Doug Hughes, a 61-year-old mailman from Ruskin, told his friends he was going to do it. He was going to fly a gyrocopter through protected airspace and put it down on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol, then try to deliver 535 letters of protest to 535 members of Congress.
The stunt seemed so outlandish that not even his closest friend thought he would pull it off.
"My biggest fear was he was going to get killed," said Mike Shanahan, 65, of Apollo Beach, who works with Hughes for the Postal Service.
After 2½ years of planning, Hughes came hovering low over the buildings of northeast D.C. about 1:20 p.m., like a distant bird. He rounded the Washington Monument a few minutes later, flew straight up the expanse of the National Mall and brought his small craft down right in front of the Capitol, where he was quickly surrounded by police and surrendered without incident.
The flight stunned police, Secret Service and witnesses. Authorities briefly shut down the Capitol as a security measure. The incident brought out dozens of reporters and cameras from national media outlets — exactly what Hughes had hoped for. Hughes, who sees himself as a sort of showman patriot, a mix of Paul Revere and P.T. Barnum, wanted to do something so big and brazen that it would hijack the news cycle and turn America's attention toward his pet issue: campaign finance reform.
"No sane person would do what I'm doing," Hughes told the Tampa Bay Times in the weeks before he took flight. He was doing it, he said, because the United States is "heading full-throttle toward a breakdown."
"There's no question that we need government, but we don't have to accept that it's a corrupt government that sells out to the highest bidder," Hughes said.
It's hard to say whether the message got through.
"I don't think anyone noticed it," said Sophia Brown, visiting Washington from England. "We noticed it, but nobody made a big deal about it."
Richard Burns, 27, a worker at a marijuana lobby group in Washington, stood by the Capitol in wonder and solidarity.
"I don't know whatever it was he was doing, but I support him," Burns said.
Gil Wheeler, 53, a pilot from Las Vegas, said the biggest problem was how the letter carrier reached restricted airspace in the first place.
"This is just another question for Homeland Security," Wheeler said. "We still have a lot of questions to ask."
Late Wednesday, U.S. Capitol Police said Hughes had been arrested, charged under Title 49 of U.S. Code and processed at their headquarters. He was then transferred to the central cellblock in Washington. The FAA was investigating.
News reports said Secret Service agents were investigating at Gettysburg Airport, a small airport in Pennsylvania, where they believe Hughes took off.
Hughes didn't know whether he would even make it. He imagined being shot down, blown down. Almost every scenario he could imagine involved some type of resistance. Barring that, he said: "They will put the cuffs on me. And they will try to establish who is behind this. . . . The authorities are going to be out to get me."
His wife could not be reached for comment.
Hughes contacted a Tampa Bay Times reporter last year, saying he wanted to tell someone about his plan and motivation. He said he had no intention of hurting anybody and that he didn't want to be hurt. By that time, he had already been visited twice by the Secret Service, he said.
The first visit, Hughes told the Times, came one night last spring at about 1 a.m. The agent was accompanied by a Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy. In a statement issued to media outlets Wednesday, the Secret Service said it interviewed Hughes on Oct. 5, 2013, and that a "complete and thorough investigation was conducted."
The Secret Service agent asked him questions about his plan, Hughes said, and he said he was honest in his replies, if not totally forthcoming with details. Yes, he did own a gyrocopter. Yes, he kept it in a hangar at the small airport in Wauchula. Yes, he had talked of doing something big to bring attention to the issue of campaign finance reform. No, he was not planning to crash into any buildings or monuments in Washington, D.C.
I'm not a violent person, Hughes remembers saying. All I want to do is draw attention.
Someone inside his circle of secrecy had reported him, telling the Secret Service that Hughes was talking about committing a daring act of civil disobedience that also happened to be a federal crime.
Two days later, Hughes said, the same agent showed up at the post office where Hughes works and asked more questions. One of Hughes' colleagues told the Tampa Bay Times that he, too, answered questions from the Secret Service.
And then, for months, nothing. That was it, Hughes said. No other questions. No other contact. Hughes put his plan into action.
He bought a burner cell phone and a videocamera and tested a livestream video feed from his gyrocopter. He built a website offline that explained why he was doing this. He bought $250 worth of stamps and stuffed envelopes with his letter:
"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 wrote in his letters. "As a member of Congress, you have three options. 1. You may pretend corruption does not exist. 2. You may pretend to oppose corruption while you sabotage reform. 3. You may actively participate in real reform."
Late last week, he loaded the gyrocopter onto a trailer and headed for an undisclosed location outside the nation's capital.
His livestream showed that he took off about 12:10 p.m. Wednesday. He intended to fly about 300 feet high, at 45 mph and wound up landing on the west lawn of the Capitol shortly before 1:30 p.m.
Hughes knew there was a risk he could be shot out of the sky, though he hoped it wouldn't come to that.
