WASHINGTON (AFP) - An anti-corruption protester piloted his mini helicopter through Washington’s no-fly zone Wednesday and illegally landed it on the US Capitol lawn, triggering a national security scare, startling tourists and prompting a police probe.
“The US Capitol Police continues to investigate, with one person detained and temporary street closures in the immediate area,” USCP officer Shennell Antrobus told AFP.
The arrested pilot, according to the Tampa Bay Times who had interviewed and filmed him prior to his audacious flight, is a Florida man who was conducting civil disobedience – in this case a demand for campaign finance reform.
Air space is severely restricted around Washington landmarks including the White House and the Capitol, which houses the US Congress whose 535 lawmakers were in session at the time.
A bomb squad inspected the so-called gyrocopter, which landed a few hundred metres from the Capitol, but found nothing hazardous.
Authorities reportedly put the building on temporary lockdown although it was not evacuated. Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was in the Capitol at the time for a meeting with senators.
Witness Rachel Jackman expressed alarm about the surprise incident.
“Within minutes, the entire area was shut down. I mean, there were probably 30 or 40 of the Capitol police there, cars, some black SUVs as well,” she told CNN.
The breach, during a high-volume tourist season, was the second major air security scare this year in the capital city.
In January, an intelligence agency employee lost control of a hobby drone and crashed it into the White House gardens, sparking a Secret Service investigation.
President Barack Obama was briefed about Wednesday’s incident, the White House said.
Air defence command Norad tweeted that it was “not involved with today’s incident,” suggesting the FAA did not contact it for assistance in responding to the gyrocopter breech.
The Times identified Wednesday’s pilot as Doug Hughes, 61.
“I’m demanding reform and declaring a voter’s rebellion in a manner consistent with Jefferson’s description of rights in the Declaration of Independence,” Hughes reportedly wrote in letters to all 535 members of Congress and which he carried with him on his flight.
‘PATRIOT’ NOT BOMBER
On the website Democracyclub.org, Hughes described what he wanted his stunt to achieve.
“In every Congressional race in 2016, I want every candidate to take a stand on corruption,” he apparently wrote.
Hughes is described as a mailman, and a logo appearing to be that of the US Postal Service was visible on the tail of the aircraft.
It appeared Hughes was flying a single-seat, open-cockpit Bensen-type gyrocopter, which the Federal Aviation Administration classifies as an ultralight “vehicle” that requires no registration.
The gyrocopter typically cruises at 105kmh, with an endurance of no more than 90 minutes. No airport is required for takeoff.
“They’re designed very strictly for recreational, low-altitude flying,” Dick Knapinski, spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association, told AFP.
The Times said it asked Secret Service whether it was aware of Hughes’ plan, but officers there said they were not and referred a reporter to Capitol Police.
A USCP sergeant told the Times that Hughes “hasn’t notified anybody” of his planned flight.
But Hughes friend Mike Shanahan said he called a Secret Service agent to notify him of the flight hours before Hughes landed in Washington.
“He’s not a suicide bomber, he’s a patriot,” Shanahan, 65, told the paper.