Americans may be becoming more apathetic and cynical about politics, but someone forgot to tell Doug Hughes. On Wednesday the 61-year-old made headlines around the world when he flew a gyrocopter loaded with 535 two-page letters to Congress to the Capitol in Washington, DC, to draw attention to campaign finance reform.
Hughes' journey from Florida was documented by Tampa Bay Times reporter Ben Montgomery, who wrote that the Hughes, a mailman, "sees himself as a sort of showman patriot, a mix of Paul Revere and P.T. Barnum." The activist operates a site called TheDemocracyClub.org and believes that "Congress has a lot of work to do and a $ addiction"—a sentiment that many agree with but one that inspires few to engage in acts of civil disobedience via aircraft.
"I thought he was going to get shot down," Montgomery told the Washington Post. It was a legitimate concern. After all, the Federal Aviation Commission doesn't allow aircraft flying below 18,000 feet to pass over buildings like the Capitol and White House, and Hughes planned to fly at 300 feet.
Another concern: Hughes might have crashed of his own accord. The man learned how to fly solely for this mission, according to the Tampa Bay Times profile. And in case you've never seen a gyrocopter, they're basically just flying go-karts. Taking one on a trip of any length—never mind to a off-limits location protected by the world's most powerful military—is not for the faint of heart. It seems like he had to fly about 100 miles from an airport in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where police are investigating a trailer he left behind.
Hughes is not the first person to take an unauthorized vehicle onto elite American lawns. In 1974, Robert K. Preston, who wanted to be a helicopter pilot but was told he wasn't good enough, landed on the White House lawn to prove a point. Then, in 1993, a guy named Frank Eugene Corder drunkenly stole a civilian airplane and died crashing it into the White House South Lawn. His friends said he did it for the attention.
And while Hughes wanted attention, it wasn't for himself. He was trying to get people to wake up and demand that their representatives serve them rather than lobbyists and donors. In the letter he was delivering, he gave politicians three options:
1. You may pretend corruption does not exist.
2. You may pretend to oppose corruption while you sabotage reform.
3. You may actively participate in real reform.
According to Politico, reporters who worked on the original story warned both the Secret Service and the Capitol Police 30 minutes before Hughes was set to land. "This is one of the craziest stories I've ever done. I so hope nobody gets hurt," Montgomery tweeted before the scheduled touchdown time.
But Hughes was apparently set on his message of campaign reform. He wanted to deliver the letters—and possibly save America.
"I'd rather die in the flight than live to be 80 years old and see this country fall," he told Montgomery before taking off.
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*Correction 4/16: Because of an editing error, this post originally stated that the gyrocopter landed on the White House lawn when, in fact, it landed on the west lawn of the US Capitol. The headline also originally suggested the flight was from Florida to Washington, DC. when, in fact, the actual flight was from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. We regret the errors.