Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

November 9, 2012

Blinded by light

Shining lasers into cockpits is a high dangerous 'prank'

The Independent

ASHLAND — A 19-year-old University of Louisville student probably thought he was just pulling a humorous and harmless prank when he recently shone a laser into the cockpit of a police helicopter.

However, as far as police are concerned that “prank” temporarily blinded those in the helicopter and could have easily caused a serious accident resulting in the loss of life. That would have made the “prank” anything but a laughing matter.

The student has been charged charged with two felony counts of wanton endangerment for what authorities consider a deadly serious matter.

“The whole cockpit lit up green,” said Louisville police Officer Carey Hirtzel, one of two people aboard the helicopter. “(I) couldn’t really see anything but green as we were coming around. I immediately averted my eyes and continued ... to turn away from the laser.”

The aircraft was hit two more times with the intense light, he said.

The student was arrested at his dorm on campus shortly after shining the laser, police said. He has pleaded not guilty

The laser pointer was about 10 inches long and about as big around as a thumb, Hirtzel said.

It was the second time in the past couple of years that a Louisville police helicopter crew has been in the crosshairs of a laser. Officer Bryan Arnold said he and his partner were temporarily blinded when their cockpit was engulfed in green laser light in July 2011.

“It will get in there and reflect and bounce around, and it’s a washout of seeing anything,” he said. “It’s pretty intense.”

What some consider a prank is a serious offense that’s become more common nationwide, police said.

The Federal Aviation Administration points to a substantial increase in the number of people pointing lasers at aircraft cockpits in recent years. This year, there have been more than 2,740 such problems reported to the FAA, up from fewer than 300 in 2005.

There hasn’t been an air crash so far this year caused by laser light, the FAA said.

“We will not hesitate to take tough action against anyone who threatens the safety of our passengers, pilots and air transportation system,” the FAA said in a statement. “Shining a laser into the cockpit of an aircraft is not a joke. These lasers can temporarily blind a pilot and make it impossible to safely land.”

A  new federal law specifically makes it illegal to aim a laser pointer at aircraft. Convictions under the law carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 law.

That’s a stiff fine and a lot of time behind bars for doing something many consider a harmless prank. But it’s not harmless. It endangers everyone on the flight that some thoughtless person decides to shine a laser at. The intent may not be criminal , but when the safety of innocent people is threatened, it becomes criminal.