The Florida mail carrier accused of landing a gyrocopter outside the U.S. Capitol was charged in federal court Thursday and has been barred from returning to the District of Columbia or flying any aircraft, officials said.
Douglas Hughes, 61, was charged with violating aircraft registration requirements, a felony, and violating national defense airspace, a misdemeanor. If convicted, he could be sentenced to up to three years in prison for the felony and one year in prison for the airspace violation.
He was released on his own recognizance Thursday and will be placed on home detention in Florida, prosecutors said.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson also barred Hughes from the District of Columbia, except for court appearances, and said he must stay away from the Capitol, White House and nearby areas while he is there. He will also have to hand over his passport.
Hughes, a rural letter carrier from Ruskin, Fla., was arrested Wednesday after he landed the craft on the West Lawn of the Capitol about 1:30 p.m., U.S. Capitol Police said.
The unauthorized landing was an act of civil disobedience, Hughes said on his Democracy Club website before the flight. He said he wanted to deliver 535 letters by “air mail” to members of Congress as a form of protest demanding campaign finance reform.
“The unending chase for money I believe threatens to steal our democracy itself,” he wrote in a letter posted by the Tampa Bay Times newspaper Wednesday. “I’m demanding reform and declaring a voter’s rebellion.”
According to court documents, Hughes rented a car and towed his gyrocopter from Florida to an airfield in Gettysburg, Pa. He chose the location for its proximity to the Capitol -- about an hour away and reachable on the aircraft’s 10-gallon fuel tank -- and the fact that it was an uncontrolled airport, according to a criminal complaint. He also told investigators he had sent a time-delayed message about his plans to the president’s email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, to avoid being shot down.
Hughes announced his intentions to land at the Capitol in an article published by the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday morning. He said on his website that he took off from about an hour outside Washington. Video from Wednesday shows the craft flying over the National Mall and catching the attention of several onlookers before it landed on the Capitol’s West Lawn.
According to court documents, Hughes was spotted by police flying about 100 feet off the ground near the Washington Monument, and he was arrested immediately after landing.
Hughes was the only person aboard the 350-pound craft, and a bomb squad found nothing hazardous on board, police said. The Capitol was placed on lockdown, and pedestrian and car traffic was restricted for hours as officials investigated, court documents say.
When police apprehended him, Hughes had “numerous stamped paper envelopes” that he told police he wanted to deliver to members of Congress, according to the criminal complaint. “Hughes confirmed that he was not acting in any official U.S. Postal Service capacity,” the complaint said.
Speaking to a small group of reporters, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Hughes “apparently literally flew in under the radar,” the Associated Press reported.
Johnson said it was too soon to say whether the incident would prompt any change in security protocol, the Associated Press reported. “We are a democracy. We don’t have fences around our airspace, so we’ve got to find the right balance between living in a free and open society and security and the protection of federal buildings,” Johnson said, according to the AP.
Secret Service agents visited Hughes in October 2013 after receiving a tip from a “concerned citizen,” according to an agency spokesman, who said the Secret Service had no warning about his Wednesday flight.
The person told Secret Service agents that Hughes had bought a gyrocopter and planned to fly it from a Virginia airfield to the Capitol or White House grounds, the complaint says. It says that, when interviewed by agents, Hughes denied both claims.
Hughes did not have a valid pilot’s certificate and had not registered the gyrocopter, according to court documents, and the aircraft was not equipped with a transponder or radio communications.
According to Hughes' website, he is married with four children and has been flying gyrocopters for more than a year. He grew up in Santa Cruz and lives with his wife and 11-year-old daughter.
In a statement, the Federal Aviation Administration said the pilot did not have authorization to fly in the area and had not contacted FAA air traffic controllers to inform them of his flight. “Airspace security rules that cover the Capitol and the District of Columbia prohibit private aircraft flights without prior coordination and permission,” the statement said.
Hughes could face civil and criminal penalties for flying near the Capitol, which is considered part of a national defense airspace. The FAA said it was working with aviation security partners in Washington to investigate the incident.
Hughes is due back in court May 8 for a preliminary hearing, prosecutors said.
Times staff writer Ryan Parker contributed to this report.
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