The Florida ex-postal worker who landed a gyrocopter at the U.S. Capitol last year accused prosecutors Saturday of misleading a sentencing judge by claiming that his protest flight risked a midair collision with a commercial jet departing from nearby Reagan National Airport.
Douglas Hughes, 62, of Ruskin, Fla., is to be sentenced April 13 in Washington after pleading guilty to a felony charge of flying without a license. He piloted his low-power gyrocopter last April from Gettysburg, Pa., to the District to deliver to Congress letters advocating for campaign finance reform.
In court papers asking U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly to impose a 10-month sentence, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Tejpal S. Chawla and Michael J. Friedman of the District wrote that Hughes came within 1,400 yards of Delta Flight 1639 on April 15, risking a “catastrophic” accident.
“If the gyrocopter had drifted slightly west, or the airline had taken a slightly more easterly path, a collision could have occurred,” prosecutors said.
In a 38-page sentencing memo, prosecutors cited post-flight analyses of the radar path of the 150-person Airbus jet and of radar and GPS locations for Hughes’s gyrocopter.
They said Hughes “intentionally flew his modified and unregistered gyrocopter into the tightly restricted airspace surrounding three active international airports and the national defense airspace of our nation’s capital, putting his own life and the lives of others at grave risk, all to gain media attention for his political message.”
Hughes, in a telephone interview from his home state, rejected the allegation. He cited testimony by U.S. Capitol Police Chief Kim Dine before a congressional committee last spring that showed that the Delta plane took off at 12:58 p.m., 25 minutes before he landed.
“I was there. It didn’t happen,” Hughes said. “They said I flew within 1,500 yards. I wasn’t within 30 miles of it.”
Hughes’s attorneys have asked for a sentence of time served, saying his flight caused no injury or property damage, nor harm to the community. The charge carries no sentencing guideline, leaving the judge free to impose terms.
“Mr. Hughes needed to utilize a dramatic method in bringing attention to the problem because the traditional means of contacting Congress are ineffective and the amount of influence that sixty-two year old mailmen have in the current political arena is insignificant,” Hughes’s defense attorneys wrote.
Hughes spent one night in jail, five weeks on home confinement and has been confined mostly to travel within his home county of Hillsborough County, Fla. Earlier this year, Kollar-Kotelly granted Hughes’s request to travel “to, from and around” the Miami-Dade County area, where he is mounting a campaign for Congress from Florida’s 23rd Congressional District.