(Updated at 4 p.m.) The Capitol building was under lockdown this afternoon after a pilot landed a small, helicopter-like aircraft on the Capitol grounds.
A gyrocopter landed on the West Front grounds before 1:30 p.m., according to news reports and eyewitnesses. The pilot flying over protected airspace was arrested by U.S. Capitol police, according to NBC Washington.
Police have not identified the pilot, but a man who said he is a postal carrier who lives near Tampa, Florida took responsibility for the stunt. A man claiming to be Doug Hughes, 61, wrote on his website, thedemocracyclub.org, that he would embark on his “freedom flight” today to deliver 535 letters to members of Congress to speak out against corruption.
The aircraft was still perched on the grass directly in front of the Capitol building for hours, and was removed about 3:40 p.m. Dozens of onlookers gathered in front of police tape blocking the scene, which was reopened to the public by 4 p.m.
Eyewitness Nora Neus, 21, was strolling on the National Mall when she saw the aircraft approach the Capitol from the west.
“I thought it was a joke at first, then my next thought was that this was something really bad,” the 21-year-old from Tenafly, New Jersey said.
Police arrested the pilot, a middle-aged man, as soon as he landed, Neus said. He did not resist.
“It almost seemed like he was expecting it,” the witness said.
Here’s what other witnesses saw:
Here's a photo as the first police officer arrived on the West Front of the Capitol pic.twitter.com/r4hysBbCuU
— Jamie Dupree (@jamiedupree) April 15, 2015
Capitol Police: Gyrocopter with single occupant landed on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol; occupant detained pic.twitter.com/0y5RXp0H25
— Dan Linden (@DanLinden) April 15, 2015
— Mike Walker (@New_Narrative) April 15, 2015
The pilot landed on his own, but authorities were prepared to shoot him down if he made it much closer to the Capitol, House Homeland Security panel Chairman Michael McCaul told NBC.
A man claiming to be Hughes told the Tampa Bay Times he planned to fly a gyrocopter to the Capitol today. He plotted the flight for more than two years, he told the paper for a story published today.
“No sane person,” he said, “would do what I’m doing.”
U.S. Capitol police have not confirmed the man they arrested was Hughes, and did not immediately respond to inquiries.
A gyrocopter or autogyro looks similar to a helicopter but uses a different kind of propulsion system.