How did a gyrocopter make it onto the Capitol lawn?

How did pilot fly all the way to Capitol lawn?
How did pilot fly all the way to Capitol lawn?

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How did pilot fly all the way to Capitol lawn? 02:59

Story highlights

  • Les Abend: How did gyrocopter fly on to Capitol grounds when FAA, defense forces keep tight rein on airspace?
  • He says gyrocopter may be lightweight and slow enough that it evaded radar
  • He says it's unlikely such a flight could pose a serious danger

Les Abend is a Boeing 777 captain for a major airline with 30 years of flying experience. He is also a CNN aviation analyst and senior contributor to Flying magazine. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Just before writing this column, I reached into the depths of my wallet, and in between the pilot licenses, I slid out a postage stamp-size certificate issued by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The certificate documents my successful completion of the DC Special Flight Rules Area, or SFRA, online course. The online course verifies that I am knowledgeable to fly a plane under visual flight rules into the most highly restricted U.S. airspace in the country.
Les Abend
Although a "no-fly zone" over the White House has long existed, the SFRA airspace was developed to protect the Washington area further after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The size of the SFRA airspace is designed to be large enough to give our defense forces enough time to determine if a threat exists from an aircraft entering it, an opportunity to identify the threat, and if necessary, to divert or eliminate it.
    An airspeed restriction begins at a 60-mile radius from the center of Reagan National Airport. At the 30-mile radius, all aircraft must file a flight plan that identifies itself to air traffic control via a specific four-digit transponder code (a transponder is an electronic communication device that identifies a specific airplane on an air traffic controller's display screen to indicate authorization for the flight). Aircraft must enter the SFRA through specific flight "gates" that are displayed on a standard aviation map.
    Aircraft on instrument flight rule flight plans, which include all airline operations, are not required to comply with SFRA restrictions. Air traffic control assumes the responsibility for the appropriate routing. As a matter of standard procedure, flights using an instrument flight rule flight plan have specific clearances with specific transponder codes, so the authorization for transit through the SFRA airspace is already built into the system. Why do I carry the certificate as an airline pilot? I have had occasion to fly my own little airplane through the airspace on a visual flight rule flight plan.
    Noncompliance with the airspace requirements, or worse, no communication at all, carries some serious federal penalties, which could include the suspension or revocation of your pilot license. Being at the wrong end of an F-16 missile is also a possible penalty.
    So how does a flying machine that looks like a sophisticated lawn chair with helicopter blades invade such highly restricted airspace, as happened Wednesday, when a postal carrier from Florida landed a single-person aircraft on Capitol grounds?
    Well, I'm making an assumption based on the video footage, but it appears that this aircraft is classified by the FAA as a gyrocopter. A gyrocopter cannot quite launch straight up into the air in the manner of a typical helicopter; it requires a short ground run for takeoff. And most gyrocopters are kit-built aircraft.
    It also appears that this particular gyrocopter may weigh just under 255 pounds, which classifies it as an ultralight aircraft in FAA parlance. Why is weight significant? Below that weight, a license for the pilot or a license for the aircraft is not required. In addition, to remain in the classification, the maximum designed airspeed can't exceed 55 knots.
    Gyrocopter pilot's friend: He was making a statement
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    A facility tracking the movement of this particular gyrocopter on radar would witness a speed probably attainable by the average Canadian goose. And the radar reflection on a piece of machinery of that diminutive size is most likely very limited. If it was actually tracked on a radar screen, the target may have appeared to be a flock of birds.
    How much damage could this aircraft have inflicted had it been intended for nefarious purposes? Well, if it had been crashed into a building, I feel confident that the building would have been triumphant. If the intent had been to carry some sort of destructive device, the weapon would have had to be relatively small. The engine is not designed to carry more than one pilot. And lack of carry-on space is a definite issue.
    Not that a review of airspace security measures isn't in order, but I wouldn't be concerned that this event will become the next threat epidemic. As an airline pilot, I can say I am relatively confident that our nation's capital is secure from gyrocopter attacks orchestrated by misguided lunatics.