Pilot of gyrocopter that landed near US Capitol charged

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Florida postal carrier charged Thursday with two federal crimes for steering his small gyrocopter through protected Washington airspace "literally flew under the radar" to the lawn of the Capitol, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said as key lawmakers raised alarms about security risks.

Doug Hughes, 61, was charged with violating restricted airspace and operating an unregistered aircraft, crimes that carry penalties of up to four years in prison and fines. He was released from custody and allowed to return to Florida on home detention. A federal magistrate judge ordered him not to fly any aircraft and told him to stay away from Washington except for court visits and keep clear of the White House and Capitol while in town.

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Pilot of gyrocopter that landed near US Capitol charged
UNITED STATES - MAY 21: Doug Hughes conducts a news conference outside of the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse, May 21, 2015, after pleading not guilty to six counts regarding his landing of a gyrocopter on the West Lawn of the Capitol in April. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Carrying an umbrella that says "shame" on it, Douglas Hughes of Florida leaves federal court in Washington, Thursday, May 21, 2015. Hughes, who flew a gyrocopter through some of America's most restricted airspace before landing at the Capitol pleaded not guilty on Thursday to the six charges he faces. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 15: A gyrocopter seen after it landed on the West Front of the US Capitol on Capitol Hill causing the building and visitor center to be locked down Wednesday afternoon in Washington DC, United States on April 15, 2015. Reports state that a manned aircraft or gyrocopter landed on a lawn near the US Capitol. Police have arrested the pilot. (Photo by Erkan Avci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Douglas Hughes of Florida holds up a design for a stamp that was given to him by an artist as a gift, while meeting with reporters outside federal court in Washington, Thursday, May 21, 2015, . Hughes, who flew a gyrocopter through some of America's most restricted airspace before landing at the Capitol pleaded not guilty on Thursday to the six charges he faces. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Various officials take a close up look at the scene where a small helo or gyrocopter landed on the US Capitol South Lawn area 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.'The US Capitol Police continues to investigate, with one person detained,' USCP officer Shennell Antrobus told AFP. AFP PHOTO/PAUL J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
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)
Capitol Hill police officers 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)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 15: A member of the U.S. Capitol Police Bomb Squad works to check and secure a gyrocopter that landed on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol April 15, 2015 in Washington, DC. Doug Hughes, a 61-year-old postal worker from Ruskin, Florida, landed the lightweight helicopter on the Capitol lawn to protest against government corruption and to promote campaign finance reform. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 15: A gyrocopter sits on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol with members of the U.S. Capitol Police nearby April 15, 2015 in Washington, DC. Doug Hughes, 61, from Ruskin, FL., landed the gyrocopter on the West Lawn and was arrested immediately. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
A police device rolls toward a copter device, right, that landed on the West Front of the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, April 15, 2015. A small one-person helicopter has landed on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol, prompting a temporary lockdown of the Capitol Visitor's Center. Capitol Police approached the aircraft shortly after it touched down and took its pilot into custody. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 15: A gyrocopter that illegally landed on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol is loaded onto a U.S. Capitol Police trailer April 15, 2015 in Washington, DC. Doug Hughes, a 61-year-old postal worker from Ruskin, Florida, was quickly arrested after he landed the lightweight helicopter on the Capitol lawn to protest against government corruption and to promote campaign finance reform. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
A small helicopter sits on the West Lawn of the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, April 15, 2015. ?The U.S. Capitol Police is investigating a gyro copter with a single occupant that has landed on the grassy area of the West Lawn of t?he U.S. Capitol. The U.S. Capitol Police continues to investigate with one person detained and temporary street closures in the immediate area. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
A small helicopter sits on the West Lawn of the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, April 15, 2015. ?The U.S. Capitol Police is investigating a gyro copter with a single occupant that has landed on the grassy area of the West Lawn of t?he U.S. Capitol. The U.S. Capitol Police continues to investigate with one person detained and temporary street closures in the immediate area. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
A small helicopter lands on the West Lawn of the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, April 15, 2015, after landing. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
A small helicopter sits on the West Lawn of the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, April 15, 2015, after landing. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
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Hughes' stunt, aimed at drawing attention to the need for campaign finance reform, exposed a seam in the U.S. government's efforts to protect the White House, Capitol and other vital federal buildings.

The stunt caused no injuries and few disruptions as Hughes flew in low and slow, landing between the Capitol and its reflecting pool in broad daylight on Wednesday. But lawmakers demanded explanations for how he managed to remain undetected as he flew the lightweight craft all the way to Capitol Hill from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Concerns were only magnified by the confirmation that Hughes was interviewed in 2013 by the U.S. Secret Service, which apparently determined he did not pose a threat, according to Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

"I think that there's absolutely a gap, and it's a very dangerous gap, with regard to our airspace," Cummings said. "I don't want people to get a message that they can just land anywhere. Suppose there was a bomb or an explosive device on that air vehicle? That could have been a major catastrophe."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the incident "stunning," and Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, said he would consider holding hearings.

"These small aircraft or UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) devices concern me because they could go undetected and cause damage, so that's something we're taking a look at," McCaul said.

But Johnson said it's too soon to say whether security changes are needed.

"I want to know all the facts before I reach an assessment of what can and should be done about gyrocopters in the future," he told reporters on Capitol Hill.

"We are a democracy. We don't have fences around our airspace, so we've got to find the right balance between living in a free and open society, and security and the protection of federal buildings," Johnson said.

Lawmakers of both parties expressed disbelief that none of the multiple security agencies tasked with protecting Washington became aware of Hughes' flight in time to stop it.

Secret Service officials disputed reports that they had been warned in advance by the Tampa Bay Times, contending that the newspaper's reporter called to inquire about a protest, but offered no specific warning.

Hughes said little in his appearance in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia except to softly ask Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson a clarifying question. He avoided reporters on the way in and out. His next court appearance is May 8.

White House Spokesman Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama was not in Washington when the gyrocopter landed, but was told about it.

"There will be a careful look at this incident," he predicted, "and it may provide an opportunity for law enforcement agencies, including the Secret Service, to review their procedures and to get some useful lessons from it."

The U.S. military said the North American Aerospace Defense Command and other law enforcement and intelligence organizations are reviewing sensor data to determine what happened as the gyrocopter neared and penetrated restricted airspace. A NORAD spokesman said the incident highlights a persistent vulnerability: the inability to detect some low, slow-flying objects.

Air traffic controllers at Reagan National Airport across the Potomac River from Washington didn't detect the gyrocopter, mostly likely because it was flying less than 200 feet above ground, a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity for lack of authority to speak publicly.

It's not unusual for a small aircraft like a gyrocopter to go undetected by conventional radar. Unlike most larger aircraft, a gyrocopter doesn't have an identifying transponder. Some radar can detect small objects, but their effectiveness varies.

The landing on the Capitol grounds "just illustrates how hard it is to have an impermeable barrier. It's very hard to hermetically seal airspace," said John Hansman, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology aeronautics professor.

NORAD, the FAA and the Defense Department control the airspace around the national capital region. The FAA is responsible for alerting other agencies to an aerial security breach. The Defense Department would then decide whether to shoot it down, a federal law enforcement official said, also speaking on condition of anonymity for lack of authority to be quoted in the media.

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