Sunday, January 08, 2017

Hundreds of aircraft struck by lasers, few prosecutions

KUSA - From 2014 to 2015 - incidents of laser pointers hitting aircraft nearly doubled,which federal agencies say puts pilots and passengers in serious peril.

9Wants to Know examined the three cases that have been prosecuted in Denver and have found it’s common for those charged with this to avoid prison time.

The small point of a laser beam can create a blinding flash in a cockpit

Paul Drexler, a photographer who records aerial video for 9NEWS in Sky9, recorded video of a laser striking the news chopper last November.

“It was surprisingly bright. I wasn’t prepared for how bright it was,” said Drexler. “There was this bright blue thing hitting the windscreen -- you were wondering, did something just fly off the plane?”

After the initial surprise, the helicopter and Drexler’s camera began tracking the laser, and ultimately isolated two men standing in a parking lot. One was holding a laser pointer.

“We got a shot of the license plates, which was fortunate because it was dark, and then Denver police came and apprehended him,” Drexler said.

The investigation in this case is ongoing and federal charges are expected. .

Reported incidents of lasers hitting aircraft in the United States increased sharply, from an average of about 3,500  laser strikes every year between 2010 and 2014 to more than 7,000 incidents in 2015.

Reports are not yet completed for 2016, but the Federal Aviation Administration data shows that in the first 11 months of 2016, pilots across the country reported 6,700 laser strikes.

The 2015 data shows Denver has the eighth highest city for reporting laser strikes against planes and helicopters.

The city with the highest reported number of strikes is Phoenix, where pilots reported 263 laser attacks in 2015. 

“This is a very, very serious event,” Greg Feith said, a former air safety investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board and 9NEWS aviation analyst. “We have seen a dramatic escalation in these events over last year, this is a real issue right now.”

In 2012, President Obama signed an anti-laser measure into federal law, stating that any person caught willfully striking an aircraft with a laser pointer could face 5 years in federal prison.

“This is a federal crime,” Feith said. “And the FBI will get involved and they will hunt you down.” 

Since 2013, pilots have reported hundreds of laser incidents in Colorado. So far, three men have faced federal charges for their crimes. So far, two have avoided prison time and were sentenced to probation. The third has not yet been sentenced.

The Charge: Aiming a Laser Pointer at an Aircraft

The case against Eric Gow of Colorado Springs began in December 2015.

Two helicopter pilots reported, while conducting Christmas light tours, their chopper was struck by a laser pointer. On at least three separate occasions, their cockpit lit up with the diffused flash of a green laser. The pilots zeroed in on the approximate location from which the laser beam originated, and reported it to air traffic control.

These reports launched a federal investigation. The FBI set up a camera in a residential neighborhood where Eric Gow lives with his mother and grandmother.

On Jan. 14, 2016, the camera recorded Gow flashing a laser at a Delta Airlines flight, aiming at the passenger jet 4 separate times.

Then, four nights later, the FBI surveillance footage showed Gow aiming his laser at a private aircraft.

On Jan. 21, 2016 the camera recorded green flashes from a laser pointer shining out of Gow’s bedroom window, aimed at a SkyWest plane. The pilot reported a laser incident at approximately 9:44 pm. The camera recorded flashes from Gow’s window three separate times, starting at 9:44 pm.

By February, the FBI had a warrant to search Gow’s home, and Gow admitted to hitting aircrafts with a laser pointer.

Eric Gow declined an interview, but after pleading guilty to federal charges, Gow said to 9Wants to Know, “I live my life with no regrets.”

His sentencing hearing is scheduled for April.

The other two men who have been convicted in Colorado were both caught shining lasers at the Denver Police helicopter.

On March 18, 2015, the Denver police air support unit, Air-1, was conducting routine patrol when a green laser pointer struck the cockpit. The pilots changed direction to discover where the laser attack originated.

Court documents show that the helicopter began to follow the suspected vehicle. “While following the vehicle, the vehicle’s driver aimed the laser pointer at Air-1 and struck the helicopter and the cockpit a second time,” court documents said. The report continues to say that one pilot “suffered temporary blindness and pain.”

The driver was identified as Saher Suleiman. Suleiman plead guilty to federal charges and was sentenced to one year of probation. He could not be reached for comment.

Nathan Finneman, a sort of pilot himself, was also caught striking the police chopper with a laser in 2013. After pleading guilty, Finneman was sentenced to 6 months probation. Finneman did not respond to 9Wants to Know requests for comment.

For pilots and investigators, the crime isn’t worth the risk or worth the punishment.

“They think it’s funny,” said former safety investigator Greg Feith. “That’s just because they are ignorant to the fact that they are creating a hazard not only to the flight crew but to the passengers and people on the ground.”

“Really, what is the point?” asked photographer Paul Drexler. “There is no payoff, there is just no point to do it.”

9Wants to Know did not find evidence of a crash due to a laser pointer, though many federal agents believe this is possible, and the data provided by the FAA does show numerous injuries associated with the laser incidents. In 2015 alone, more than 50 reported laser incidents resulted in an injury, most often related to temporary blindness of a pilot or crewmember.

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