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Gyrocopter Looked Like a Kite or Balloon on FAA Radar

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The gyrocopter that landed on the West Front Lawn and sparked questions about Capitol Hill’s airspace security could have been mistaken for a kite or balloon on Federal Aviation Administration radar.  

Crowded together Wednesday in front of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, seven witnesses from the spectrum of agencies that defend D.C. airspace compiled a timeline of what they knew about 61-year-old mailman Doug Hughes before his April 15 Capitol landing. Secret Service Director Joseph P. Clancy said Hughes first came to the attention of the agency in October 2013, and they immediately notified Capitol Police they had obtained information Hughes intended to fly a single-seat aircraft onto the grounds of the Capitol or White House.  

No time frame was provided for the alleged flight, but agents immediately tracked Hughes down for an interview, in which he denied owning an aircraft or having any plans to fly one to Washington.  

“To be clear, the Secret Service had no actionable advance notice that this incident was taking place,” Clancy told the committee, describing a call to the Tampa Field Office two days before the landing that came from a reporter with the Tampa Bay Times.  

Hughes wasn’t on law enforcement’s radar again — in the metaphorical sense — until 12:55 p.m. on April 15, 25 minutes before a Park Police officer observed and reported an aircraft operating approximately 100 feet above the ground near the Lincoln Memorial, and requested Capitol Police be notified it appeared headed toward the Capitol.  

In a series of calls and emails around 1 p.m. to Secret Service officials in Florida and Washington and Capitol Police spokespeople, the Tampa Bay Times notified authorities a local man was flying a gyrocopter to the Capitol grounds to protest. In a separate call to the Capitol Police Command Center, the reporter told a sergeant Hughes’ live feed could be seen on Hughes’ website, which he provided. Officials from both agencies testified the reporter did not indicate the landing was imminent.  

Meanwhile, Hughes' gyrocopter appeared on the FAA's radar as a simple dot. “All available information about the slow moving, irregular symbol made it indistinguishable from other non-aircraft radar tracks,” FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta testified. On the raw-air traffic radar feed, the gyrocopter looked like a flock of birds, weather event, kites or a balloon.  

At 1:21 p.m., one minute after the Park Police officer spotted the gyrocopter, a Capitol Police officer posted near the West Front was approached by a reporter who asked if he had seen a helicopter yet. The officer said "no," then asked another cop if they were aware of any prohibited airspace overflights. During the discussion, the officers observed the inbound gyrocopter over Union Square, nearly atop the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial.  

“The officers immediately notified Communications and subsequently reported the landing of the gyrocopter,” Capitol Police Chief Kim C. Dine said. “This information was immediately broadcast over the radio for situational awareness and response.”  

Tourists were hustled away from the gyrocopter, and once its rotors stopped spinning, Capitol Police approached Hughes and took him into custody. The interagency National Capital Region Coordination Center, which had been alerted to the airspace intrusion after the Park Police police sighting, coordinated real-time information sharing. The FAA was alerted of the flight at 1:24 p.m., one minute after Hughes landed.  

Lawmakers expressed concern in the immediate wake of the event that they were not alerted to the lockdown. Dine testified the West Front was closed and vehicular traffic was restricted at 1:26 p.m., and that a K-9 unit immediately approached and swept the aircraft. During the sweep, a Capitol Division commander directed a brief lockdown of the Capitol and Capitol Visitor Center, but it was quickly lifted. Exact timing is unclear.  

"Due to the extremely short time frame between the lockdown order and the direction to lift the lockdown, no messages were sent to the congressional community advising of the lockdown," Dine stated.  

House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul D. Irving said he has ordered Dine to utilize the House Notification System to alert members, staff — and to the extent possible, visitors — of events that could potentially be a threat. Irving said Capitol Police sent notifications only to the Senate community, and he has “ordered the chief never to allow this to happen again.”  

To continue following the hearing live, watch our livestream here .

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