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Gyrocopter pilot returning home to uncertainty after D.C. protest stunt (w/video)

Doug Hughes is greeted by reporters outside his Ruskin home before being reunited with his wife Alena Hughes. Doug Hughes was arrested in Washington D.C. after flying his Gyrocopter onto the lawn of the Capital building.
Published Apr. 20, 2015

Flying in from the north over the buildings of Washington, D.C., Doug Hughes could make out a white tower in the distance, the most notable spire on the skyline. When he got close enough to see the Potomac River, he knew what he was looking at: The Washington Monument.

He was freezing, his face and hands going numb. He wore a heavy U.S. Postal Service jacket, but he hadn't expected it to be so cold at 300 feet. He'd been buzzing through the gray sky at 45 mph for more than an hour, having left an airport in Gettysburg, Pa., at noon on Wednesday.

In the 2 ½ years he spent planning this flight, which he called Project Kitty Hawk, the days and nights of playing out all the possible scenarios like little movies in his head, he says he never expected to see what he saw. He thought the National Mall would be ringed by police cars with flashing lights. He imagined a Black Hawk helicopter hovering over the field in front of the U.S. Capitol, guns pointed his way.

Instead, there was nothing. No police activity. As he banked around the Washington Monument in his 250-pound gyrocopter and darted east, he saw pedestrians waving up at him. He saw regular air traffic out of nearby Reagan National Airport.

"I kept looking around, thinking, 'Where are you guys?' " he said in an exclusive interview Saturday with the Tampa Bay Times. "In all the imagining, I had never expected nothing. When I made the turn, I thought, 'These guys don't know I'm here!' "

Hughes, a 61-year-old postal worker from Ruskin, would soon be arrested, charged and released 25 hours later on his own recognizance for an act he called civil disobedience to promote campaign finance reform, and many others called crazy and reckless. But then and there, zooming over the Mall, he said he was downright confused. He had lost service on his cellphone early. He knew the livestream video feed from his gyrocopter was acting funky. Maybe his email blast to the authorities and media — which he says he intended to send out after he took off — had malfunctioned, too.

He had planned to buzz K Street and its lobbying firms, but he aborted that idea and headed straight for the Capitol lawn. He waved back to the pedestrians, giving some a thumbs up. It was an act of self-preservation in the event any police were watching.

"If they see me waving, they might not shoot," he said, describing his thinking. "Jolly and terrorist don't go together."

He approached the Capitol thinking he'd land in the field east of the large reflecting pool, away from the building. He began his descent, then changed his mind.

"I thought, 'You're only going to get to do this once,' " he said. He pulled up, climbed, then came down again, this time right in front of the hallowed halls of Congress.

That landing set off ongoing discussions about the danger Hughes could have presented to the public and questions of security in the nation's capital and its airspace. The criticism in some quarters was intense. He was called irresponsible, a wacko, a nut job. What if he slammed into tourists? What if he lost control and blasted through a building?

The Secret Service said on Wednesday it had conducted a "complete and thorough" investigation of Hughes in late 2013, but was unaware he planned to make his flight last week. The Homeland Security secretary said he "literally flew under the radar." U.S. Rep Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, said in an Associated Press report: "I don't want people to get a message that they can just land anywhere. Suppose there was a bomb or an explosive device on that air vehicle? That could have been a major catastrophe."

Hughes said he didn't see much of the criticism since he was in jail and hasn't watched TV. But his adult son said what he did was "stupid and lucky."

When told of the furor about his flight, Hughes responded: "No one on the ground seemed scared at all."

The flight had become an obsession for him. He spent hours training in Wauchula, learning the rules of flight, but also the feel. How the machine moved as an extension of his body. He had incurred debt. Despite knowing he might be shot down, he said before his flight Wednesday that his biggest fear was that he'd back out, that his wheels would never come off the ground.

Now, though, as he sat on the Capitol lawn, blades still spinning, shivering from the cold, he felt something he'd never felt before, he said. A sense of joy. A sense of purpose.

