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Gyrocopter lands on Capitol lawn; pilot is arrested

By Julie Zauzmer and Mike DeBonis, The Washington Post

U.S. Capitol Police said that a small gyrocopter with one occupant landed on the West Lawn of the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon.

One person has been detained, Capitol Police spokeswoman Kimberly Schneider said in an e-mail.

Eyewitnesses in Capitol offices reported seeing police run toward the aircraft and take the pilot away. The small craft landed in the middle of the West Front Lawn, where the annual Christmas tree and Fourth of July concert stage are set up.

All was calm as of about 1:45 p.m., but police blocked access to the lawn. Schneider, at about 3:13 p.m., sent out an e-mail saying bomb squad had cleared the craft and was preparing to move it to a secure location.

Streets around the scene were closed for much of the afternoon, but reopened about 4 p.m.

President Obama was in Charlotte on Wednesday afternoon, but he was briefed about the gyrocopter incident, according to White House spokesman  Eric Schultz.

The Tampa Bay Times wrote about Doug Hughes, a 61-year-old mailman from Florida, who planned to fly to the Capitol.

His stated intent: to buzz through the air at 45 miles per hour at about 300 feet up in an ultralight gyrocopter toward Washington, D.C., toward protected airspace, where, if his plan works, he’ll land on the lawn of the United States Capitol building and deliver the mail.

Of course, Doug Hughes might be shot out of the sky. He knows this. He has thought about it day and night for more than two years, wrestling with the tiniest details of his insane plan.

“No sane person,” he said, “would do what I’m doing.”

Ben Montgomery, a Tampa Bay Times reporter who has written about suspect Hughes and was on the scene after the landing, described him as a “mix of P.T. Barnum and Paul Revere” and determined to make a statement about campaign finance reform.

“We were comfortable reporting this story know … that the authorities did know about this, even if they didn’t know when exactly he was going to pull it off,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery said Hughes departed this morning from near Gettysburg, Pa., and that he feared for him.

“I thought he was going to get shot down,” he said.

The airspace over the Capitol is highly restricted, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Most aircraft are not allowed to fly through a stretch of Washington that includes the White House, Capitol and the Mall.

This zone, which stretches from Rock Creek Park in Northwest Washington to Stanton Park in Northeast Washington, covers any flights operating below 18,000 feet. A similar restricted zone exists around the U.S. Naval Observatory, the vice president’s official residence.

The FAA issued a statement Wednesday afternoon saying it was working with other agencies investigating the incident. The agency said the pilot was not in contact with air traffic controllers and did not authorize the entry into the restricted airspace.

Jose Labarca, 55, was sitting on the Mall on Third Street at about 1:50 pm when he spotted the small aircraft rushing from west to east along the Mall toward the Capitol, about 35 to 40 feet in the air.

Labarca said the chopper had U.S. Postal Service insignia on its tail. “It looked totally official,” he said. “I thought, the Postal Service has helicopter service to the Capitol now?”

Labarca and about a dozen others were participating in a D.C. voting rights protest known as the “Liberty Pole.”

The pilot, Larbarca said, appeared to be about 60 years old and wearing what appeared to be a postal uniform.

“When he flew by us, he gave us a thumbs up,” he said.

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