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Capitol Gyrocopter Pilot Douglas Hughes Sentenced to 120 Days

by Alex Johnson and Pete Williams /  / Updated 
IMAGE: Douglas Hughes flying to the U.S. Capitol
Tampa Bay Times

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The Florida mailman who flew a gyrocopter onto the lawn of the U.S. Capitol to protest the campaign finance system was sentenced Thursday to 120 days in jail.

Douglas Hughes, 62, of Ruskin, Florida, pleaded guilty in November to operating as an airman without an airman's certificate, a felony. At a hearing Thursday in Washington, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said his actions showed a "total lack of concern and disregard" for the safety of others.

Hughes will also have to serve a year's probation, during which he is barred from the U.S. Capitol and the White House.

Asked Thursday after he was sentenced if his political statement was worth it, given the punishment, Hughes responded, "Heck, yes. I'll never do this again. But yes, it was worth it. Four months? Yeah."

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A little more than a year ago, on April 15, 2015 — tax day — Hughes piloted his small open-cockpit gyrocopter from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to Washington through restricted airspace and then a no-fly zone. He zoomed over the National Mall and past the statue memorializing President Ulysses S. Grant before landing with a thud and a bounce on Congress' West Lawn.

In a sentencing memorandum, Hughes' attorneys asked that he be sentenced to time already served, arguing that "Mr. Hughes should be considered a hero" for his "altruistic act that was done in order to advance the interest of the vast majority of people residing in the United States."

Indeed, most of Hughes' 23-page court filing is devoted to excoriating corporate influence on politics, equating him with prominent figures of American history like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Henry David Thoreau, Patrick Henry and Susan B. Anthony.

Related: Inside the Mind of the Mailman Who Flew to Washington

Hughes' "actions were fully consistent with promoting respect for the law," his lawyers argued, noting that he gave local and federal authorities two hours' notice of his flight to the Capitol, that he immediately acknowledged his responsibility, cooperated with authorities and that no one was injured.

But federal prosecutors responded that Hughes "committed his crimes because he craved attention."

"The defendant's gyrocopter flight put unsuspecting people in real danger, disrupted operations at the United States Capitol, and demonstrated a profound disrespect for the law and the legitimate rights of others," they said.

"Indeed," they said, "it may be a troubling sign of our age if some believe that dangerous violations of legitimate public safety laws for political theater and free media attention should constitute heroism."

In their court filing, prosecutors said Hughes' small craft flew within the extended flight patterns of 20 different airports — including Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport three miles away in Arlington, Virginia — and less than a mile from Vice President Joe Biden's residence.

At one point, it flew almost directly into the flight path of a Delta Airlines jet, coming within 1,400 yards of the plane. "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 separate court document.

Hughes, who grew up in Santa Cruz, California and served in the Navy as an electrician after high school, made no secret of his plans, announcing them in an online post more than a year and a half in advance, in September 2013. The government was quickly on to him, and the Secret Service visited him at his home the next month.

Hughes' attorneys say he has pledged to comply with the law from now on as he pushes his political message. Last month, he was reported to be considering running for Congress against Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida.

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