Aviation experts explain why Capitol gyrocopter wasn't shot down (w/video)

Security experts say it's unlikely that Doug Hughes would have been shot out of the sky.

Published April 15 2015
Updated December 16 2015

Why didn't the government shoot down Doug Hughes in his gyrocopter as he approached the nation's Capitol Wednesday?

Even assuming the government was aware of his incursion of Washington airspace — and that is not yet clear — aviation security experts say it's unlikely security officials would order the downing of such a small aircraft.

You don't swat a fly with a hammer.

"Even if the pilot is carrying explosives, he's only going to be able to carry 50 or 60 pounds on his lap," said Jeffrey Price, an aviation security expert and associate professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver. "It's a different risk assessment if it's a Boeing or Airbus" heading in.

Two rings of restricted airspace surround Washington, one extending 15 miles around the capital and another that radiates roughly 30 miles around Reagan International Airport. Even Camp David, more than 60 miles north of the city, has restricted airspace — 10 miles when the president visits, but just three if he's not there.

Accidental violations of the airspace are actually quite routine.

A man lost control of his remote-controlled drone in January and it landed on White House grounds. But the violation was accidental and the man was not charged. And last year, a fighter jet intercepted a Cessna flying in restricted airspace near the Capitol and diverted the plane to Virginia.

The exact criteria for downing a commercial or civilian aircraft that encroaches on restricted airspace is something the government seldom discusses. But Price said the list of those officials who can order an aircraft shot down is thought to be short.

He said it is easier and far less risky to move the president out of danger or evacuate the Capitol than it is to open fire on an aircraft in a heavily populated area.

"If they start shooting, that's flying ordnance over the nation's capital," he said.

On the other hand, Price said, security personnel may not have known that the gyrocopter, a slow-moving aircraft, was headed in.

"They're looking for helicopters and airplanes, not a gyrocopter," he said.

Marty Lauth, an associate professor of air traffic management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach and a former FAA supervisor, said it is possible Hughes' gyrocopter was flying so close to the ground — under 50 feet — that it would have been invisible to radar.

"I don't know how you would stop him from getting there," Lauth said. "If he stayed extremely low, it would be very hard to detect an aircraft like that."

He said any pilot who deliberately flies into restrictive airspace is probably going to lose their pilot's license.

"This gentleman," Lauth said, "is probably not going to see his gyrocopter again."

Contact William R. Levesque at levesque@tampabay.com. Follow @times_levesque.

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