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.
He 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 last Friday and drove north. He wanted 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.”
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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.
Air Force Maj. Jamie Humphries, a NORAD spokesman, said the authorities are investigating why NORAD was unaware of the gyrocopter until after it had landed near the Capitol.
“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 that 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.”