The tiny gyrocopter flown by a Florida mailman that landed on the U.S. Capitol grounds on April 15 was indistinguishable on radar from a flock of birds, a balloon or a kite, and Congress wants to know why it wasn't detected and stopped.
Despite receiving a warning from a Tampa Bay Times news reporter that Douglas Mark Hughes, 61, of Ruskin, Florida, was on his way 28 minutes before his gyrocopter landed at 1:23 p.m., the Secret Service, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Capitol Police were unable to stop him from landing, USA Today reports
Members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee meeting Wednesday on the matter also wanted to know why Senate members, but not House members, were notified of a possible threat to the nation's capital.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the panel investigating the incident, said Hughes is "lucky to be alive" and "should have been blown out of the air," Stars and Stripes reported
Hughes made his 30-mile flight to the Capitol undetected because he "literally flew under the radar," Homeland Security Chairman Jeh Johnson said, National Public Radio reported
Adm. William Gortney, commander of the U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, told the panel: "Identifying low-altitude and slow-speed aerial vehicles from other objects is a technical and operational challenge. Our initial analysis of this event has further confirmed the need to continue to improve our ability to identify slow-speed aerial vehicles operating in the national capital region," USA Today reported.
FAA head Michael Huerta said air traffic control radar routinely filters out imagery of small and slow-moving objects like balloons to allow controllers to keep track of airplanes with transponders.
"Air traffic controllers could not do their jobs if they had to work with an unfiltered radar feed," Huerta said, USA Today reported. Later study of the unfiltered radar found the gyrocopter displayed only as a small dot as it made its way from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to the Capitol.
"All available information about the slow-moving, irregular symbol made it indistinguishable from other non-aircraft radar tracks," Huerta said.
Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy told the panel: "At no time did the Secret Service receive actionable advance notice or any information that this event was taking place. While the Secret Service received telephone calls on the date of the incident, at no time was information provided in the calls that would have alerted our personnel to the fact that Hughes was piloting his aircraft to the Capitol," USA Today reports.
Capitol Police Chief Kim Dine said the short lag between notification and landing did not allow Capitol Police time to fully notify Congress of the potential threat, and House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving said he has ordered an official notification system to alert House and Senate members, staff and visitors of "events that could potentially be a threat," Stars and Stripes reported.
"I have ordered the chief never to allow this to happen again," he said.
Hughes, who was planning to deliver letters to lawmakers urging campaign finance reform, is charged with violating aircraft registration rules and violation of a national defense airspace, which together could bring up to four years in prison, NPR reports.
He is under house confinement in Florida, banned from flying or returning to the Washington area, except for trial, and has had to surrender his passport. He has a court hearing scheduled for May 8, NPR notes.
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