A Florida man has been arrested after piloting a gyrocopter that landed on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol Wednesday afternoon, prompting a temporary lockdown of the Capitol Visitor's Center.
Douglas Mark Hughes of Ruskin, Florida, was taken into custody shortly after the aircraft touched down. Capitol police say charges are pending.
Hughes took responsibility for the stunt on a website where he said he was delivering letters to all 535 members of Congress in order to draw attention to campaign finance corruption.
"As I have informed the authorities, I have no violent inclinations or intent," the 61-year-old wrote on his website, thedemocracyclub.org. "An ultralight aircraft poses no major physical threat -- it may present a political threat to graft. I hope so. There's no need to worry -- I'm just delivering the mail."
The Tampa Bay Times posted a video featuring Hughes on its website prior to the incident, which detailed his plan.
"He had alerted me and my colleague that this was the week," said Ben Montgomery, reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. "He was looking for a day when the weather was right. It was raining Monday, it was raining yesterday and clear today, so we knew he would go up."
Montgomery said Hughes flew from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and detailed the reasoning for his flight.
"He's been thinking for a very long time about campaign finance reform, about how money corrupts elections, corrupts the government, and obviously it's a topic that makes people's eyes glaze over and he thought I need to do a big act of disobedience that will get this kind of attention in order to arrest the news cycle and turn people's attention to this very important topic, and nobody wants to pay attention to it," said Montgomery. "So he packed up 535 letters, one for every member of Congress, strapped into the outside of his little gyrocopter and flew an hour to the Capitol to get that attention.
"His stunt was to deliver the mail. He was a mailman. But it's all about turning this kind of attention to this very important topic."
The reporter said Hughes was live broadcasting the whole flight.
The Secret Service interviewed Hughes and a friend of his who knew about the plan about a year ago, according to Montgomery.
"Doug told me he gave the Secret Service the name and number for his doctor so they could verify if he was homicidal or suicidal, and they never heard anything else and he carried on with his plan," Montgomery said.
A Senate aide said Capitol Police knew of the plan shortly before Hughes took off, and said he had previously been interviewed by the U.S. Secret Service. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the investigation.
House Homeland Security panel Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said the pilot landed on his own, but that had he made it much closer to the Capitol authorities were prepared to shoot him down. "Had it gotten any closer to the speaker's balcony they have long guns to take it down, but it didn't. It landed right in front," McCaul said.
The White House said President Barack Obama had been briefed on the situation.
Witnesses said the craft approached the Capitol from the west, flying low over the National Mall and the Capitol reflecting pool across the street from the building. It barely cleared a row of trees and a statue of Gen. Ulysses Grant.
The Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement, "The FAA is working with its aviation security partners in the DC area to investigate an incident involving an aircraft that landed on the west lawn of the Capitol this afternoon. 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. Violators may face civil and criminal penalties."
John Jewell, 72, a tourist from Statesville, North Carolina, said the craft landed hard and bounced. An officer was already there with a gun drawn. "He didn't get out until police officers told him to get out. He had his hands up"' and was quickly led away by the police, Jewell said. "They snatched him pretty fast."
The situation was under investigation and streets in the area were shut down. Emergency vehicles were dispatched to the area and a robot bomb detector was sent over to the craft.
At around 3:15 p.m., Capitol police removed the gyrocopter from the West Lawn after the bomb squad determined nothing hazardous was found.
After 4 p.m., Capitol police say the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol was cleared, all streets were reopened and normal operations were resumed.
According to gyrocopterexperience.com, a gyrocopter looks like a small helicopter, but the main difference is that there is no engine turning the rotors. Instead, the site explains, the rotors self-propel, due to the way the air flows through them.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.