WASHINGTON – The Florida postal carrier charged Thursday with two federal crimes for steering his small gyrocopter through protected Washington airspace “literally flew under the radar” to the lawn of the Capitol, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said as key lawmakers raised alarms about security risks.
Doug Hughes, 61, was charged with violating restricted airspace and operating an unregistered aircraft, crimes that carry penalties of up to four years in prison and fines. He was released from custody and allowed to return to Florida on home detention. A federal magistrate judge ordered him not to fly any aircraft and told him to stay away from Washington except for court visits and keep clear of the White House and Capitol while in town.
Hughes’ stunt, aimed at drawing attention to the need for campaign finance reform, exposed a seam in the U.S. government’s efforts to protect the White House, Capitol and other federal buildings.
The stunt caused no injuries and few disruptions as Hughes flew in low and slow, landing between the Capitol and its reflecting pool in broad daylight on Wednesday. But lawmakers demanded explanations for how he managed to remain undetected as he flew the lightweight craft all the way to Capitol Hill from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Concerns were only magnified by the confirmation that Hughes was interviewed in 2013 by the U.S. Secret Service, which apparently determined he did not pose a threat, according to Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
“I think that there’s absolutely a gap, and it’s a very dangerous gap, with regard to our airspace,” Cummings said. “I don’t want people to get a message that they can just land anywhere. Suppose there was a bomb or an explosive device on that air vehicle? That could have been a major catastrophe.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the incident “stunning,” and Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, said he would consider holding hearings.
“These small aircraft or UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) devices concern me because they could go undetected and cause damage, so that’s something we’re taking a look at,” McCaul said.
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