Gyrocopter landing on Capitol differentiated as bird or terrain by radar – Pentagon

Still from AP video
Officials say that the light-weight gyrocopter that landed on the west lawn of the United States Capitol Building earlier this month was detected by radar, but that technology rendered the aircraft indistinguishable from birds and balloons.

The US House Oversight and Government Reform Committee grilled law enforcement officials from the greater Washington, DC area during a hearing on Wednesday concerning the incident two weeks earlier in which a Florida man landed a lightweight gyrocopter on the National Mall.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the chair of the committee, told witnesses at the hearing that he has serious concerns about a communication breakdown that is being blamed for the lack of coordination that occurred on the afternoon of April 15 when 61-year-old Doug Hughes touched down on Capitol property in his personal aircraft.

It has subsequently been revealed that federal authorities had become aware of Hughes’ plan to land a gyrocopter in DC a year-and-a-half ago, and that a Tampa Bay Times reporter had reached out to officials on the matter around 24 minutes before the pilot was apprehended. Nevertheless, law enforcement on the ground in Washington was forced to scramble to assess the situation only seconds before it was resolved peacefully.

“At this point ignorance is no longer an excuse when it comes to drone and small aircraft,” Chaffetz said, echoing concerns from others in Washington who are still reeling from an incident earlier this year in which a hobbyist unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, landed near the White House.

When Chaffetz inquired of the panel about whose responsibility it ultimately was to intercept the aircraft, Admiral William Gortney, a commander with the Pentagon’s NORAD took the blame. With regards to the Pentagon’s inability to spot the vehicle, though, Gortney testified that the Defense Dept. is “working against physics.”

“We now understand is that the gyrocopter was detected by several of the integrated sensors as it approached and transited” the restricted airspace, Gortney said. “However, the aircraft’s flight parameters fell below the threshold necessary to differentiate aircraft from weather, terrain, birds and other slow flying objects so as to ensure that the systems and those operating them focus on that which poses the greatest threat.”

“This is a question of technology and policy, both of which are rapidly evolving,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland) acknowledged at the hearing. At the same time, though, Cummings, a ranking member of the panel, said that the government’s inability to stay on pace could pose a problem if changes aren’t made.

“The airspace around our nation’s capital is supposed to be the most restricted in the world,” Cummings said. “Yet a postal worker... postal worker from Florida – was able to fly his gyrocopter through 30 miles of restricted airspace before finally landing on [the] Capitol lawn.”

Hughes “was only trying to make a peaceful demonstration,” Cummings said. “But we might not be so fortunate in the future. It takes almost no effort to imagine what could have been. What if he had weapons? What if he were carrying a bomb?”

Witnesses agreed at the hearing that the gyrocopter was incapable of carrying a heavy payload, but Cummings said Hughes could have packed 50 pounds of plastic explosives had he wanted to and likely would have still went undetected by radar. Had he accomplished as much, Joseph Clancy, the director of the US Secret Service, said the result would have been “devastating.”

“I have come here to beg you to do whatever you have to do to get the technology if we don’t have it [and] to speed up the technology if it’s in the process to more effectively and efficiently allow you to do the jobs that you were sworn to do,” Cummings told the witnesses.

Gortney and Clancy were flanked on the floor of the Capitol by fellow witnesses from the ranks of the US Federal Aviation Administration, US Park Police, US Capitol Police and the Pentagon, as well as the House’s sergeant at arms, who testified that he has since ordered law enforcement on the Capitol grounds to utilize the House Notification System to more quickly provide updates in the event of future incidents.

Michael Huerta, the administrator of the FAA, admitted that the agency learned after the fact that its own radar systems had detected the gyrocopter, but said that, like NORAD, it appeared to be minor. The gyrocopter had appeared on radar as a “small, unidentified” dot, Huerta said, and “all available information about the slow moving, irregular symbol made it indistinguishable from other non-aircraft radar tracks,” including those made by birds and other small airborne objects.

“Along with our interagency partners, we are engaged in a detailed review of the event and subsequent actions and responses to determine lessons learned and ways to improve our response moving forward,” Gortney testified.

Hughes as charged with operating an unregistered aircraft and violating restricted airspace. He is free on bond ahead of a hearing scheduled for May 8 back in DC.