“We are preparing to move the gyrocopter from the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol to a secure location,” the department said in a statement.
UPDATE 2:45 p.m.: ST. PETERSBURG — Doug Hughes’ close friend and co-worker, Mike Shanahan, said today that the Ruskin mailman is not a terrorist and did not mean any harm with his protest.
And just hours before Hughes landed in Washington, Hughes’ friend said he called a Secret Service agent to notify him of the possibility of the gyrocopter flight.
“He’s not a suicide bomber, he’s a patriot,” said Shanahan, 65, of Apollo Beach. The whole stunt centers around Hughes’ effort to change campaign finance laws, “or the lack thereof,” according to Shanahan.
About a year ago, Shanahan said, Hughes told him of the idea to deliver letters to legislators by gyrocopter. Not long after, they were both questioned by a Secret Service official in Florida, he said. Wednesday morning, Shanahan said, Hughes called his friend and said he was in Washington, ready to take off.
He passed along the website on which he would livestream his flight, but Shanahan, not adept with computers, could not find it.
So, he said, he pulled out the phone number he had saved from the Secret Service agent he spoke to months ago. He dialed. No answer, but he said he left a message. No call back. He still was not certain if the protest was actually going to happen.
“I didn’t want to get all of D.C. in an uproar and it turn out he was just practicing or something or he was just pulling my leg,” Shanahan said.
Though Hughes was arrested, Shanahan said he was relieved his friend was alive.
“I was scared to death they were going to kill him,” Shanahan said. “My thanks goes out to whomever it was who decided not to pull the trigger.”
—Zachary T. Sampson, Times Staff Writer
UPDATE 1:50 p.m.: WASHINGTON — Doug Hughes, the 61-year-old mailman from Ruskin, successfully landed his gyrocopter on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol today.
He was promptly arrested.
Witnesses said the sirens and cars came immediately after Hughes touched down. They said he was composed, calm and surrendered immediately.
Shortly before 2 p.m., police officials were inspecting his gyrocopter with dogs. Investigators moved witnesses a block away from the Capitol.
“We heard him coming. There are a lot of helicopters in D.C. but I could tell this one was smaller,” said Gil Wheeler, 53, a pilot from Las Vegas. “It came right down the middle of the lawn. You can tell he knows how to fly that thing.”
Wheeler added that Hughes’ protest move, urging campaign finance reform and a halt to corruption in the government, raises questions about our country’s national security apparatus.
“This is just another question for Homeland Security,” Hughes said. “We still have a lot of questions to ask.”
Richard Burns, 27, who said he works for a marijuana lobby group in Washington, stood in wonder and solidarity.
“I don’t know whatever it was he was doing but I support him.”
The Capitol was briefly placed on lockdown during Hughes’ landing.
UPDATE 1:33 p.m.: It appears as though Hughes has landed on the lawn of the Capitol. Tweets from Washington congressional reporters indicate Capitol Police hustled out of the building and confronted Hughes at the gyrocopter.
UPDATE 1:15 p.m.: The Tampa Bay Times called the U.S. Secret Service in Washington D.C. to see if they were aware of Hughes’ plans. Public information officers there said they had not heard of the protest. They referred a reporter to Capitol Police. A public information officer did not immediately answer. A sergeant in the watch commander’s office said: “He hasn’t notified anybody. We have no information.”
• • •
About 1 a.m. one night last spring, a Secret Service agent accompanied by a Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputy rang Doug Hughes’ doorbell. Lights went on inside his spare little house in Ruskin. The plainclothes agent showed his badge. Hughes stepped outside and closed the door behind him.
The agent asked him questions about his plan to save America, he said, and Hughes was honest in his replies, if not totally forthcoming with details. Yes, he did own a gyrocopter. Yes, he keeps it in a hangar at the small airport in Wauchula. Yes, he had talked of doing something big to bring attention to the issue of campaign finance reform. No, he was not planning to crash into any buildings or monuments in Washington, D.C.
I’m not a violent person, Hughes remembers saying. All I want to do is draw attention.
Someone inside his circle of secrecy had reported him, telling the Secret Service that Hughes was talking about committing a daring act of civil disobedience that also happened to be a federal crime.
The Secret Service won’t confirm the agent’s visit because there was no arrest. But Hughes says he was questioned for about 45 minutes, and he has an agent’s business card. Two days later, Hughes said, the same agent showed up at the post office where Hughes works and asked more questions . He also talked to one of Hughes’ colleagues with whom he had discussed his plan. The colleague told the Tampa Bay Times that he, too, answered questions. Hughes even gave the agent permission to talk to his doctor, to assure him he wasn’t suicidal or homicidal.
And then, for months, nothing. That was it, Hughes said. No other questions. No other contact. So Hughes, who sees himself as a sort of showman patriot, a mix of Paul Revere and P.T. Barnum, put his plan into action.
He bought a burner cell phone and a video camera, and tested a livestream video feed from his gyrocopter ( tbtim.es/gpa). He built a website offline that explains who he is and why he’s doing what he’s doing. He bought $250 worth of stamps and stuffed 535 two-page letters into 535 envelopes, each addressed to a specific member of Congress:
“I’m demanding reform and declaring a voter’s rebellion in a manner consistent with Jefferson’s description of rights in the Declaration of Independence,” he wrote in his letters. “As a member of Congress, you have three options. 1. You may pretend corruption does not exist. 2. You may pretend to oppose corruption while you sabotage reform. 3. You may actively participate in real reform.”
He also learned how to fly.
Late last week, he loaded the gyrocopter onto a trailer and headed for an undisclosed location outside the nation’s capital.
