A mailman from Florida wanted to make a big, bold point about the corruption that results from money in politics.
So Doug Hughes boarded a small personal aircraft called a “gyrocopter” and flew an hour from Maryland into restricted airspace over Washington and landed on the West Lawn of the Capitol building.
In tote: letters for every member of Congress urging them to reform campaign finance laws.
Hughes caused a melee Wednesday afternoon when he flew his gyrocopter, undetected by NORAD, to the nation’s capitol. U.S. Capitol Police converged as he landed, and the White House said President Barack Obama was briefed on the situation.
It was a bizarre incident that riveted the city and shut down the U.S. Capitol for part of the day.
According to the U.S. Capitol Police, the aircraft was observed landing at about 1:30 p.m. and the operator – Hughes – was immediately taken into custody. A bomb squad investigated the gyrocopter but nothing hazardous was found. Law enforcement then took the gyrocopter to a secure location, according to the Capitol Police.
Hughes was arrested and transferred to central cellblock in Washington, with charges pending.
The wife of Doug Hughes confirmed to CNN that her husband was the pilot of the aircraft. A federal law enforcement officer also confirmed the name to CNN.
A rural letter carrier with a message
Hughes was first identified by the Tampa Bay Times, who had a reporter following him as he planned and executed his protest flight. CNN has also spoken to a friend of Hughes about the pilot’s protest flight.
Hughes has been a rural letter carrier with the U.S. Postal Service since 2003, according to a USPS official. The Postal Service Office of Inspector General is in contact with postal management on the matter. The official would not comment on Hughes’ status with USPS following the incident, any disciplinary issues during employment or if anyone at USPS was aware of his plans.
The man’s idea began to take shape after his grown son committed suicide by driving his car into another driver, Ben Montgomery, the Tampa Bay Times reporter who broke the story of the gyrocopter flight, said in an interview on CNN’s “The Lead” with Jake Tapper.
“He told us that he felt like his son did something stupid, but he had made a point,” he said. “He learned a lesson out of that. And it was, if you want to make a point, you’ve got to do something big, as sad as that seems.”
Montgomery said Hughes knew he could have been killed – in flight or by Capitol Police.
“He was ready for that. He’s been thinking about this for 2.5 years. He’s pictured every scenario you could possibly imagine,” Montgomery said.
Hughes intended to deliver letters to each member of Congress lobbying them to reform campaign finance laws and get money out of politics.
Part Paul Revere, part P.T. Barnum
“And his mission was to do something big, the sort of mix of P.T. Barnum and Paul Revere, as he described himself,” Montgomery said.
According to a law enforcement source, Hughes flew out of Gettysburg airport where apparently his vehicle and trailer are still located. The Secret Service has sent a team from a local field office to investigate.
Hughes was interviewed by the Secret Service in 2013 after a tip was received that he wanted to land his gyrocopter at the Capitol or the White House.
According to his interview with The Tampa Bay Times, Hughes said he was honest with his replies at the time, admitting he owned a gyrocopter.
The Times also reported the Florida mailman planned the flight to protest the Supreme Court decision in Citizens’ United case and the influence of outside money in politics. He told the Times that he wanted to deliver mail to lawmakers outlining his complaints.
A tip to the local paper and calls to the Secret Service
The paper reported that it called Secret Service and Capitol Hill police before he flew. The reporter who spoke before the flight has been tweeting from Washington as the postal worker landed.
But the Secret Service denied that they had been notified.
“Media reports indicating that the Secret Service Tampa field office was alerted earlier today by a citizen to the subject’s intentions are false,” said spokesman Brian Leary in a statement.
“On October 4, 2013, the Secret Service obtained information from a concerned citizen about an individual [Hughes] purporting their desire to land a single manned aircraft on the grounds of the United States Capitol or the White House,” Leary said. “That same day, the information was reported to law enforcement partners at the U.S. Capitol Police.”
Leary said the next day, Hughes was interviewed by Secret Service agents in Ruskin, Florida, and “a complete and thorough investigation was conducted.”
A friend of the pilot who says he’s known the man for years tells CNN that “there’s nothing on the helicopter that is dangerous” and that the this flight was meant to send a message to Congress about campaign finance reform.
“He has no weapons or anything else,” said Michael Shanahan. “I know him personally. He’s like a pitbull when he has an idea. He wants to wake up the country.”
Shanahan said the pilot called him before he took off.
“He’s upset that politicians can be bought and sold at auction, and I agree with him. That’s the point he’s trying [to make]” Shanahan said. “Happy he made it alive. I want to thank the people who decided not to kill him.”
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the area was restricted airspace that Hughes did not get special permission to fly in.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, was awaiting a briefing from the Capitol Police on the gyrocopter that landed on the West Front, but told CNN he had “deep concern” about it and the fact that the Secret Service knew about the pilot, Doug Hughes.
“Obviously we should have kept a little closer tabs on him, especially within the prohibited airspace,” Thompson said.
“It shows that we still have some areas that are vulnerable and while we can have prohibited airspace it shows that certain kinds of flight patterns are still problematic, and a really bad guy could have caused significant harm if had been armed with explosives or things like that,” he said.
The Mississippi Democrat also said he thought there was a break down in notifying members about a potential threat. He didn’t get any kind of notice about the breach from the Capitol Police and learned about it when a staffer told him to look out his window at the West front.
The Capitol building lockdown has lifted and the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms told CNN that everything is under control. The Capitol Police said they had reopened temporary street closures and resumed normal operations.
At the moment of its landing, however, the Capitol was thrown into chaos.
Outside of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing room, a half-dozen police were running through the hallways, speaking into their radios about a lockdown. In the room waited Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who had stopped by for a photo op and was posing a challenge for officers discussing safe ways to get the prime minister out of the building if necessary.
House Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul was on the first floor of the Capitol with aides when the building was briefly locked down, but he hadn’t heard about the incident until CNN asked him. He decided to go outside and see the aircraft for himself, and Capitol Police let him through, despite the lockdown.
CNN’s Eric Bradner, Rene Marsh, Jay McMichael, Ted Barrett, Athena Jones, Deirdre Walsh, Jim Acosta, Julie Zann and Jamie Crawford contributed to this report.