Florida Man Tries To Air-Drop Message To Congress, It Does Not Go Well
A Florida (OF COURSE) mailman'sattempt to call attention to campaign finance reform instead prompted a terrorism scare when the amateur aviator landed his gyrocopter on Capitol Hill Wednesday. 61-year-old Doug Hughes, of Ruskin, Florida, had been planning the flight for over a year, and apparently tried to publicize the stunt by building a website and telling the Tampa Bay Times about it in advance, but apart from getting a visit from the Secret Service last year -- with no follow-up -- it appears that nobody in Washington was aware of the planned flight, which Hughes knew was in violation of federal law. The Times even made a video about Hughes's plans:
So Hughes towed his gyrocopter from Florida to somewhere outside DC, took off, and flew at a leisurely 45 MPH at an altitude of about 300 feet, landing on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol and scaring the bejesus out of tourists. He wanted to deliver 535 letters, one to each member of Congress, calling for reform of campaign finance laws. Ever the dutiful postal carrier, he even spent $250 on stamps for the envelopes, although we're unsure whether he cancelled them himself, which might have been mail fraudy, we don't know. Hughes told the Times that he was completely open to the Secret Service about his intentions when an agent talked to him last spring:
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 [...]
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 after that, it looks like the Secret Service, with its typical efficiency, completely forgot about him. Hughes wrote in his letters to Congress that he was "demanding reform and declaring a voter's rebellion in a manner consistent with Jefferson's description of rights in the Declaration of Independence." He added:
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.
Mr. Hughes also told the Times that he knew that violation of Washington DC's restricted airspace put him at risk of possibly being shot down, noting that "no sane person would do what I'm doing." So it was that Mr. Hughes found himself a Tampa Bay Times reporter and filled him in on all the juicy, completely nonviolent details, expressing his desire that no one get hurt:
"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." [...]
"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 ... 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."
Instead, nobody had any idea that he was coming. The AP has a cellphone video of Hughes's landing, which actually looks like it was pretty slickly executed (and happily, Hughes was not):
Needless to say, several of the YouTube comments are from amateur cinematographers complaining that the woman didn't hold her phone sideways, thus ruining the video.
In an update, the Tampa Bay Times notes that shortly before the flight, Hughes's friend Robert Shanahan had called the Secret Service agent who left his card last spring to inform him that Hughes was on the way and that he posed no danger. The agent wasn't in, so Shanahan left a message.
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.
Hughes told the Times that he wanted to hijack the news cycle with a stunt that would call attention to how the Citizens United decision had corrupted democracy.
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.
Darned if we can find anything to disagree with there, although it's looking like the most likely outcome of Hughes's flight is that instead of talking about campaign finance reform, people are going to call for anti-aircraft guns to be stationed throughout DC. That's something that can be done quickly and easily!
As an aviation nerd, Yr Dok Zoom is also enjoying all the confusion on cable news about just what the hell a "gyrocopter" is. It's the weirdass little rotorcraft (with unpowered rotor blades taking the place of wings as the primary lifting surfaces) that you saw in The Road Warrior and You Only Live Twice. Also the McCulloch J-2 Gyroplane, briefly built by, yes, the chainsaw company in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, was the first aircraft we ever lusted for, back in junior high. We just wish more news outlets would call Hughes's craft an "autogyro," which has such lovely 1930s Golden Age of Flight connotations -- the wealthy dipshit in It Happened One Night flies one to his wedding, which was just about his only redeeming feature if you ask us, but not enough to keep Claudette Colbert from bolting into the arms of Clark Gable.
And just look at that cute little gyrocopter! Hughes even painted the tail with a Postal Service logo (probably violating some regs there, too. What the hell, go for it, dude):
Ladies and gentlemen, we submit to you that Doug Hughes is no terrorist. He is a kook, a crackpot, a protester and civil disobediencer in the classic tradition. He knows he's headed for jail, but his heart is pure. He is Don Quixote of Ruskin, Florida, riding a clattery little ultralight Rocinante, and goddamnit, it's about time that somebody writes a folk song about him.
Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.