If you’re reading this, Doug Hughes, a 61-year-old mailman from Ruskin, has taken flight. 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.”
He decided he wanted someone to tell his story in the event he was hurt or arrested. After the Secret Service visit, he sought out a Tampa Bay Times reporter and explained his plan and motivation. He says he has no intention of hurting anybody and that he doesn’t want to be hurt either.
“I don’t believe that the authorities are going to shoot down a 61-year-old mailman in a flying bicycle,” he said. “I don’t have any defense, okay, but I don’t believe that anybody wants to personally take responsibility for the fallout.”
He has thought through every scenario he can muster.
“Somebody will realize that they’ve got to modify the playbook and they’ll probably scramble a helicopter,” he said. “They’ll scramble a Blackhawk from Quantico, and there’s a 50-50 chance that a Blackhawk at full throttle will overfly me and realize that he’s missed and he’ll have to come back. Again, I’m going to fly low and slow and these guys are going to have a full head of adrenaline. Eventually, I’m hoping the Blackhawk will catch up with me about the time that the authorities realize that I’m not a threat and knocking me down is not a politically savvy move, and I anticipate having an escort all the way in. I’m hoping for a friendly escort.”
He knows what’s at stake. He figures he’ll lose his job of 11 years. And he could lose his tidy little house across from a pond with a fountain. And he could lose his freedom; he expects to be arrested for landing his flying machine near the steps of the Capitol. That means losing, at least temporarily, his Russian-born wife and his polite 12-year-old daughter who plays the piano and wins awards at the science fair. He has kept them in the dark, he said, for fear they’d be implicated.
Hughes is a slender, soft-spoken, pedantic man, with thinning gray hair and hearing aids. He has no criminal record and it’s rare to hear him curse. But he says he needs the show, the very dramatic public act of civil disobedience, to hijack the news cycle and focus the nation’s attention on a topic that in most quarters makes eyes glaze over: campaign finance reform. Money, he says, has corrupted the democracy.
At the root of Hughes’ disdain is the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in which the court decided campaign contributions were a form of “political speech” and struck down limits on how much corporations and unions could give to political contenders. The decision changed the game. Campaign spending went through the roof. In Hughes’ mind, there was a parallel spike in favor-dealing and the government is now practically owned by the rich. Hughes likes to point out that nearly half the retiring members of Congress from 1998 to 2004 got jobs as lobbyists earning some 14 times their congressional salaries.
“We’re heading full-throttle toward a breakdown,” he said. “There’s no question that we need government, but we don’t have to accept that it’s a corrupt government that sells out to the highest bidder. We can have a government that works for the people, that answers to the people, that can only take money from the people in small amounts.”
But nobody seems to care. At least, nobody thinks it can be fixed. Polls have shown that 96 percent of Americans said they believe that it’s important to reduce the influence of money in politics, but only 9 percent think that it is likely to happen.
Hughes thinks the answers are out there, and they’re non-partisan. He points to reform thinkers like political activist Cenk Uygar and Harvard legal theorist Lawrence Lessig, who launched a political action committee to end political action committees. The motto: “Embrace the irony.”
“I’m not promoting myself,” Hughes said a few weeks ago. “I’m trying to direct millions of people to information, to a menu of organizations that are working together to fix Congress.”
How do you get people to look? How do you shake up voters and wrest their attention from the faux political scandals of the day?
His idea began to blossom 2½ years ago, after his son, John Joseph Hughes, 24, committed suicide by driving his car head-on into another man, killing them both. “Police: Suicidal driver caused deadly crash,” read the headline in the Leesburg newspaper. He was crushed by grief, and disappointed that his son had killed himself — and someone else — to make a stupid, worthless point.
“Something changed in me,” Hughes said. With mourning came a realization. The years Hughes spent thinking about and writing about mundane political issues were for naught if he didn’t have a way to make a point. His political frustrations and grief merged. He doesn’t condone what his son did, but it offered a lesson.
“He paid far too high a price for an unimportant issue,” Hughes said. “But if you’re willing to take a risk, the ultimate risk, to draw attention to something that does have significance, it’s worth doing.”
He has always wanted to fly. Growing up in Santa Cruz, Calif., he used to ride his bike to Sky Park and watch the planes come and go, and read books about the Wright Brothers and Kitty Hawk.
At first he thought about using an ultralight fixed-wing plane, but that felt too threatening. He finally found the gyrocopter, which has un-powered helicopter blades on top for lift but gets its thrust from a propeller on the back. The cockpit, if you can call it that, is wide open. “This is as transparent a vehicle that I could come up with,” Hughes said. “You can literally see through it.” He can land the craft in a space the size of half a basketball court.
Hughes set up a delayed email blast to alert every breaking news desk at every TV station and newspaper he could find, as well as the Secret Service. He has provided journalists a link to a website which, if the technology holds up, should be broadcasting a live stream video of his flight ( tbtim.es/gpa), called Project Kitty Hawk. He hopes this public broadcast will deter the authorities from shooting him out of the sky.
His biggest fear all along, he said, was losing his nerve.
“I have thought about walking away from this whole thing because it’s crazy,” he said. “But I have also thought about being 80 years old and watching the collapse of this country and thinking that I had an idea once that might have arrested the fall and I didn’t do it.
“And I will tell you completely honestly: I’d rather die in the flight than live to be 80 years old and see this country fall.”
Doug Hughes is in the air, trying to deliver the mail.
Times staff writer Zachary T. Sampson and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Ben Montgomery at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8650. Follow @gangrey on Twitter.