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.