A green laser directed at a Coast Guard helicopter temporarily blinded the aircrew and forced them to land abruptly Wednesday morning while they were searching for the source of three orange flares spotted near Garden City Beach, S.C.
It was the third time in three weeks that a Coast Guard search was hindered because of green lasers in the coastal region known as the Grand Strand, which stretches from Little River, S.C., to Georgetown, S.C.
The aircrew had just arrived at the search area to begin searching when the laser hit the aircraft about 1:45 a.m., forcing the aircrew to stop searching and land. One crewman received direct laser exposure and was not cleared to fly again until Wednesday afternoon.
The source of the flares was not located.
Click here for the full Coast Guard announcement, which includes a link to an information sheet about the dangers that lasers pose to pilots. Shining any laser at an aircraft is a federal offense.
Popular green laser toys, sold widely nationwide at beachfront shops, have become a chronic problem for aerial rescue crews.
"We've had 198 [green laser] calls since the first of May," Myrtle Beach Police Lt. Doug Furlong told WMBF News. "That means officers respond to 198 calls regarding this type of situation, which brings [rescuers] away from doing their job."
That’s why Coast Guard officials in the region say they are cracking down on the novelty lasers.
"When a Coast Guard helicopter crew is hit by a laser they are required to ground the aircraft so that the pilots can undergo a medical evaluation before they get airborne again," Cmdr. Brian Lefebvre of the Coast Guard in Charleston, S.C., told WMBF News.
The prank is not confined to the east coast. On July 19, the Sacramento (Calif.) Police Department issued a statement that read, in part, “pointing handheld laser devices at aircrafts at night isn't only dangerous; it's illegal … when individuals point these handheld lasers at aircrafts, it could mean disaster.”
The Navy held a press conference July 24 at Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, Fla., to inform the public about multiple recent aircraft “lasing incidents” within that region. Pilots talked about their personal experiences with aircraft lasing during the press conference.
“I was flying off the coast at night, about a mile out at 500 feet, and I saw a green light coming from the coastline. It seemed like a lighthouse, but there was something odd about it. Suddenly the light started moving sporadically and eventually hit the aircraft,” said Lt. Fernando Reyes of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 40.
“Everybody thinks of a laser as a small beam of light. Well, when that laser is coming from that distance it spreads quite a bit, and it was able to light up the entire aircraft. It felt like we had a spotlight on us. It hit me directly in the face while I was at the controls, and I was blinded for approximately two seconds.”