Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Man charged with pointing laser at police helicopter; jets also targeted • Planes, helicopters endangered by nationwide trend

Two United ExpressJets that had taken of from Bush Intercontinental Airport and were flying over the city in June were struck by a laser beam shot from 10,000 feet below.

Shortly thereafter, a Houston Police Department helicopter searching for the source of the laser beam, a pointer that sells for $10 or less, was itself struck by the device, leading officers on the ground to its source.

On Tuesday, Julio Cesar Valdez Salazar, 26, an unemployed Pasadena man who was arrested this week and charged with pointing the laser at the police helicopter, pleaded not guilty in federal court. He faces up to five years in prison if convicted.

Houston ranks among the top cities in the country for the number of laser beam strikes on aircraft, which nationwide has grown tenfold from 2006 to 2014.

So far this year, there have been 4,759 laser strikes in the United States, with Los Angeles, Phoenix and Houston leading the way, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford said a laser strike can be momentary but dangerous.

"When a laser light hits an aircraft, it can suddenly light up the cockpit, much like a camera flash going off in a darkened restaurant," he said. "Pilots say it destroys their night vision and often leaves them seeing spots for several minutes or even hours. It's dangerous at altitude, but even more if an aircraft is on final approach for landing."

No crashes have been attributed to laser strikes, but a number of pilots have reported being forced to turn over controls to the other pilot in the cockpit for landing because of low altitude laser strikes, and some sustained eye injuries, Lunsford said.

Pilots who have been hit by lasers are instructed by the FAA to fill out a five-page form. The document asks such questions as the color of the laser, whether it appeared to be tracking the aircraft's movement and if it caused the pilot to alter the flight's path.

The planes hit by a laser in June while over Houston were ExpressJet flights 4516 and 4515 operating on behalf of United Airlines.

"No flight operations were affected by these events," said Jarek Beem, a spokesman for ExpressJet. "However, the industry takes laser incidents seriously, and any observed in the flight deck are reported to local and federal authorities."

A federal law passed in 2012 made it a felony to point a laser beam at an aircraft, but only a handful of people have been prosecuted. Pointing a laser at an aircraft is a misdemeanor under Texas law.

Margarito Tristan III, of the South Texas city of Donna, was released from federal prison last year after an 18-month sentence for pointing a laser at a Customs and Border Protection helicopter.

Valdez's case is unique. The officers in the helicopter investigating reports from the United Airlines pilots about the laser were allegedly then hit themselves and able to call in officers on the ground.

Pasadena Police headed to an apartment, where they found Valdez, according to the FBI.

An agent testified during a hearing Tuesday after Valdez's arraignment that Valdez admitted to officers that he'd aimed the laser at the aircraft and handed over the device.

It was not clear why it took so long to take Valdez into custody.

Prosecutor Steven Schammel asked the judge to keep Valdez behind bars pending his trial, which is set for December.

"Our concern is an individual with a $9 device is endangering not only pilots and passengers, but the population at large," he said.

Public defender Jules Johnson questioned why authorities waited four months to indict Valdez if they thought he was either a threat to the community or at risk to run away.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Smith said from the bench that while the allegations in the case are serious and there could have been harm, Valdez should be released on bail.

Last year, a woman and her boyfriend were sentenced to prison in California after one of them was convicted by a jury and the other pleaded guilty in an incident in which an especially powerful hand-held laser repeatedly struck the cockpit of a police helicopter.

Officers in the air were investigating a report that an emergency transport helicopter used by a children's hospital had been hit by a laser.

The Department of Justice notes that law enforcement and emergency helicopters are particularly vulnerable to laser strikes, as they often fly at lower altitudes.

- Source:  http://www.houstonchronicle.com

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