"This was something I put my heart and soul into, and I did it," he said. "I was — and I don't ever use this word lightly — I was euphoric."

A minute passed, maybe. The blades were still spinning. A police officer approached.

"He shouted, 'Don't go anywhere!' " Hughes recalled.

Soon there were more, and Hughes sat still. No one drew a weapon or tried to rough him up. Hughes kept eye contact with one officer and slowly climbed off the gyro and surrendered. They cuffed him, searched him, took his phones, loaded him into a van for the station. They ran through questions and read him his rights. An investigator asked him if he would talk.

They talked for hours, Hughes said, and she finally asked the question he'd been waiting for.

Why did you do it?

Hughes is, let's say, a talker. And his pet political issue, the reason for his flight, was to bring attention to campaign finance reform. He wanted to deliver 535 letters, one for each member of Congress, that demanded they rid elections of big money. He started in on how removing contributions caps has corrupted the political process and pretty soon he noticed that the guy taking notes had stopped taking notes.

"If they recorded that, I want a copy," Hughes said. "That's got to be a great, classic recording…. They let me talk about the politics!"

He said they treated him with respect. They let him out of his handcuffs for a drink. He was baffled by questions like, "Where did you take off from?" They seemed to know nothing of his website that detailed his flight plans and his motivation.

The whole time he was curious about what was going on outside the station. Had anyone even noticed? His idea had been to alert enough media that his stunt would change the conversation, make people think about campaign finance reform. He had contacted the Tampa Bay Times before his flight, so that if he got shot down or arrested, at least his backstory would be known. The Times published a story about his flight on its website as soon as he was in the air and reported on the flight on social media. The newspaper was criticized for not reporting Hughes' plan to authorities in advance.

Outside, in front of the Capitol building, a swarm of reporters and cameramen gathered, yearning for any insight into the mail carrier who had breached the country's most sacred airspace in a whirlybird.

Nearby, a social studies teacher on a field trip with about 30 junior high students used the stunt to teach a lesson about protest and civil disobedience. Tourists snapped pictures as a man in bomb-squad gear inspected the gyrocopter.

Hughes knew none of that. Manacled to the wall, he asked to use the phone to call his wife. He tried several times and she kept hanging up without answering, his first indication that word had spread.

"I don't need to talk to her," he recalled saying to an officer, "I just need her to know I'm okay."

"It's on the media," the cop said. "Trust me, she knows you're okay."

His cell that night was bare. A slab bed. No mattress or blanket. They had taken his shoe laces and his belt. Several cops wandered by, he said, and asked him questions about his mission. He chatted with them at length about campaign finance reform. One asked, "Are you the helicopter guy?"

His arraignment the next morning kept getting delayed. Officials were trying to determine the right jurisdiction. The hearing was quick, the press filling one whole section of the courthouse gallery. He was charged with operating an unregistered aircraft and violating restricted airspace. The first charge carried up to three years in prison and the second up to one year. He was released on his own recognizance and ordered back to court on May 8. He's not supposed to leave his house now, nor is he allowed to travel to D.C. unless it's for court or to meet with his lawyer. He also can't operate any flying vehicles.

His public defender advised him not to talk to the press. He basically said, Yeah, right.

He called his wife, Alena, who put his 12-year-old daughter on the phone. "Papa, what have you done?" she asked.

He went to Gettysburg, where authorities gave him back a rental car, but not the trailer he used to haul his gyrocopter north from Florida.

He called his employers at the Riverview Post Office to tell them he couldn't come in Monday because he had to get fitted for his monitoring device but would be at work Tuesday. They told him he was on administrative leave pending investigation and to stay away.

When he talked to the Times by phone, as he was preparing to leave his hotel in Virginia, he sounded happy.

"It's nice being alive," he said. "I told you that this thing was an obsession. My dread was that it wouldn't happen. It did happen and it seems like it's well received. I'm starting to think this thing has more than two days of legs on it."

His wife told him that reporters were sleeping in television trucks outside their home in Ruskin. He said Saturday that he hopes they're still there when he gets home.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8650. Follow @gangrey.

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