The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Flying mailman becomes most audacious gyrocopter pilot since James Bond

Placeholder while article actions load

When disgruntled Florida mailman Doug Hughes landed his ultralight gyrocopter on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, he was hoping to stir a debate about campaign finance reform. And maybe he did.

But the question that was on most people’s lips afterward was, “What the heck is a gyrocopter?”

The stunt was the culmination of years of planning by Hughes, who took off from Gettysburg Regional Airport in Pennsylvania and flew a carefully plotted route to ensure he had enough gas to reach the Capitol. But it was an unexpected cameo for a type of aircraft that is nearly a century old, yet completely unheard of by most Americans.

In fact, Hughes’s odd flying machine was central to his success on Wednesday, according to another gyrocopter aficionado.

“Apart from a helicopter, the only way he could have done it with an aircraft is with a gyro,” said Stephen Paffett, treasurer for the British Rotorcraft Association and an avid gyrocopter pilot.

Unlike helicopters, which are have motorized rotor blades, gyrocopters are powered by propellers — in the case of Hughes’s aircraft, they are on the back. The blades above the gyrocopter are powered only by airflow.

“It’s like a sycamore seed,” Paffett explained. “Basically, you’ve got 90 percent of a helicopter for 10 percent of the cost. So you can do all the things you can do in a helicopter, pretty much. You can’t take off vertically. You have to take off a bit more like an airplane, going along the runway, collecting some air flow, and lifting yourself up. But when it comes to playing around in the air, you can do very tight turns, you can do vertical descents, you can cut the power and just glide into a field. So they are incredibly versatile.”

[Graphic: What’s a gyrocopter?]

Paffett said he’s not sure from photographs exactly what kind of gyrocopter Hughes used but that it was probably a home-built model that cost around $10,000. Most helicopters start at around $100,000.

On top of being affordable, gyrocopters also represent “something a little bit different” than the usual aircraft, Paffett said. Also called gyroplanes, autogyros or rotaplanes, they were invented in the 1920s. In 1931, Amelia Earhart flew a giant gyrocopter called the Beech-Nut from New Jersey to California and back.

Until Wednesday, at least, the most famous gyrocopter was Little Nellie from the 1967 James Bond film, “You Only Live Twice.” In the movie, Bond’s banana-yellow gadget is outfitted with flamethrowers and aerial mines that allow him to evade a fleet of helicopters.

“That’s the attraction with them. They are something out of the box,” Paffett said. “If you look into [Hughes], you’ll find he’s probably a little bit eccentric. Most of us are.”

Eccentric is a good word for a man who risked being shot down by federal authorities in order to deliver to every member of Congress letters demanding campaign finance reform.

Hughes, 61, appears to have timed his stunt with the start of Bensen Days, a three-day “fly-in” in Wauchula, Fla., where Hughes has said he keeps his gyrocopter. The event is named after Igor Bensen, who pioneered the minimalist type of gyrocopter that Hughes landed on the Capitol Lawn on Wednesday. Every year, scores of gyrocopter pilots from around the country come to Wauchula to fly.

Doug Hughes, 61, a mail carrier from Ruskin, Fla., was jailed and is facing undisclosed charges after he flew his vehicle over D.C. and landed on the Capitol grounds, U.S. Capitol Police said in a statement. (Video: Reuters)

Paffett said the United States is the place to fly gyrocopters because there is little regulation. Pilots need only 20 hours of training to get certified on the aircraft and are given wide leeway to modify their copters.

“You guys in the States are quite lucky. Rules are much freer over there,” he said. “You can just go and build one and get the FAA approval and have almost a bedstead with a rotor on top. It can be something very crude, as long as it meets a certain criteria.”

“Do-it-yourself aircraft are very heavily regulated in the U.K.,” said Paffett, who lives in Letchworth, near London. “They are very, very stringent on people doing things themselves. Whereas in the in the States you are very, very free to get on and do 90 percent of it yourself. In one sense, that’s good news because people can still develop things. In this country, the aviation industry is choking us.”

But he said that freedom has, at times, backfired and given gyrocopters a bad name.

“The reason they’ve got a bad history is because a lot of the home-built ones were built by people who kind of read the plans, did the best they could, but because they only had one seat, there was nobody to teach them,” he said. “So they’d go off and try and fly it themselves, and if something was a little bit wrong, they can be very quirky. It’s not like a hang-glider, where you can just jump off a hill and nose-dive into the grass. It’s going to be a little bit more of a serious incident if you haven’t got it right.”

Paffett said a stunt like Hughes’s would be hard to carry out in the United Kingdom, where pilots are forbidden from flying over heavily populated zones.

“There would have been a jet beside you, escorting you back out again, and the prospect of a three-year ban,” the 59-year-old said with a laugh. He adds that he’s not worried that his American gyrocopter counterpart has done damage to the aircraft’s reputation. Quite the opposite.

“I think it’ll be good news for gyros,” he said. “I don’t think people will rush out and buy one, but they’ll familiarize themselves with them.”

He plans on taking his own gyrocopter out for “a nice little jolly” later today, just not anywhere near Buckingham Palace.

“I think they’d be looking out for gyros now,” he said. “They are probably on their guard.”