News & Politics

The Gyrocopter Landing Was a Failure of National Defense

So don't blame the Tampa Bay Times.

Photograph by Flickr user B Mauro.

This is a joke, right? An SNL skit? A plug for airborne aerobic exercise?

A 61-year-old postman flies a tiny aircraft the size of an oversized kite over the most protected air space in the world. Over the National Mall and the Smithsonian museums, close enough to see the White House from above. He lands on the grounds of the US Capitol. And he surprises the entire military-security complex?

Do I sense a congressional investigation?

The authorities are questioning reporters and editors at the Tampa Bay Times, who got word of Douglas Mark Hughes’ plans to fly his gyrocopter to the US Capitol. Why didn’t the journalists warn the authorities sooner?

Because it’s not their job!

The airspace over the District of Columbia is purportedly the most “no fly” of any no fly zones on the globe. It’s bristling with air defense systems, under NORAD’s National Capital Region Integrated Air Defense System. That’s part of Operation Noble Eagle, initiated by President Bush after the 9/11 attack. “Integrated” into the system are the Air Force, Army, FBI, CIA, and US Capitol Police.

And a postman flies through the center of the zone, takes in the sights and lands with a bounce on the Capitol lawn. First, he signals his plans on his blog. He emails And he tells his local newspaper.

He proceeds to surprise the best-defended air space in the land.

The Postman Only Lands Once could be the title of a new comedy, but it’s no joke. If the NSA can monitor domestic electronic traffic and the FBI has been budgeted millions to track threats to important assets—such as the Capitol and White House—how can a senior citizen glide over the nation’s capital? Hughes is a gentle soul who wanted to deliver letters to Congress about campaign contributions.

This is not a question for the Tampa Bay Times. Where was the FBI?

We asked. They referred us to the FAA and NORAD, which said it did not detect the craft.

The larger question is why we remain so vulnerable to low impact intrusions. NORAD scans the skies for planes with ill intent, and F-16s stand at the ready at Andrew Air Force Base. But a lone man on a toy helicopter can breach our defenses. Two brothers used homemade bombs to kill and maim at the Boston Marathon. What if Hughes was carrying a dirty bomb rather than a bundle of letters?

Not so funny.