Sun Investigates

Those giant radar balloons at APG didn't alert officials to gyrocopter pilot

When the ever-present white balloons floating above Aberdeen Proving Ground were launched at Christmastime defense officials said they would be a useful tool to detect unusual activity in the Washington's sensitive airspace.

So this week, when Florida mailman Doug Hughes made a decidedly unusual flight to the lawn of the Capitol to protest money in politics did the balloons send warnings flashing across the screens of watching military officials?


No, says Michael Kucharek, a spokesman for North American Aerospace Defense Command.

The balloons, known as the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System or JLENS, are designed to help officials spot low flying slow moving targets like Hughes' gyrocopter, Kucharek said.


But currently they are not sending data into the capital's air defense systems and Kucharek said he did not know whether the balloons' sophisticated radar were even on at the time of the flight. Even had it been, the data is only being sent to people testing the system and they might not have been on the lookout for a 61-year-old man in a gyrocopter.

Hughes, who is a married father of four, wanted to "spotlight corruption in D.C." according to a statement on his website, The Democracy Club. He lives in the Tampa Bay-area community of Ruskin.

On Wednesday, he took off from Gettysburg, Pa., and flew in his tiny helicopter toward Washington. He landed at the Capitol and was quickly taken into custody and charged with operating an unregistered aircraft and violating national airspace. On Thursday, a federal judge allowed him to return home while the criminal case moves ahead.

The JLENS system, which can watch the skies for hundreds of miles in every direction, launched in December. In addition to slow-moving targets, the 80-yard-long balloons are designed to help the military spot cruise missiles.

The system does not record video and is not directed at targets on the ground, but it has been assailed by privacy advocates who worry the powerful sensors the balloons carry could be used to track innocent Americans.

The Associated Press contributed reporting.