Policy

D.C. Gyrocopter Pilot Landing in Jail

Judge sentences Florida man who flew to the Capitol

Doug Hughes pleaded guilty to a charge of operating as a pilot without a license over his landing of a gyrocopter on the West Lawn of the Capitol last year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A Florida man who piloted a gyrocopter onto the Capitol grounds last year to highlight campaign finance reform — and has no regrets about it — is going to jail.  

Doug Hughes, 62, who pleaded guilty to a charge of operating as a pilot without a license, was sentenced in federal court on Thursday to 120 days behind bars and a year of supervised release.  

He told the court during a sentencing hearing that he was sorry for his act — but didn't regret it. He also was sorry that the whole thing created uncertainty for his family. Hughes' wife, Alena, and youngest daughter, Kathy, attended the hearing.  

Hughes flew from Pennsylvania to the Capitol in April 2015 to deliver letters to members of Congress calling for a campaign finance overhaul. He was immediately arrested and accused of breaching restricted airspace.  

Hughes said in the future he would not repeat what prosecutors called a “reckless act," and would instead promote his message via other avenues.  

UNITED STATES - APRIL 21 - Douglas Hughes speaks with reporters at the Federal Courthouse after his sentencing, in Washington, Thursday, April 21, 2016. Hughes, from Ruskin, Fla., flew a gyrocopter into restricted airspace over Washington. Hughes was sentenced to 120 days in jail. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
Douglas Hughes speaks with reporters at the Federal Courthouse after his sentencing on April 21. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

The charge carried a maximum of three years in jail, but under a plea agreement prosecutors asked U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly to sentence Hughes to 10 months.  

Prosecutors stressed that Hughes had intentionally violated D.C. airspace, one of the world’s most restricted following the 9/11 attacks. They argued that he could have collided with a commercial airliner, and he came in close contact with small aircraft and small airports along his flight journey from Gettysburg, Pa.  

They also maintained that he put people in danger as he flew into Maryland and down Connecticut Avenue over a densely populated area that includes several foreign embassies.  

His journey then took him down the National Mall where prosecutors said Hughes waved at the Washington Monument before landing the gyrocopter on the Capitol's West Front lawn.  

Prosecutors shared a video in court that showed people watching the flight in fear. One woman in it screamed: “This is not good, people.”  

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tejpal S. Chawla told the court that Hughes "essentially played Russian Roulette with himself and the community,”  

Hughes' attorneys argued for only time served, an overnight stay in jail following the flight, saying the government was blowing things out of proportion.  

His attorneys also stressed that the "freedom flight" was a nonviolent act of "civil disobedience” in the spirit of other notable Americans, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman, and that he had no criminal history.  

Kollar-Kotelly didn’t buy it. Hughes’ act, she said, was a “publicity stunt.”  

“It’s not in that league,” the judge said of the comparison to the practice of civil disobedience to protest “unjust” discrimination.  

The gyrocopter that Douglas Hughes landed on the Capitol lawn in April 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
The gyrocopter that Douglas Hughes landed on the Capitol lawn in April 2015. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The case has also dashed Hughes' hopes to run for Congress. Just prior to his sentencing, he told CQ Roll Call he was dropping the idea of challenging incumbent Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz in Florida's 23rd District. He had not yet filed paperwork to run.  

After the sentencing, Hughes said the prospect of spending four months locked up had not yet sunk in, and said that he believes his actions triggered a national conversation on reforming campaign finance.  

“It’s not a huge loss, just not a complete victory,” he said about spending four months in jail.  

His daughter, 12, stood behind him outside the courthouse holding a sign that read: "Sweep big money out of politics.”  

Contact Rahman at remarahman@cqrollcall.com and follow her on Twitter at @remawriter Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.