"I don't believe that the authorities are going to shoot down a 61-year-old mailman in a flying bicycle," he said. "I don't have any defense, okay, but I don't believe that anybody wants to personally take responsibility for the fallout."
In the end, his flight occurred without incident or escorts. The Times published a story about Hughes' plans on its website, tampabay.com, shortly after noon when it was clear he had actually taken off and was attempting his flight. His livestream cut in and out but showed his progress. A Times reporter called the Secret Service in Washington, D.C., shortly before 1 p.m. to see if officials were aware of a man in a gyrocopter flying toward the capital. Public information officers there who did not give their names said they had not heard of the protest. They referred a reporter to Capitol Police. A public information officer did not immediately answer.
Sgt. Trina Hamilton in the watch commander's office said: "He hasn't notified anybody. We have no information."
Hughes' friend, Mike Shanahan, after receiving a call from Hughes early Wednesday, said he contacted a Secret Service agent and left a message but never heard back. Hughes had told his friend he was in Washington, Shanahan recalled. But when Shanahan tried to access the live-streaming website, he could not find it and was unsure if Hughes was really going to take flight.
Before his flight, Hughes said he knew what was at stake. He figured he'll lose his job of 11 years. And he could lose his tidy little house across from a pond with a fountain. He knew he would lose his freedom. That means losing, at least temporarily, his Russian-born wife and his polite 12-year-old daughter who plays the piano and wins awards at the science fair. He kept them in the dark, he said, for fear they'd be implicated.
Hughes is a slender, soft-spoken, pedantic man, with thinning gray hair and hearing aids. He has no criminal record and it's rare to hear him curse. But he said he needed the show, the very dramatic public act of civil disobedience, to focus the nation's attention on campaign finance reform, a topic that in most quarters makes eyes glaze over. Money, he says, has corrupted the democracy.
At the root of Hughes' disdain is the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, in which the court decided campaign contributions were a form of "political speech" and struck down limits on how much corporations and unions could give to political contenders. The decision changed the game. Campaign spending went through the roof. In Hughes' mind, there was a parallel spike in favor-dealing and the government is now practically owned by the rich. Hughes likes to point out that nearly half the retiring members of Congress from 1998 to 2004 got jobs as lobbyists earning some 14 times their congressional salaries.
But nobody seems to care.
Hughes thinks the answers are out there, and they're nonpartisan. He points to reform thinkers like political activist Cenk Uygar and Harvard legal theorist Lawrence Lessig, who launched a political action committee to end political action committees. The motto: "Embrace the irony."
"I'm not promoting myself," Hughes said a few weeks ago. "I'm trying to direct millions of people to information, to a menu of organizations that are working together to fix Congress."
His idea began to blossom 2½ years ago, after his son, John Joseph Hughes, 24, committed suicide by driving his car head-on into another man, killing them both. "Police: Suicidal driver caused deadly crash," read the headline in the Leesburg newspaper. He was crushed by grief, and disappointed that his son had killed himself — and someone else — to make a stupid, worthless point.
"Something changed in me," Hughes said. With mourning came a realization. The years Hughes spent thinking about and writing about mundane political issues were for naught if he didn't have a way to make a point. His political frustrations and grief merged. He doesn't condone what his son did, but it offered a lesson.
"He paid far too high a price for an unimportant issue," Hughes said. "But if you're willing to take a risk, the ultimate risk, to draw attention to something that does have significance, it's worth doing."
He has always wanted to fly. Growing up in Santa Cruz, Calif., he used to ride his bike to Sky Park and watch the planes come and go, and read books about the Wright brothers and Kitty Hawk.
At first he thought about using an ultralight fixed-wing plane, but that felt too threatening. He finally found the gyrocopter, which has unpowered helicopter blades on top for lift but gets its thrust from a propeller on the back. The cockpit, if you can call it that, is wide open. "This is as transparent a vehicle that I could come up with," Hughes said. "You can literally see through it." He can land the craft in a space the size of half a basketball court.
Hughes told the Times he planned to set up a delayed email blast to alert as many TV and newspaper breaking news desks as he could find, as well as the Secret Service.
The Secret Service statement said it did not receive notification of the flight. Several reporters told the Times they received the email. The Times reported about Hughes' flight on Twitter and Facebook as it was happening, but most media attention came after his landing at the Capitol. His website went up as scheduled, which broadcast a choppy livestream of his trip.
His biggest fear all along, he said, was losing his nerve.
"I have thought about walking away from this whole thing because it's crazy," he said. "But I have also thought about being 80 years old and watching the collapse of this country and thinking that I had an idea once that might have arrested the fall and I didn't do it.
"And I will tell you completely honestly: I'd rather die in the flight than live to be 80 years old and see this country fall."
Times staff writers Zachary T. Sampson and Lauren Carroll and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Ben Montgomery at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650. Follow @gangrey on Twitter.