Gyrocopter Pilot Appears in Court, Released

Lawmakers: Gyrocopter Flight Shows Security 'Gap'

The pilot of the gyrocopter that landed on the U.S. Capitol was charged Thursday with violating restricted airspace and operating an unregistered aircraft, federal authorities said.

Douglas Hughes was released on his own recognizance after Thursday's court appearance. The 61-year-old mailman is allowed to return to his home state of Florida, on an order of home confinement, and is due back in court for a hearing on May 8.

Hughes is barred from returning to the District of Columbia except for court appearances and meetings with his attorney. Any time that he is in the District of Columbia, Hughes must stay away from the Capitol, White House and nearby areas. Magistrate Judge Robinson also barred Hughes from operating any aircraft while he is on release.

Hughes, who was taken into custody shortly after he landed the tiny aircraft at about 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, 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, "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.”

The tiny, open-air aircraft landed without injuries to anyone, but the incident raises questions about how someone could be allowed to fly all the way from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, right up to the Capitol.

In an affadavit, Hughes told authorities he had practiced his flight plan in advance, and that when he saw the National Mall, he turned toward the U.S. Capitol, eventually landing on the West Front Lawn. He stated he was not a licensed pilot and never registered his aircraft with federal authorities.

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.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Thursday that the gyrocopter "apparently literally flew in under the radar.''

Johnson said it's too soon to say whether Wednesday's incident should prompt changes in security procedures. "I want to know all the facts before I reach an assessment of what can and should be done about gyrocopters in the future,'' he said.

Johnson confirmed that Hughes was interviewed by the Secret Service almost two years ago. He said the Secret Service passed along the information from that interview to "all of the appropriate law enforcement agencies.''

"We are a democracy. We don't have fences around our airspace, so we've got to find the right balance between living in a free and open society and security and the protection of federal buildings,'' Johnson told reporters on Capitol Hill. "And so we want to stay one step ahead of every incident like this, but then again, you don't want to overreact, either.''

Johnson defended existing protocols for dealing with the restricted airspace over Washington, D.C., federal buildings and monuments.

"We've got a well-coordinated federal response to dealing with issues of those who penetrate the restricted airspace without permission,'' he said.

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.

But lawmakers said the incident exposed a gap in security, especially amid revelations that Hughes was interviewed by the Secret Service almost two years ago. The agency apparently determined he did not pose a threat, said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the senior Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Cummings spoke Thursday with the Secret Service director.

“I think that there's absolutely a gap, and it's a very dangerous gap, with regard to our airspace,'' Cummings said. “I don't want people to get a message that they can just land anywhere. Suppose there was a bomb or an explosive device on that air vehicle? That could have been a major catastrophe.''

Johnson said the Secret Service passed along the information from the interview with Hughes, who was to appear in court Thursday afternoon, to "all of the appropriate law enforcement agencies.''

House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the incident “stunning.''

”What safeguards can we use? We don't want to be a place where we're saying `This is an iron-clad Capitol.' And have such restrictions on people having access to it,'' Pelosi told reporters. “Nonetheless, we have to ensure the safety of those people.''

It's not unusual for a small aircraft like a gyrocopter to go undetected by conventional radar. Unlike most larger aircraft, a gyrocopter doesn't have a transponder that identifies the aircraft, its altitude and heading. Even without a transponder, radar can detect “primary targets'' -- planes, flocks of birds, rain and other objects. But how well it can detect those objects depends upon several factors.

The landing on the Capitol grounds “just illustrates how hard it is to have an impermeable barrier. It's very hard to hermetically seal airspace,'' said John Hansman, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology aeronautics professor.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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