Copter chaos at Capitol

Copter chaos at Capitol
© Getty Images

A tiny aircraft piloted by a Florida mail carrier protesting campaign finance laws landed on the Capitol grounds Wednesday afternoon, scrambling a bomb squad, closing streets and raising questions about security on Capitol Hill.

The gyrocopter — a one-man craft with an open cockpit — set down shortly after 1 p.m. on the Capitol's expansive West Lawn, where the pilot, 61-year-old Doug Hughes, was confronted by members of the Capitol Police and promptly detained pending charges yet unnamed.

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The freak episode triggered a scene of bewildered chaos around the Capitol as law enforcers and reporters flocked to the scene and security personnel instituted a brief lockdown of the grounds.

Iraq’s prime minister was at the Capitol during the episode, underlining the security concerns that arise from a rogue pilot landing unchallenged.

It was unclear how Hughes made it through restricted airspace in Washington, particularly after he had been visited by the Secret Service and spoken openly about his plan, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

The newspaper published a story Wednesday saying Hughes, of Ruskin, Fla., planned to land his gyrocopter on the lawn of the Capitol and deliver letters to every member of Congress demanding campaign finance reform.

Hughes had also forecast his protest, writing on a website titled The Democracy Club: “My flight is not a secret.”

“Before I took off, I sent an Email to info@barackobama.com,” Hughes added. “The letter is intended to persuade the guardians of the Capitol that I am not a threat and that shooting me down will be a bigger headache than letting me deliver these letters to Congress.”

Hughes reportedly took off from Gettysburg, Pa., but his flight did not lead to an alert by the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD.

NORAD spokesman John Cornelio said officials "were unaware of the incident until the gyrocopter had landed."

"As to why we were unaware, that's what an investigation will reveal," he said.

Ben Montgomery, the author of the Times report, said Hughes took off in southern Pennsylvania in order to give the authorities time to prepare for his arrival.

“I think he was probably surprised he didn't have any resistance,” Montgomery told CNN's “The Lead” on Wednesday.

The House Radio TV Gallery said crews were expecting Hughes to land on the eastern side of the Capitol. His touchdown on the west side prompted a frenzied scene within that gallery, where reporters and plain-clothes police officers rushed to the windows for a view.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in an interview on "The Hugh Hewitt Show," a conservative radio broadcast, expressed shock that Hughes was able to get so close to the Capitol.

"He should have been subject to being shot out of the sky," Graham said.

"I don’t know why he wasn’t, but our nation is under siege. Radical Islam is a threat to our homeland. There are probably radical Islamic cells in our backyard already. And if somebody is willing to, you know, approach vital government infrastructure, they should do so at their own peril."

Graham said he was glad Hughes survived but that the nation must get "more serious about our national security."

Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.), ranking member of the House Administration Committee, is “obviously concerned,” according to a spokesman, although he is withholding further comment until lawmakers are briefed on the details.

Hughes told the Times he had been visited by the Secret Service before he put together the plan for his protest, but that nothing came of the interview.

A spokesman for the Secret Service acknowledged the agency had investigated Hughes in October of 2013 following "information from a concerned citizen about an individual purporting their desire to land a single manned aircraft on the grounds of the United States Capitol or the White House."

"[T]he subject was located and interviewed by USSS Agents in Ruskin, Florida," the spokesman said in an email. "A complete and thorough investigation was conducted." 

But the spokesman denied that the agency was warned of Wednesday's flight beforehand, saying media reports indicating otherwise "are false."

He told the Times that he was particularly upset by the Supreme Court's ruling in the 2010 Citizens United case, which paved the way for corporations and unions to donate unlimited funds to super-PACs. Advocates for campaign finance reform say the decision fundamentally changed the nature of politics and gave too much power to the very wealthy.

Montgomery said Hughes understood the dangers of his protest and was willing to die to deliver his message.

“Oh yeah, he knew that was certainly a possibility. He was ready for that,” Montgomery told CNN. “He's been thinking about this for two and a half years.”

Hughes touched down in the gyrocopter near a group of tourists.

With the rotor still spinning, an officer approached the aircraft, got down on one knee and appeared to talk to Hughes. Several more members of the Capitol police followed and took Hughes away.

An officer and a police dog then did a quick inspection of the craft. The dog smelled gasoline in the copter, prompting an inspection by a small robot operated by the Capitol Police bomb squad.

The episode was short-lived. The gyrocopter was loaded onto a flatbed truck before 4 p.m. and shuttled off to an undisclosed "secure location" shortly afterward.

President Obama was briefed on the incident, according to White House spokesman Eric Schultz.

Jesse Byrnes contributed to this story. 

Updated at 8:45 p.m.