ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A Florida postal worker who piloted a gyrocopter onto the U.S. Capitol lawn to call attention to his belief that campaign finance laws are too weak is “a patriot” who first came up with the idea about a year ago, a friend said.
Doug Hughes, 61, called his friend Mike Shanahan on April 15 and said he was in the D.C. area and ready to take off, Shanahan was quoted by The Tampa Bay Times as saying.
Shanahan said he feared law enforcement would shoot down the small aircraft emblazoned with the Postal Service logo, so he alerted the U.S. Secret Service. The gyrocopter landed about half a city block from the Capitol building.
“I was scared to death they were going to kill him,” Shanahan said.
Hughes steered his tiny aircraft onto the Capitol’s West Lawn after flying through restricted airspace around the National Mall, police said.
A Senate aide told The Associated Press the Capitol Police knew of the plan shortly before Hughes took off. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because the aide was not authorized to publicly discuss details of the investigation.
Hughes is a married father of four who wanted to “spotlight corruption in DC and more importantly, to present the solution(s) to the institutional graft,” reads a statement on his website, The Democracy Club. He lives in the Tampa Bay area community of Ruskin.
In an interview with the Times before his flight, Hughes told the paper he sees himself as a showman patriot — a mix of Paul Revere and legendary circus owner P.T. Barnum.
The stunt, which led to breathless reports on national cable TV networks, involved delivering letters to all 535 members of Congress to draw attention to campaign finance corruption.
His website talks of “bi-partisan corruption” and urges readers not to focus on him.
“Let’s keep the discussion focused on reform – not me – I’m just delivering the mail,” he wrote.
According to his website, Hughes was born and raised in Santa Cruz, California, where his first job was at a McDonald’s. Upon graduating from high school, he joined the Navy, he wrote, and then worked in restaurant management on the West Coast. He lived in North Carolina and then moved to Florida following a divorce.
He’s worked for the Postal Service for 11 years.
“As I have informed the authorities, I have no violent inclinations or intent,” Hughes wrote. “An ultralight aircraft poses no major physical threat — it may present a political threat to graft. I hope so. There’s no need to worry — I’m just delivering the mail.”
He said he told the Times about his stunt because he feared being hurt or arrested. He also said he kept his Russian-born wife and 12-year-old daughter in the dark about his plan.
Hughes has three other children, including one son who took his own life by driving his car head-on into another vehicle, killing both himself and the other driver nearly three years ago. Hughes said his son’s suicide was a catalyst for him.
“He paid far too high a price for an unimportant issue,” Hughes told the paper. “But if you’re willing to take a risk, the ultimate risk, to draw attention to something that does have significance, it’s worth doing.”
About two hours after Hughes landed, police announced that a bomb squad had cleared his gyrocopter and nothing hazardous had been found. The authorities then moved it off the Capitol lawn to a secure location.
House Homeland Security panel Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said Hughes landed on his own, but authorities were prepared to shoot him down if he had made it much closer to the Capitol.
“Had it gotten any closer to the speaker’s balcony, they have long guns to take it down, but it didn’t. It landed right in front,” McCaul said.
The Federal Aviation Administration said the pilot had not been in contact with air traffic controllers and the FAA didn’t authorize him to enter restricted airspace.
Airspace security rules that cover the Capitol and the District of Columbia prohibit private aircraft flights without prior coordination and permission. Violators can face civil and criminal penalties.
The White House said President Barack Obama had been briefed on the situation.
Witnesses said the craft approached the Capitol from the west, flying low over the National Mall and the Capitol reflecting pool across the street from the building. It barely cleared a row of trees and a statue of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
John Jewell, 72, a tourist from Statesville, North Carolina, said the craft landed hard and bounced. An officer was already there with a gun drawn.
“He didn’t get out until police officers told him to get out. He had his hands up” and was quickly led away by the police, Jewell said. “They snatched him pretty fast.”
By Tamara Lush. AP writers Andrew Taylor, Alan Fram and Joan Lowy in Washington contributed to this report