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Gyrocopter Pilot Pleads Guilty, Hopes to Return to D.C.

Hughes plead guilty to a felony. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call FIle Photo)

The Florida man who flew a gyrocopter onto the Capitol grounds pleaded guilty to a felony Friday, and is hoping to avoid jail time and return to the District of Columbia for a campaign finance overhaul rally before his sentencing. Douglas Hughes, 62, flew a gyrocopter from Gettysburg, Pa., to the Capitol on April 15, and was later charged with two felonies and four misdemeanors. Lawyers struck a plea deal earlier this month, which was formalized in federal court Friday afternoon when Hughes pleaded guilty to a felony charge of operating as a pilot without a pilot’s license. He faces a maximum of three years in prison.  

“It’s really easy when you’re in the middle of it to mistake the battle for the war. I’m in this to get the money out of politics,” Hughes told reporters after the hearing. “I’m going to do a better job of getting money out of politics and restoring representative democracy on the outside rather than being in jail. And this is the best way for me to return.”  

As part of the plea deal, Hughes agreed to a statement of facts about his gyrocopter flight, acknowledging that he knowingly and willingly violated Federal Aviation Administration rules and breached restricted airspace. He also agreed to forfeit his gyrocopter to the U.S. government.  

According to the plea letter, the government will recommend that Hughes be sentenced to 10 months in prison. Hughes said after the hearing that his attorneys will be arguing for probation. The sentencing is set for April 13, 2016, nearly one year to the day since his flight.  

Though Hughes said his flight was to call attention to the need for a campaign finance overhaul, it sparked congressional hearings with a focus on security lapses and how Hughes was able to breach airspace and land on the West Lawn without interference.  

“What I did, did the country a favor in terms of security, but I didn’t do it for security,” Hughes said. “I did it because I wanted to bring attention to getting the money out of politics and restoring democracy. That is the biggest threat we face.”  

And Hughes is hoping to keep pushing for that cause before he is sentenced in April. The more than two-hour long hearing concluded with a discussion about whether Hughes could return to the D.C. before his sentencing. He is currently confined to his home county in Florida.  

Hughes wants to participate in “Democracy Spring, ” a march from Philadelphia, Pa., on April 2 that would arrive in D.C. in April 11. Attorneys for the government were concerned that the rally would result in a “circus” during Hughes’ sentencing.  

Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia, who presided over the plea hearing, said she would decide at a later date whether Hughes could participate. She appeared skeptical that Hughes could avoid participating in any act of civil disobedience surrounding the rally, noting she is “a child of the 60s, 70s,”  

Hughes emphasized he would not participate in any disobedience and risk arrest. One of the organizers who was present at the hearing said the rally would culminate in a final sit-in at the U.S. Capitol.  

Kai Newkirk of the group 99 Rise told reporters that the sit-in would be “one of the largest civil disobedience acts of our generation.” Hughes said that in less than three days since the event’s website launched, 600 people have signed up to participate.  

Newkirk said that the court should not be concerned about any disruptions during Hughes' sentencing. "We’re going to be focused on the Capitol and Congress,” he said.  

The judge cautioned that Hughes' participation in any civil disobedience would be a factor in his sentencing. She said she will also be weighing a number of other factors, including deterring him and others from a similar crime.  

Asked after the hearing if he would make his flight again, Hughes responded, "Yes, in a moment."  

Hughes was also asked about the letters to members of Congress that were in his gyrocopter. He admitted in court that he never intended to be able to deliver them the offices after he landed on the West Lawn.  

A Connecticut author, Joe Lane, has attempted to deliver different letters signed by Hughes, but has run up against House rules that prohibit mass deliveries. Hughes said Friday that he still hopes his original letters will be delivered, though to his knowledge they are impounded as evidence.  

"If I get them back, I’ll be delivering them,” Hughes said.