When I saw the news yesterday about a postal worker from Florida landing a gyrocopter on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol, my first thought was What an idiot.
My second thought was that I’d seen this picture before—not only of a gyrocopter in Washington, but one flown by a postal worker. The date was May 19, 1938, and the flight was part of an official event to mark National Airmail Week. Letters were carried from Washington National Airport, over the Capitol building grounds, to the U.S. post office near Union Station.
The most recent pilot touching down on Capitol Hill was hauled off in cuffs, but rotorcraft have a long tradition of landings in Washington, with the occupants usually getting a warm reception. The airspace surrounding the Capitol, National Mall and White House are today among the most restricted in the world, but for at least 80 years all kinds of rotorcraft operated by the government or military have flown over the Capitol Dome and set down either in the concrete parking lot to the east or the grass lawn to the west.
Usually these flights are to tout a new federal government service, or a campaign by the Pentagon to wow members of Congress into voting the funds for a major acquisition.
In April 1990, the experimental, vertical-landing XV-15, the predecessor to the Marine V-22 Osprey, alighted near the Capitol steps to promote the aircraft as a civilian city-hopper as well as a military vehicle. The House aviation subcommittee fawned over the tiltrotor as its prop wash sent onlookers scrambling back up the Capitol steps.
After Desert Storm, a UH-60 Blackhawk flew over Congress during the National Victory Celebration parade on June 8, 1991. In 1993 the 15,000-pound bronze statue atop the Capitol Dome, named Freedom and designed by Thomas Crawford, was plucked away for repairs by a Sikorsky SkyCrane.
This week’s landing of an odd visitor, who allegedly meant to send a message to Congress, also brought to mind this 1902 illustration from Puck magazine about a Martian landing in the capitol—with slightly more effect on the politicians.