News & Politics

Congress Let “60 Minutes” Fly Helicopter Over Washington for Dome Story

Congress helped CBS News get around myriad restrictions for a puff piece about the US Capitol Building.

Non-government helicopters rarely get to fly over DC, much less the Capitol Building. Photograph by Flickr user Adam Fagen.

Between the permits and police, filming on Capitol Hill is difficult enough. But getting footage from above the Capitol is almost unheard of these days. Yet that’s what CBS News was able to do last Sunday, when it featured a long helicopter shot of the Capitol’s dome for a 60 Minutes piece on the structure’s 150th anniversary and upcoming refurbishment, and all the network had to do was beg both houses of Congress, smooth things out with the police, and get an exemption from a federal ban on aircraft over Washington.

Lucky for 60 Minutes, all sides of Congress—even in this era of hopelessly fractured government—are willing to bend the rules for inoffensive fluff. CBS News got its aerial access after taking its request to the Senate Rules Committee and House Speaker John Boehner. Both offices signed off, sending 60 Minutes through the permitting process, which included the US Secret Service and US Capitol Police and the Federal Aviation Administration’s flight ban.

“I’ve heard it’s unprecedented,” says Justin Kieffer, a spokesman for the Architect of the Capitol. “I think there was bipartisan support for telling the story of the dome.”

Helicopter filming isn’t usually an impossibility, but it has been exceedingly rare in Washington since 9/11, when the FAA introduced the flight ban, restricting all aircraft without a pre-approved flight plan or official government duty from flying within a 15-mile radius of Reagan National Airport. (That’s also the main reason it’s illegal to fly a drone or remote-controlled plane in DC.)

Exemptions sometimes happen for big-budget action movies, but not for weekly news programs. Getting around the FAA, along with obtaining permits from various law enforcement agencies, can take more than a month. CBS News would not say how far in advance it requested the November 19 shoot, but it took the producers of this summer’s White House Down more than five weeks last year to get permission for a few minutes of aerial footage of Washington.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.