WASHINGTON (AP) — Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Thursday that a gyrocopter that landed on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol “apparently literally flew in under the radar.”
Johnson said it’s too soon to say whether Wednesday’s incident should prompt changes in security procedures. “I want to know all the facts before I reach an assessment of what can and should be done about gyrocopters in the future,” he said.
Johnson confirmed that the pilot, Florida postal worker Doug Hughes, was interviewed by the Secret Service almost two years ago. He said the Secret Service passed along the information from that interview to “all of the appropriate law enforcement agencies.”
Johnson said his first reaction on hearing of the incident was to ask, “What’s a gyrocopter?”
The tiny, open-air aircraft landed without injuries to anyone, but the incident raises questions about how someone could be allowed to fly all the way from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, right up to the Capitol. Hughes has said he was making the flight to publicize his concerns about the corrupting influence of money in politics, and deliver letters to all 535 members of Congress on the topic.
“We are a democracy. We don’t have fences around our airspace, so we’ve got to find the right balance between living in a free and open society and security and the protection of federal buildings,” Johnson told reporters on Capitol Hill. “And so we want to stay one step ahead of every incident like this, but then again, you don’t want to overreact, either.”
Johnson defended existing protocols for dealing with the restricted airspace over Washington, D.C., federal buildings and monuments.
“We’ve got a well-coordinated federal response to dealing with issues of those who penetrate the restricted airspace without permission,” he said.
A friend of Hughes said the pilot alerted the Secret Service beforehand because he was afraid he would get shot down.
Hughes, 61., called Shanahan on Wednesday and said he was in the Washington, D.C. area and ready to take off, Shanahan was quoted by The Tampa Bay Times as saying. Shanahan said he feared law enforcement would shoot down the small aircraft emblazoned with the Postal Service logo, so he alerted the U.S. Secret Service. The gyrocopter landed about half a city block from the Capitol building.
“I was scared to death they were going to kill him,” Shanahan said.
A Senate aide told The Associated Press the Capitol Police knew of the plan shortly before Hughes took off. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because the aide was not authorized to publicly discuss details of the investigation.
Hughes is a married father of four who wanted to “spotlight corruption in DC and more importantly, to present the solution(s) to the institutional graft,” reads a statement on his website, The Democracy Club.
Hughes has worked for the Postal Service for 11 years. He said he kept his Russian-born wife and 12-year-old daughter in the dark about his plan.
Hughes has three other children, including one son who took his own life by driving his car head-on into another vehicle, killing both himself and the other driver nearly three years ago. Hughes said his son’s suicide was a catalyst for him.
Associated Press writer Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg, Florida, contributed to this story.