The Florida mail carrier accused of landing a gyrocopter outside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday was charged in federal court Thursday and has been barred from returning to the District of Columbia or flying any aircraft, officials said.
Douglas Hughes, 61, was charged with violating aircraft registration requirements, a felony, and violating national defense airspace, a misdemeanor. If convicted, he could be sentenced to up to three years in prison for the felony and one year in prison for the airspace violation.
He was released on his own recognizance Thursday and will be placed on home detention in Florida, prosecutors said.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson also barred Hughes from the District of Columbia, except for court appearances, and said he must stay away from the Capitol, White House and nearby areas while he is there. He will also have to hand over his passport.
Hughes, a rural letter carrier from Ruskin, Florida, was arrested Wednesday after he landed the craft on the West Lawn of the Capitol about 1:30 p.m., U.S. Capitol Police said.
The unauthorized landing was an act of civil disobedience, Hughes said on his Democracy Club website before the flight. He said he wanted to deliver 535 letters by “air mail” to members of Congress as a form of protest.
“The unending chase for money I believe threatens to steal our democracy itself,” he wrote in a letter posted by the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday. “I’m demanding reform and declaring a voter’s rebellion.”
Hughes announced his intentions to land at the Capitol in an article published by the newspaper Wednesday morning. He said on his website that he took off from about an hour outside Washington. Video from Wednesday shows the craft flying over the National Mall and catching the attention of several onlookers before it landed on the Capitol’s West Lawn.
Hughes was the only person aboard the craft, and a bomb squad found nothing hazardous on board, police said.
Secret Service agents visited Hughes in October 2013 after receiving a tip from a “concerned citizen,” according to an agency spokesman, who said the Secret Service had no warning about his Wednesday flight.
According to Hughes’ website, he is married with four children and has been flying gyrocopters for more than a year. He grew up in Santa Cruz, California, and lives with his wife and 11-year-old daughter.
In a statement, the Federal Aviation Administration said the pilot did not have authorization to fly there and had not contacted FAA air traffic controllers to inform them of his flight. “Airspace security rules that cover the Capitol and the District of Columbia prohibit private aircraft flights without prior coordination and permission,” the statement said.
Hughes could face civil and criminal penalties for flying near the Capitol, which is considered part of a national defense airspace. The FAA said it was working with aviation security partners in Washington to investigate the incident.
Hughes is due back in court May 8 for a preliminary hearing, prosecutors said.