Thursday, November 21, 2013

FAA Investigating after laser aimed at Sky 4 - Greenville, South Carolina

A green laser beam hits the windshield of Sky 4 as it hovers over the interstate.

GREENVILLE, S.C. —While WYFF News 4's Sky 4 helicopter was covering a traffic incident on Wednesday, it was targeted by a person in a truck who was using a green laser pointer, and it was all caught on video.  

Sky 4 pilot Phil Tate was flying to the area of Interstate 85 and Woodruff Road to gather video of a traffic backup after a man was hit by two vehicles when he ran into the interstate at about 5:45 p.m. (Full Story)
While hovering over I-85, a passenger in a white sport utility truck started pointing a green laser out the windshield of the vehicle.  The man, who was wearing a reflective vest, was clearly visible to Sky 4 as he scanned with the laser, pointing it upward.

The man repeatedly pointed the laser at Sky 4 until it hit the windshield of the helicopter, causing a blinding bright green flare that filled the front view out of the chopper.

Tate said, "When he hit us with that laser, the first thing I saw was the whole cockpit lit up green."

The FAA says sudden exposure to laser radiation can distract or disorient a pilot and cause temporary visual impairment.
  • To see images of the laser incident, click here.
WYFF News 4 assignment editor Jimmy McCray coordinated with Tate and the Greenville County Sheriff's Office via phone, and they were able to provide a detailed description of the vehicle, including a license plate number.  Deputies pulled the truck over and questioned the man in the reflective vest when the truck was stopped on I-85.

Tate said he has been told that the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office will be speaking with the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI, and they will determine whether federal charges will be pursued in the incident. FAA officials in Atlanta confirmed Thursday that they are also investigating the incident.  As of Thursday afternoon, no charges had been filed.

Interfering with the operation of an aircraft is a felony punishable by a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.  In addition, the FAA can impose a civil penalty of up to $11,000 for each violation.

Photojournalist Albert Spear was controlling the camera in Sky 4 when it was targeted with the laser. 

Spears said, "I was thinking, 'OK, if this guy can shoot a laser at us you know what is to stop him from aiming it at a jetliner with hundreds of people on board.'"

WYFF News 4 Investigates has learned from Kathleen Bergen, with the FAA Atlanta's office, that there have been eight laser pointing incidents in the Upstate since March 15.

Bergen told News 4's Tim Waller there have been 29 laser incidents involving aircraft statewide since January.  She said that is actually a big improvement over last year, when there were 128 green laser aircraft incidents statewide, 26 in the Upstate.

Steve Wallace, Aviation Safety Consultant, says the green lasers are far brighter than other types, and can reach an aircraft as far as 25,000 feet away, leaving the pilot blinded.

"The worst case scenario is in the critical phase of a flight, a pilot loses control of an airplane.  Potentially a tragic accident," Wallace said.
  • To report a laser incident to the FAA, click here.
  • For more information on the dangers of lasers to aircraft, click here.

Read more: