Mini copter pilot charged after landing on US Capitol lawn

WASHINGTON (AFP) - A protester who landed his mini helicopter on the US Capitol lawn appeared in court Thursday to face charges of flying an non-registered aircraft and violating national defence airspace.

US District Court Judge Deborah Robinson ordered the gyrocopter pilot, Douglas Hughes, to stay put at his Florida home with a GPS tracking device until his next Washington court appearance on May 8.

Hughes, a postal worker in Tampa Bay, landed his skeletal flying machine on the grounds of the US Capitol – the monumental seat of Congress in the heart of Washington – on Wednesday.

The incident sparked a security scare and forced Capitol Police to place the building under lockdown in the midst of Washington’s busiest tourism season.

Hughes, 61, who appeared in court wearing a frumpy US Postal Service coat jacket, said only “I do” when asked if he swore to tell the truth.

He was not asked to enter a plea.

Sporting a salt and pepper beard and thinning gray hair, he looked tired, and needed a headset to be able to clearly hear the proceedings.

Robinson ordered Hughes to surrender his passport, report weekly to federal pre-trial services in Tampa and to abstain from flying an aircraft of any kind.

She also warned him to stay away from the White House and the Capitol whenever he returns to Washington for court appearances or to see his lawyer.

He repeated “Yes, I do” when asked if he understood the conditions of his release.

SENDING A MESSAGE

Hughes has stated he was exercising his right to civil disobedience to send a message to lawmakers about campaign finance reform, according to an earlier interview with the Tampa Bay Times newspaper.

“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,” he reportedly wrote in letters to all 535 members of Congress that he carried on his flight.

On the website Democracyclub.org, Hughes described what he wanted to achieve, saying: “In every Congressional race in 2016, I want every candidate to take a stand on corruption.”

His lawyer, Tony Miles, a federal public defender, told reporters Thursday after the court appearance that Hughes would be making no public comment.

Besides criminal charges, the Federal Aviation Administration has said it could take civil action against Hughes for violating federal air regulations.

Hughes’ stunt saw him infiltrate the most closely guarded airspace in the United States, including a strictly prohibited zone that stretches from the Lincoln Memorial to the White House and the Capitol.

In its criminal complaint, released Thursday, US Capitol Police quoted Hughes as saying he was aware that was venturing into a no-fly zone when he took off from a small airport in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

“Hughes stated that he intentionally violated the no-fly zone to impart a political message to the country and members of Congress,” it said.

KNEW THE RISKS

“Hughes indicated that he believed he might be shot down as a result of his actions, but that he still persisted in his efforts.”

Hughes, who has no pilot’s licence, was flying a single-seat Bensen type gyrocopter, which as an “ultralight” aircraft need not be registered.

But the Capitol Police said that when they weighed Hughes’ machine, it came in at 158kg, or 45kg heavier than an ultralight is supposed to be.

Its gas tank also had a 45-litre capacity, double the allowable size for an ultralight, it said.

Flying an unregistered aircraft is a felony that can result in up to three years in prison, while violating national defence airspace is a misdemeanor that can lead to up to a year behind bars.