The protesting mailman who flew his mini-helicopter through miles of restricted airspace to the U.S. Capitol building showed that the government isn’t prepared for the growing threat from drones and small aircraft, a lawmaker said.
The April 15 flight by Douglas Hughes, a 61-year-old postal worker from Florida, demonstrated that the air defenses in Washington “didn’t work” Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said at a hearing Wednesday.
The gyrocopter flew undisturbed through Washington for almost a half-hour even though police had been tipped to the flight and radar had detected the aircraft’s presence, according to testimony from the hearing. Chaffetz chastised Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy, NORAD Commander William Gortney and the heads of other federal agencies responsible for keeping the nation’s capital city safe.
“At this point, ignorance is no longer an excuse when it comes to drones and small aircraft,” Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, said. “This is a pervasive threat. It has been there for a long time. It isn’t going anywhere.”
When a remote-controlled drone -- albeit unmanned and much smaller than a gyrocopter -- was found on the White House grounds in January, concern was raised about what steps have been made to counter this relatively new potential threat.
“We have gotten to the point where I am worried about the president; I’m worried about his family,” said Representative Stephen Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat.
At least 32 agencies share some responsibility for protecting Washington’s sensitive government buildings and monuments, according to Chaffetz. The multi-agency National Capital Region Coordination Center was specifically formed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to monitor the skies around Washington.
Officials monitoring the airspace on April 15 didn’t notice the single-person gyrocopter until reviewing recorded images after the incident, said Admiral Gortney, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the joint U.S.-Canadian air defense agency known as NORAD. The radar images were similar to what a flock of birds or weather pattern produces and didn’t prompt any alarms, he said.
At the same time, the U.S. Capitol Police weren’t able to verify that an aircraft was headed for the area even though a reporter inquired about the flight at least 24 minutes before the gyrocopter landed on the Capitol lawn, Chief Kim Dine told the committee.
While the details of the technology used to defend the capital are secret, Hughes also evaded cameras and other unspecified warning devices, Gortney said.
“Our initial analysis of this event has further confirmed the need to continue to improve our ability to identify low altitude and slow-speed aerial vehicles operating” around Washington, Gortney said. He called the gyrocopter “a low threat.”
The Capitol Police, charged with protecting Congress, received an e-mail at 12:59 p.m. on April 15 from the Tampa Bay Times newspaper, which had interviewed Hughes prior to his flight. The police later received a telephone inquiry.
Agency officials would later pass word to the National Capital Region Coordination Center, or NCRCC. At about the same time as the call to the Capitol Police, the Secret Service headquarters in Washington received a similar call from a reporter asking if officials knew about Hughes’s protest flight.
“At no time during the call did the reporter indicate that Hughes was already in flight and on his way to the Capitol,” Secret Service Director Clancy said in testimony.
Hughes landed on the Capitol lawn at 1:23 p.m. without any advanced warning to police officers in the area, said Dine, the Capitol Police chief. The initial reports from the Tampa news reporter hadn’t said that the landing “was imminent.”
The 24-hour hotline that the NCRCC agencies use to share information on security threats wasn’t notified of the intrusion until 1:24 p.m., a minute after the copter landed, Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Michael Huerta said in testimony. The alert originated from the Capitol Police, he said.
Unlike a helicopter, which is lifted airborne by powered rotor blades above the craft, Hughes’s gyrocopter was powered by a propeller at the rear of the aircraft. The gyrocopter’s overhead rotor blades spin freely in the wind.
A dot depicting the copter on radar was traced back to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where Hughes took off, according to an FAA analysis after the incident.
“The dot appeared only intermittently throughout the flight,” Huerta said. “All available information about the slow moving, irregular symbol made it indistinguishable from other non-aircraft radar tracks.”
He added that the FAA’s air-traffic controllers use computers to filter out targets similar to what the gyrocopter produced. They “could not do their jobs” if the radars displayed such clutter, Huerta said.
Hughes, of Ruskin, Florida, was arrested and charged with operating an unregistered aircraft without a pilot’s license and violating the secure airspace around Washington. He said on a website that he planned the flight to deliver letters about campaign finance reform to members of Congress.
“The point of the flight is to spotlight corruption in DC and more importantly, to present the solution(s) to the institutional graft,” he wrote.
The testimony for the Wednesday hearing also shows Hughes first came to the attention of the Secret Service on Oct. 4, 2013, when it learned that he may have had plans to fly to the Capitol or White House.
“No one interviewed as part of the Secret Service investigation indicated that they believed he would follow through with his plans,” Clancy said in his testimony.
Hughes was approached a second time on Oct. 8, 2013, and declined to speak to agents without an attorney present. Information about him was passed onto other law enforcement agencies, Clancy said.