Tag Archives: gyrocopter

Aviation lawyer: Gyrocopter stunt pilot probably ‘doing time’

WASHINGTON — It’s a balloon! It’s a kite! It’s a … gyrocopter?

The Secret Service completely mistook a blip on their radar systems for an innocent toy last month until it landed on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Then they saw it for what it really was: a disgruntled U.S. postal worker from Florida in a one-man flying machine. He had 535 letters with him demanding campaign finance reform – one for each member of Congress.

By then Douglas Hughes, 61, had breached three major no-fly zones, crossing through some of the most protected airspace in the country. And though he had broken federal law, he was admittedly unapologetic, alternately seen as a hero, a crank or an activist.

Last week, things suddenly got far more serious; a federal grand jury indicted Hughes on six criminal counts. Two of them are felonies – flying without a pilot’s license and failure to register an aircraft – and the other four are misdemeanors related to violating national airspace and operating a vehicle falsely labeled as a postal carrier.

Hughes holds another label: alleged criminal.

According to Hughes, his self-proclaimed “Freedom Flight” from Gettysburg to Washington, D.C. on April 15 was part of a longtime protest against existing campaign finance laws. A man on a mission, Hughes said he wanted to raise awareness about corruption on Capitol Hill.

“He’s going to face jail time and he’s going to do it,” said Joe Lamonaca, a Delaware-based attorney specializing in domestic and international aviation law. Lamonaca is not part of Hughes’ legal team, although he has been following the case and believes conviction is likely if it goes to trial.

The fact that Hughes intentionally flew into P-56 airspace, the designation for prohibited airspace surrounding the Capitol and White House, is without question, Lamonaca said. And that airspace belongs to the Secret Service – not the Federal Aviation Administration: “That’s the holy grail of all prohibited airspace in the country.”

“And it’s actually not restricted,” he added. “It’s prohibited – which means no flight under any circumstances.”

A gyrocopter resembles a helicopter, except that its rotating blade is propelled by air flow, rather than an engine. It’s also much lighter, smaller and incapable of hovering the way a helicopter does.

Hughes’ stunt was planned years in advance and widely discussed, and was the subject of interviews with the Tampa Bay Times and at least two Secret Service Agents months before he ever took flight.

So Hughes can’t claim that he lost control of his gyrocopter, took a left instead of a right and wound up at the Capitol, Lamonaca said. Hughes even livestreamed his journey mid-air. What he did was premeditated and that will limit his defense strategy, Lamonaca added.

“He was trying to make a statement for himself,” Lamonaca said. “But I think the government is going to make one the other way.”

With 30 years of experience as a pilot, Lamonaca said he knows why the Secret Service may have mistaken Hughes’ gyrocopter for a toy. It doesn’t have a transponder, which means that Hughes wasn’t sending out a secondary radar signal the way planes do.

“I know what it would have looked like on that radar screen, low flightpath, slow speed,” he said. “He was so low, the signature was almost nonexistent.”

But that’s no excuse, Lamonaca said. The Secret Service should be checking out every signal, using visual spotting to make up the difference: “There are so many different ways [to fly a weapon] and that’s going to require manpower.” Hughes had letters onboard, as opposed to bombs or explosives, but the potential for danger was still there. And the Secret Service either missed it entirely or let it slide – when they let it land.

“Whether it’s drones [or] gyrocopters … they’ve got to start taking them seriously,” he added, in reference to the need for federal security officials to account for new technology. Because a future incident, he said, may up the stakes significantly.

Florida postal worker who landed gyrocopter on Capitol Lawn pleads not guilty

  • Doug Hughes speaks after his hearing at the U.S. District Court. (Nick Kariuki/MEDILL NSJI)
    Doug Hughes speaks after his hearing at the U.S. District Court. (Nick Kariuki/MEDILL NSJI)

WASHINGTON, May 21 (UPI) — Doug Hughes, the Florida mail carrier who landed his gyrocopter on the U.S. Capitol’s West Lawn last month, appeared in court on Thursday to plead not guilty to all six federal charges against him.

Among the charges against Hughes are two felonies: operating an aircraft without a license and flying an unregistered aircraft. He faces up to nine and half years in prison.

“As long as I’m free I’m going to introducing voters to groups with solutions to problems of corruption that the vast majority of voters recognize and oppose.” Hughes said after the hearing.

On April 15, tax day, Hughes piloted the low-altitude aircraft from Gettysburg, Pa., to Washington, landing on the Capitol lawn.

Hughes carried 535 two-page letters, one for every member of Congress, highlighting the need for campaign finance reform because of what he sees as the corrosive effect of money politics. He described his actions as an act of civil disobedience.

“I’ll never do anything like this again, but I would do it exactly the way I did,” Hughes said.

Capitol Police arrested Hughes after he landed the small aircraft. He was later released on bail and remained under house arrest in Ruskin, Fla., where he wore an ankle monitor.

Mag. Judge Alan Gray allowed Hughes to move within Hillsborough Count,y where he lives, though he still must wear the monitor.

The judge also refused to let Hughes visit the Capitol, White House and other areas in Washington, which he was banned from doing immediately after the incident.

Hughes was also put on administrative leave from his job at the U.S. Postal Service.

The postal worker’s protest has raised concerns from lawmakers about the security of the Capitol. Hughes flew across 30 miles of some of the nation’s most restricted airspace on his route to D.C.

The Tampa Bay Times wrote about Hughes’s protest plans before the flight. He also informed the Secret Service and other news organizations by email and live-streamed the event on The Democracy Club, a website dedicated to congressional reform.

Hughes has stated his frustration at the focus on the security concerns raised, rather than the reasons for his flight:

“I have faith in a jury of my peers and will accept whatever consequence I must,” Hughes wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post. “I simply hope by putting my freedom on the line, others might realize how precious their freedom is and join those of engaged in this fight to preserve and protect our government of, by and for the people.”

Members of CODEPINK, the women-led grassroots activist group, presented Hughes with a framed stamp after the hearing.

Published in conjunction with UPI Logo