Pilot in Capitol gyrocopter landing pleads not guilty to all charges

Pilot who landed gyrocopter at Capitol could face over 9 years in prison

Doug Hughes was not exactly coy about his plan to fly a contraption known as a gyrocopter onto the West Lawn of the Capitol in broad daylight last month. He told a major newspaper, which said it had in turn alerted the Secret Service, which had already interviewed him back in 2013.

Yet Hughes succeeded without getting shot down, causing just the kind of spectacle he wanted -- bringing attention to the cause of campaign finance reform.

Hughes, 61, a postal worker who has spent the last month on house arrest at his home in West Florida, generated more attention Thursday when he faced a federal magistrate in Washington. A grand jury indicted him Wednesday on six felony and misdemeanor counts that could land him in prison for up to 9 1/2 years.

He pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Hughes’ stunt shut down the Capitol and caused some brief panic, given the building’s significance as a potential target for terrorists.

The most serious charges against him sound fairly technical: operating as an airman without an airman’s certificate and violating registration requirements involving aircraft.

In addition to misdemeanor counts of violating national defense airspace, he also faces an even less glamorous charge: operating a vehicle falsely labeled as a postal carrier. The indictment said he affixed the words “United States Mail” as well as the United States Postal Service emblem on the craft.

Federal authorities also want to permanently seize his gyrocopter, which they took upon his arrest last month.

Authorities later said Hughes was able to penetrate the secure area because of his low and slow landing. The Secret Service said the call before the flight from a Tampa Bay Times reporter was too vague to count as a warning, which the newspaper disputed. Police also told members of Congress that snipers had weapons pointed at Hughes but decided not to shoot, possibly because tourists were nearby, according to media reports.

Though there were no injuries, the incident has drawn concern from congressional overseers, who were already dealing with a string of security lapses at the White House.

Hughes has been pleased with the attention, granting numerous interviews in the immediate aftermath and contributing a piece over the weekend for the Washington Post.

“My flying days are over, perhaps forever,” he wrote. “Accepting responsibility for my actions means I accept their consequences, which I always took seriously.”

“Everyone is entitled to an opinion about my flight over the Mall last month, but I did not commit this peaceful protest thoughtlessly,” he added.

His next court appearance is scheduled for Wednesday, according to the Associated Press.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

12:59 p.m.: This story has been updated to add Hughes' not-guilty pleas and the date of his next court appearance.

The first version of this story was published at 7:28 a.m.

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