After Gyrocopter Stunt, Lawmakers Want Answers

“This cannot happen again,” key members warn.

Capitol Hill police officers and other officials lift a gyrocopter that landed on the US Capitol South Lawn, on to a trailer, April 15, 2015, in Washington, DC. A man identified as Doug Hughes, 61, flying a gyrocopter, illegally landed his aircraft on the west lawn of the US Capitol Wednesday, triggering street closures around the building and prompting a police investigation. Hughes is described as a mailman, and a logo appearing to be that of the US Postal Service was visible on the tail fin of the aircraft. AFP PHOTO/PAUL J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
Rachel Roubein
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Rachel Roubein
April 16, 2015, 11:46 a.m.

Lawmakers are demanding answers after a gyrocopter landed on the Capitol lawn—a destination that the pilot had blogged about and the Tampa Bay Times had written about before the aircraft made it to the west lawn on Wednesday afternoon.

The House Administration Committee is asking for a full review of how 61-year-old Doug Hughes was able to access airspace that the Federal Aviation Administration says is restricted. And top members of the Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee are seeking to find out just how much was known by law enforcement officials before Wednesday’s incident, which has left members puzzled.

“I just need more information,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, the Legislative Branch Appropriations chairwoman, told National Journal. “They might have known more than it appears that they did, so I want to dig down and see. I mean, it is scary to think that he was advertising he’s coming, he’s here, and he’s landing, but at the end of the day maybe they knew more than what on the surface appears.”

As of Thursday afternoon, Capitol Police have been mum on exactly what they knew beforehand. The department did not respond to requests for comment.

(RELATED: Gyrocopter Schmyrocopter: Nine Other Eyebrow-Raising Protests In the Nation’s Capital)

The House Administration Committee plans to work with the Capitol Police and the House and Senate sergeant at arms to review the incident and ensure security measures are updated to “make certain the protection of Members of Congress, staff, visitors and the entire Capitol Complex remains at the highest level,” Chairwoman Candice Miller and ranking member Robert Brady said in a joint statement Thursday.

“Frankly, the individual is fortunate that this stunt did not cost him his life,” Miller and Brady said. “Bottom line, this small aircraft should have never been able to access protected airspace and land on the U.S. Capitol Grounds—and this cannot happen again.”

Lawmakers have a litany of questions: Were police aware Hughes was flying near the Capitol? What kind of reaction was planned, if any? If none was planned, why not?

“It is concerning, but I know there are protocols all around the District of Columbia to survey and to monitor the airspace,” Capito told National Journal. “So was this undetectable because it was so low? These are the kinds of questions. So before I throw the Capitol Police under the bus, I’d like to get more information.”

(RELATED: Gyrocopter Lands Outside Capitol, Pilot Arrested)

The West Virginia Republican is planning, along with the subcommittee’s top Democrat, Sen. Brian Schatz, to receive a briefing early next week from Capitol Police Chief Kim Dine and the sergeant at arms.

“We just want to gather the facts,” Schatz told National Journal, “and understand exactly how in the world that happened.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings, ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told reporters the incident was troubling.

“I am concerned about the Capitol Police because many members of Congress including myself didn’t even know about this until I read about it,” Cummings said Thursday. “I think there is absolutely … a very dangerous gap with regard to our airspace, and I think we have to fill that gap sooner rather than later.”

The FAA will work with its aviation partners in Washington, D.C., to investigate the incident, the agency said in a statement. “The pilot was not in contact with FAA air traffic controllers and the FAA did not authorize him to enter restricted airspace. Airspace security rules that cover the Capitol and the District of Columbia prohibit private aircraft flights without prior coordination and permission,” the statement reads.

Ben Geman contributed to this article.
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