House panel grills federal officials over gyrocopter

House panel grills federal officials over gyrocopter
© Tampa Bay Times

Lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee are questioning officials from multiple agencies Wednesday about how a postal worker managed to land a gyrocopter on the Capitol lawn earlier this month.

Postal worker Doug Hughes on April 15 was allowed to illegally fly through the restricted airspace for about 30 miles and land on Capitol grounds before being arrested.

Officials told the panel that it was difficult for them to track a small aircraft like a gyrocopter.  

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“NORAD's role is to provide airspace warning and control to defend the United States and Canada, including the National Capitol Region from all potential air threats,” said North American Aerospace Defense Command Chief William Gortney, who is also a Navy vice admiral. 

“We are extremely capable of identifying and tracking potential threats to the National Capitol Region, anything from commercial aviation down to small single propeller sized aircraft, like Cessnas,” Gortney continued. “However, a small manned gyrocopter or similar low-altitude, low-speed aerial vehicles, despite its assessed low threat, presents a technical challenge.” 

Gortney told the panel that he is confident the agencies that monitor the Washington, D.C., airspace, which include the Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Defense, would be able to come together to prevent a re-occurrence of the gyrocopter incident. 

“This an interagency effort that collectively understands the technical challenges associated with these types of threats and vehicles,” he said. “And with our partners here at the table we will continue to implement technical and procedure solutions to close any seams.” 

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said air traffic controllers are primarily focused on commercial airliners when they are monitoring radar equipment. 

“The FAA's mission is aircraft and airspace safety. We operate the nation's Air Traffic Control System in order to separate aircraft,” he said. 

“Our primary focus is on getting aircraft safely to their destinations and managing the flow of thousands of aircraft and their passengers around the country every day,” Huerta continued. “Air traffic controllers could not do their jobs if they had to work with an unfiltered radar feed. They would not be able to distinguish the aircraft they're charged with safely handling from other elements on their radar scopes.” 

Huerta said that Hughes’s gyrocopter did not look dangerous to officials before it landed on the Capitol grounds. 

“On April 15, Mr. Hughes's gyrocopter appeared on our radar as one of those small unidentified elements, indistinguishable from all other non-aircraft radar tracks,” Huerta said. 

Hughes flew his gyrocopter onto the Capitol lawn to deliver letters to each member of Congress urging limits on the influence of money in politics. He was arrested immediately upon landing and sent back home to Florida after being charged with a felony. The incident prompted a temporary Capitol lockdown and raised questions about the safety of the capital region's airspace.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said he did not believe officials should have shot down the aircraft, although he said such a response may be justifiable in future incidents that involving violations of restricted airspace around the Capitol. 

"In this case, I do not personally believe the answer is to condemn the Capitol Police for not shooting down the gyrocopter," he said. "I also do not believe we should rush to criticize federal agencies charged with responding to this threat.

"It is also my understanding — based in part on the classified briefings we have received — that this individual is incredibly lucky to be alive today," he continued. "The next person who tries something this stupid may not be so lucky."  

The House Oversight panel is also expected to hear from Secret Service acting Director Joseph Clancy, U.S. Park Police Chief Robert Maclean, Capitol Police Chief Kim Dine and Deputy Assistant Secretary Of Defense Robert Salesses. 

The hearing was briefly interrupted Wednesday morning by a recess that was called so lawmakers could listen to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s address to a joint session of Congress. 

The panel’s chairman, Rep. Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzLawmakers contemplate a tough political sell: Raising their pay Top Utah paper knocks Chaffetz as he mulls run for governor: ‘His political career should be over’ Boehner working on memoir: report MORE (R-Utah), said the gyrocopter meeting would resume 30 minutes after the conclusion of Abe’s speech. 

— Cristina Marcos contributed to this report. 

— This story was last updated with new information at 1:02 p.m.