(WASHINGTON) — The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will take up an issue that hit a little too close to home for lawmakers — the April 15 landing of a gyrocopter on the West Front of the Capitol grounds.
The headlines likely will come from the FAA and NORTHCOM/NORAD testimony, which is expected to acknowledge the gyrocopter flown by Douglas Hughes was detected by radar and other sensors.
Aircraft that fly around Washington, D.C., airspace are required to be equipped with a transponder. According to written testimony from FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, “Anything that doesn’t have a transponder shows up as a symbol resembling a simple small dot on the radar screen — and there are typically many of them across a controller’s radar screen.”
Many of those dots are filtered out of what FAA controllers see on their screens. These dots “could be things like vehicles on nearby roadways, flocks of birds, weather events, or occasional kites or balloons,” Huerta says.
“On April 15, Mr. Hughes’ gyrocopter appeared on our radar as one of those small, unidentified elements. All available information about the slow moving, irregular symbol made it indistinguishable from other non-aircraft radar tracks,” Huerta’s written testimony continues.
An unfiltered radar feed is shared with the Department of Defense and other agencies, so those entities can apply their own filters to the data.
After the aircraft landed, the radar data was analyzed and, “A trained radar analyst identified a slow-moving symbol that traveled from Gettysburg [Pennsylvania] toward the Capitol, and vanished from radar at about the time Mr. Hughes landed on the West Lawn. We now believe that unidentified radar element was Mr. Hughes’ gyrocopter. The dot appeared only intermittently throughout the flight.”
NORTHCOM/NORAD commander Adm. William Gortney’s testimony provides another new insight into what the government’s network of sensors saw: The aircraft was detected, but it was not sifted out from clutter to distinguish it from other objects.
“Through post-event analysis, what we now understand is that the gyrocopter was detected by several of the integrated sensors as it approached and transited through the SFRA (special flight rules area). 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,” Adm. Gortney’s testimony states.
Gortney acknowledges that, “Identifying low-altitude and slow-speed aerial vehicles from other objects is a technical and operational challenge.”
The testimony from the U.S. Capitol Police, U.S. Park Police, Secret Service and sergeant at arms largely confirms what is known publicly about the incident based on ABC News’ reporting and the statements of the Tampa Bay Times. A Tampa Bay Times reporter called the Secret Service and the Capitol Police at around 1 p.m., approximately 20 minutes before the gyrocopter landed.
The reporter, according to testimony from U.S. Capitol Police Chief Kim Dine, called the Capitol Police and advised them that video of the flight could be seen on a live stream. At 1:07 p.m., the Capitol Police “went to the provided website but did not find the live feed noted by the individual from the Tampa Bay Times.”
The Capitol Police also attempted to “validate any prohibited airspace overflight information” with the National Capitol Region Coordination Center, where other government agencies like NORAD and the FAA could share information.
The aircraft landed at 1:23 p.m.
The review by authorities is ongoing and agencies are working to develop short- and long-term approaches to handling the threat posed by low- and slow-flying aircraft.
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