institution and his possible solutions. He acknowledged the dangers of flying in Washington and so close to federal buildings.
“I'm going to land my gyro on the front lawn of the Capitol Building at the top end of the National Mall,” the email stated. "The issue is important enough to defy the no-fly zone and risk life and limb, and my freedom in pursuit of an honest government that represents the people."
A website mentioned in the email appeared to have a video area where a livestream of the flight was being broadcast. The page has a black spot where the video may have been.