A green laser pointer directed at a Coast Guard helicopter temporarily blinded the pilot and crew and forced them to land while they were searching for the source of three orange flares spotted off Garden City Beach, S.C. The popular laser pointers, sold nationwide as toys at beachfront shops and online, have become a chronic problem for aerial rescue crews.
The Aug. 8 Garden City Beach incident was the third time in three weeks that a Coast Guard search was hindered because of green lasers in the South Carolina coastal region known as the Grand Strand, which stretches from Little River to Georgetown. The air crew had just arrived at the search area when the laser hit the aircraft about 1:45 a.m., forcing the crew to land. One crewmember received direct laser exposure and was not cleared to fly again until later that day.
A boat crew from Station Georgetown was launched to take over the search, but because of the distance, it didn’t arrive at the search area until two hours after the helicopter had left. The source of the flares was not found.
When a laser is directed into an aircraft, the crew is required to stop searching immediately and land. The crew is grounded until each person has an eye exam and is cleared by a flight surgeon. The process can take as long as 24 hours, depending on when and where the incident occurred. Additionally, there typically is a two- to three-hour delay to get a new helicopter and crew to the scene to resume a search, the Coast Guard says.
“We’ve been very fortunate that the green laser incidents haven’t yet resulted in tragedy,” Cmdr. Gregory Fuller, commanding officer of Air Station Savannah, Ga., said in a statement. “But every time we send our air crews to the Grand Strand we’re telling them to fly into the equivalent of a storm, where it’s almost guaranteed they’ll be hit. We’re simply asking the public to stop putting Coast Guard men and women in senseless and unnecessary danger.”
The Horry County Council in South Carolina is expected to consider a ban on certain types of lasers because of the incidents, according to a report by The Republic newspaper. Twice in a two-week period, helicopters conducting rescue missions along South Carolina’s northern coast had to land because of the lasers, The Republic reports, and the county’s public safety director says there have been 70 green laser hits on aircraft landing at Myrtle Beach International Airport since May.
The prank is not confined to the Mid-Atlantic coast. The Navy held a press conference July 24 at Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, Fla., to inform the public about multiple recent aircraft laser incidents in that area. Pilots talked about experiences with lasers 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,” Lt. Fernando Reyes, of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 40, said in a Navy release.
“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,” he says. “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.”
The Sacramento (Calif.) Police Department, reacting to similar incidents, issued a statement July 19 that reads, in part, “Pointing handheld laser devices at aircraft at night isn’t only dangerous; it’s illegal. … When individuals point these handheld lasers at aircraft, it could mean disaster.”
Green lasers temporarily can blind pilots, especially when they’re wearing night-vision goggles. The Federal Aviation Administration reports that lasing incidents rose 902 percent, from 283 to 3,591, from 2005 to 2011. In February, President Obama signed a bill that includes language to make it a federal crime to aim a laser pointer at an aircraft or at the flight path of an aircraft, with a penalty of up to five years in prison and/or fines. It was already illegal in some states. Three have been numerous convictions under federal and state laws, resulting in jail time, fines, probation and community service.
The state of New South Wales in Australia recently passed a law that allows a person to be fined for possessing a laser pointer and includes a sentence of as much as 14 years for a laser assault. There are calls in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom to restrict or ban lasers.
Information about lasers and the hazards their misuse causes is available at www.laserpointersafety.com, an independent resource for users, regulators, pilots and others.
This article otiginally appeared in the October 2012 issue.