WASHINGTON — Doug Hughes loves to fly. As a kid, he’d plant himself at the local airport and monitor the comings and goings of planes. He read up on the Wright Brothers and Kitty Hawk.
On Wednesday, Hughes, a 61-year-old mailman from a small town on Florida’s Gulf Coast who dearly wants campaign finance reform, flew his fragile little ultralight gyrocopter through some of the most closely protected airspace on the planet and landed it on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. He called it Project Kitty Hawk.
Hughes, who Capitol Police said remained in custody Wednesday evening, had announced his plans on the Internet and in his hometown newspaper. He said he felt compelled to do what he could to halt corruption in the nation’s capital. He attached a big U.S. Postal Service insignia to the aircraft fuselage, loaded it onto a trailer Friday, and drove north.
He would not go postal, but rather airborne, to deliver 535 letters to members of Congress urging them to tighten the rules on money in political campaigns.
“I have no intention of hurting anyone,” Hughes wrote on his website, the Democracy Club, which carries the motto, “Because We the People own Congress.” “There is no way I can prevent overreaction by the authorities, but I have given them as much information and advance warning as my fuel supply allows.”
The warning, which apparently came in the form of a call from one of Hughes’ friends to a Secret Service agent, didn’t help. Air defense systems did not detect the copter as it entered restricted airspace above Washington, according to a North American Aerospace Defense Command spokesman. No one tried to stop the gyrocopter, which sounds like a lawnmower and looks like a flying bridge chair.
Air Force Maj. Jamie Humphries, a NORAD spokesman, said authorities are investigating why NORAD was not made aware of the gyrocopter until after it had landed on the Capitol grounds.
“We are trying to determine the why, but I can say we did not scramble assets,” he said.
“The pilot was not in contact with FAA air traffic controllers and the FAA did not authorize him to enter restricted airspace,” said a statement from the agency’s spokeswoman, Laura Brown. Private aircraft are prohibited from flying over Area 56, the name aviation officials give to a swath of Washington’s federal core stretching from the White House east to Stanton Park in Washington.
The FAA said any pilot who flies in that area at an altitude below 18,000 feet “without prior coordination and permission … may face civil and criminal penalties.”
“I don’t believe that the authorities are going to shoot down a 60-year-old mailman in a flying bicycle,” Hughes said in a video that appeared on the Tampa Bay Times website shortly before he landed. “I’m defenseless. … A Boy Scout with a BB gun could shoot me down.”
Hughes took off from a location that he described only as being “over an hour away from the no-fly zone,” but which turned out to be Gettysburg Regional Airport in Pennsylvania, about 80 miles away. He landed with a little bounce on a broad expanse of grass at the foot of Capitol Hill. He sat still inside his open-air cockpit for about a minute, whereupon U.S. Capitol Police surrounded the copter and then detained and arrested Hughes.
Although the guardians of the nation’s airspace did not see the mailman coming, some Washington residents did.
Jose Labarca, 55, was sitting on the National Mall at about 1:50 p.m. when he spotted the aircraft about 35 to 40 feet in the air, heading east toward the Capitol.
The chopper, Labarca said, “looked totally official” with its Postal Service logo. “I thought, the Postal Service has helicopter service to the Capitol now?”
Labarca said the pilot appeared to be wearing a mailman’s uniform. “When he flew by us, he gave us a thumbs up,” he said.
Hughes, who is married and has a 12-year-old daughter, did not need a pilot’s license to fly his gyrocopter. The rudimentary aircraft dates to the 1920s and was one of the first aircraft to use overhead rotating blades to lift off the ground.
Unlike helicopters, a gyrocopter’s overhead blades are not powered by an engine. Rather, a smaller blade powered by a motor at the front or rear of the aircraft pulls or pushes it forward. That momentum causes the overhead blades to turn, lifting the aircraft off the ground.
“They are kit-built by their owners, and many are classified as ultralights,” said Chris Yancey of the Alexandria, Va.-based Helicopter Association International. “With a 5-gallon tank, it could fly for, maybe, an hour.”
and Marc Fisher,
The Washington Post