News & Politics

It Wasn’t Always Illegal to Fly a Gyrocopter Near the Capitol

But it's always been a spectacle when one does.

Photograph via Library of Congress.

Washington is presently gripped by the appearance of a gyrocopter on the West Lawn of the Capitol. The pilot, 61-year-old letter carrier Doug Hughes from Ruskin, Florida, was promptly detained by US Capitol Police for violating the heavily restricted airspace around Washington.

Although Hughes’s flight—a meticulously planned protest against profligate campaign spending in the wake of Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission—was cut short, the spectacle of a tiny, propeller-powered aircraft, which is also known as an autogyro, buzzing past the Capitol is not unprecedented. On May 19, 1938, on another spring afternoon, Washington was transfixed by the sight of an autogyro carrying letters and packages.

The flight, the Washington Post reported, was designed as a demonstration of how the use of tiny airplanes could speed up the letter-delivery process in congested urban centers. The craft used that day was flown by Johnny Miller, a pilot who in 1938 was known for being the only aviator to successfully loop an autogyro. Miller’s flight path took him from a postal station in Bethesda to DC’s main post office next to Union Station, but included a fly-by of the Capitol, as captured in the image above.

Screenshot via Washington Post archives.

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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.