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Ruskin mail carrier heads home amid gyrocopter controversy (w/video)

Doug Hughes flies near the Wauchula Municipal Airport on March 17. This week’s trip took him from Gettysburg, Pa., to Washington, D.C.
Doug Hughes flies near the Wauchula Municipal Airport on March 17. This week’s trip took him from Gettysburg, Pa., to Washington, D.C.
Published Apr. 18, 2015

TAMPA — Doug Hughes, the Ruskin mail carrier who flew his gyrocopter into restricted airspace over Washington, D.C., to make a statement about campaign finance reform, is heading home.

Hughes, 61, told the Tampa Bay Times in an email Friday that he is driving back to Tampa Bay. He said he needs to get here before Monday, when his house arrest begins. He will have to wear a GPS ankle bracelet until a May 8 court hearing in Washington, D.C.

No one was injured Wednesday afternoon when Hughes landed his gyrocopter on the Capitol lawn. But his wife, Alena Hughes, told WFLA-Ch. 8 that her husband's stunt could have caused "a big grief in the family."

Although the public viewed her husband's flight as brave, she acknowledged that he broke the law. And "law is law," she told the station.

Still, she said, "I am his wife, and I will support him no matter what."

The flight, intended to spark interest in campaign finance reform, instead exposed a hole in the U.S. government's ability to adequately protect the Capitol and other federal buildings.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi labeled the incident "stunning."

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said "there will be a careful look at this incident, and it may provide an opportunity for law enforcement agencies, including the Secret Service, to review their procedures to get some useful lessons from it."

Hughes told the Times he conceived his plan to deliver letters calling for changes in campaign finance to every member of Congress 2 1/2 years ago. That's when his son, John Joseph Hughes, 24, committed suicide by driving his car head-on into another man, killing them both.

Calling himself a mix between Paul Revere and P.T. Barnum, Hughes said he loathed the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, which said campaign contributions are a form of "political speech" and struck down contribution limits for corporations and unions.

He bought a gyrocopter — basically a bicycle with helicopter blades and a propeller — and learned to fly. Late last week, he loaded it onto a trailer and headed for Gettysburg, Pa., where he took off for the nation's capital.

Hughes came in hovering low over the buildings of northeast D.C., rounded the Washington Monument, and landed the gyrocopter in front of the Capitol. He was promptly arrested and charged with violating restricted airspace and operating an unregistered aircraft.

Security officials said he apparently flew low enough to avoid local radar.

Once Hughes was released from custody, a federal magistrate judge ordered him not to fly any aircraft and to stay away from Washington — except for court visits.

Times researcher John Martin, photographer James Borchuck, writer Ben Montgomery and Times wire services contributed to this report. Contact Zack Peterson at zpeterson@tampabay.com.