Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Aiming lasers skyward needs to stop, says Marine Corps

Around 9 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, a Marine Corps pilot was navigating a helicopter 2,000 feet above our rooftops on a training route out of Munn Field, a few miles west of Fallbrook in the heart of Camp Pendleton. 

 He would have been watching the sky through night-vision goggles in a dim cockpit when a beam of light from somewhere on the ground in Fallbrook filled the helicopter and washed out his vision for at least a moment.

It was a laser beam, and it wasn't the first time this year. Nor the second.

In fact, July 24 was the latest in a series of laser targetings from Fallbrook ---- crimes serious enough for the Marine Corps to call me on base to carry a message back to our readers in hopes that one of you will know or see the culprit and help end the worrying trend.

On Tuesday morning, Capt. Phillip Roberts ushered me into a conference room beside the massive runway at Munn Field to explain why it is such a problem.

When a pilot is hit with a laser from the ground, he cannot fly again until his eyesight has been checked, Roberts explained. Lasers powerful enough to damage human eyes over great distances can be purchased online, and what the Marines seem really worried about is losing one of their pilots to a random act of vandalism.

"It's pretty dangerous when you're trying to keep an aircraft in the sky," said Roberts.

The Marines can't do much to stop it. Each time, aviation officers file an incident report with the Federal Aviation Administration and call the Fallbrook Sheriff's Substation.

But the Corps cannot send its military police to track down the culprits.

So it is left asking nicely, so to speak.

"We just want to highlight the fact that it's a nuisance and a safety concern," said Roberts. "We're doing what we can to cooperate and have a good-neighbor relationship with the town of Fallbrook ... and we're just hoping we get a little bit of that 'good neighbor' in return."

No discussion of helicopters over Fallbrook would be complete without mentioning the noise. At best, the chop-chop-chop is a backdrop to daily life in Fallbrook; at worst, the scourge of light sleepers.

The Corps knows this. There is a training route that leaves Munn Field and curves out over Fallbrook, then turns and heads back to base over Fallbrook. It's called the "Ground Control Approach" pattern, and it accounts for a lot of the disruptive noise around here.

As the air traffic control officer for Marine Corps Air Station Camp Pendleton, Roberts fields some of the complaint calls himself.

"We have measures put in place ... that restrict (pilots) from flying at certain altitudes over populated areas," he said. "We realize, you know, that we fly late at night, and people don't want to be woken up at midnight by helicopters flying over their house."

At the same time, in Afghanistan, Marines are flying many of their missions at night, and daytime training in California is no way to prepare for nights over Helmand province.

"You can only cram so many ops into daylight hours," said Roberts. "They want to train like they fight, so they have requirements to serve certain missions at night."

If you are still not convinced, consider the greater risk ---- consider, in crass terms, a helicopter landing on your house.

A crash is highly unlikely even with hazards and poor weather, and a laser beam has never been recorded to cause such an accident.

But those pilots above us have enough to worry about without lasers in their eyes. However you feel about the noise, we can agree on that.

Commissioned in September 1942 and situated off Vandegrift Boulevard, Munn Field is named for Lt. Gen. John Munn, a World War II veteran who became the first Marine aviator to serve as commanding general of Camp Pendleton in the 1960s.

Hundreds of Marines are being trained at the air station in any given month, between the pilots fresh out of basic flight school and the air traffic controllers just in from their initial certification in Pensacola, Florida.

Occasionally, you will notice the hulk of a cargo plane soaring over Fallbrook toward the field, but it is almost exclusively a helicopter station, with Hueys and Cobras and the massive CH-53 Super Stallions coming and going dozens of times a day. Ospreys will also become a more frequent sight over Fallbrook in the coming months.

The Federal Aviation Administration considers targeting aircraft with a laser a criminal activity.

"Aviators are particularly vulnerable to laser illuminations when conducting low-level flight operations at night," reads an FAA safety brochure titled, "Laser Hazards in Navigable Airspace."

"No accidents have been attributed to the illumination of crew members by lasers, but ... the potential does exist," the brochure says, adding that some 2,836 reports of "laser illumination events" were gathered in 2010.

Last summer, the aviation administration announced that it would begin imposing civil fines of up to $11,000 per violation, and a bill proposed in the House of Representatives, HR 386, would have levied jail time for the crime, but appears to have died in the Senate last spring.

Lt. Cmdr. Ellis Gayles said his main concern is for his pilots' eyes.

"If it's nighttime and the air crew has night-vision goggles on, the minute the laser hits the cockpit, there's a good chance it's going to bloom out their goggles," said Gayles, the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing's medical safety officer. "If the helicopters were flying in formation and all of a sudden one crew could not see in their cockpit, you can see how it could cause a serious problem."

Lasers can also damage the goggles, which cost not a few of our tax dollars to supply.

"Now you've got the crew trying to continue their flight without one of their primary tools for being able to see safely at night," said Gayles. "And you've possibly impacted somebody's flight career by damaging their eyes. It's obviously a pretty big impact to our war-fighting capabilities if people are doing this."

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