Friday, February 10, 2012

State Police Warn of Dangers of Pointing Lasers at Aircraft

State Del. Sam Arora has introduced legislation to stiffen penalties for this infraction, which has become a growing problem nationwide. 

Bill Bernard, Maryland State Police's director of flight operations, said pointing a laser at an aircraft can make it difficult, if not impossible for a pilot to navigate the aircraft, especially with so many instruments to monitor. 
Credit Ron Snyder 

Lt. W. Patrick King, a state police chief flight paramedic, talks about the dangers of pointing a laser at an aircraft.
Credit Ron Snyder

An initial flicker followed by a bright flash of light is what Maryland State Police pilot Craig Thompson remembers seeing as he flew a Medevac helicopter training mission in April over Parkville.

That light came from a simple laser pointer, which was directed at the aircraft by a 14-year-old boy from more than 1,000 feet below. Thompson said he and fellow pilot, Steve Miller, were lucky nothing serious happened to them that night following the actions of the teen, who was quickly arrested.

“Those lights are not meant to be pointed at people’s eyes,” Thompson said. “They can lead to pilots being disoriented and even bringing down the aircraft. People need to understand the danger in doing that.”

Lawmakers in Annapolis understand the dangers involved. Now, the General Assembly is considering legislation that make what the boy did in Thompson’s case, along with what occurred in a similar case in September in Middle River, the equivalent of second-degree assault of a police officer. The bill was introduced by Del. Sam Arora (D-Montgomery County) and a companion bill is expected to be introduced in the Senate soon.

Maryland State Police director of flight operations Bill Bernard said stiffer penalties are needed so people understand the severity of pointing a laser at an aircraft. According to Maryland State Police figures, there were six cases of lasers being pointed at Medevac helicopters in 2011 and five such incidents in 2010.

Bernard, who joined the state police as a paramedic in 1977 and became a pilot in 1983, said simply pointing a laser at an aircraft is putting people’s lives at risk.

According to a Federal Aviation Administration news release, reports of lasers being pointed at aircraft is a growing problem. Since the FAA began tracking such incidents in 2005, the number of cases have increased from 300 to 1,527 in 2009 to 2,836 in 2010, the report states.

“Those lights refract in the cockpit when they hit the windshield and lead to everyone in the aircraft to not be able to see temporarily,” said Bernard, who has been a civilian employee with the state police since 1997.

Lt. W. Patrick King, chief flight paramedic with the state police, said tougher laws are needed, but so is additional education, as most of these reported cases involved minors.

“There needs to be consequences for actions like this,” King said. “We’re lucky no one has been killed in the air, but we’re also lucky no on has been killed on the ground from these actions.”

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