More pilots being blinded by lasers

Sep 26 2011 - 9:44am

ORLANDO, Fla. -- There's a laser light show taking place in the skies over America. It's cheap. It's easy. But most of all, authorities say, it's dangerous.

That's because those laser beams are being aimed at planes and helicopters in record numbers.

In fact, so far this year lasers have been aimed at aircraft an average of nine times a night, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

It has grown to be such a problem that in June, the FAA imposed a civil penalty of $11,000 for pointing a laser into the cockpit of an aircraft.

"These (lasers) are not toys," FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said. "They certainly are not being used for what they were intended for. That's why we are taking such an aggressive stance."

Though inexpensive laser pointers have been available for years, some now coming on the market are particularly worrisome, said FAA spokesman Jim Peters.

One company earlier this year released a laser capable of nearly instant close-range retinal damage for less than $300, Peters said.

Now, the same company has a hand-held laser that it claims has a range of 85 miles. The laser, which sells for $1,000, is the "world's brightest laser you can legally own," according to the company.

The FAA predicts laser aircraft incidents in 2011 will top last year's record of 2,776 by 35 percent.

One of the most recent incidents resulted in the arrest of a 20-year-oldDeltona man accused of aiming a laser at a Seminole County sheriff's helicopter.

Through Sept. 2, there have been 2,250 reported laser incidents involving aircraft, including 184 in Florida and 20 in the Orlando area. There have been 35 pilots and passengers complaining of temporary problems such as flash blindness, blurry vision, eye irritation and headaches, the FAA said. There have been no reports of serious eye damage such as a permanent blind spot.

In 2010, there were 162 laser incidents involving aircraft in the state, including 21 in theOrlando area.

Larry Dale, a pilot and president of Orlando Sanford International Airport, said he is not sure how many of the laser incidents are malicious.

For the most part, he thinks it is just people playing with lasers and "just flashing up there and seeing if they can hit an airplane."

Whatever the reason, he said, "it's a dangerous practice."

Though lasers can temporarily blind pilots, one of the most dangerous aspects is the sudden surprise of a green or red laser beam entering the cockpit, said Steve Farris, chief pilot for the Seminole County Sheriff's Office.

Those are the colors of wing lights on planes, he said.

"It can give you the sensation that you are about to have a midair collision," Farris said. That can force the pilot to take unnecessary evasion action and perhaps result in a crash, he said.

According to the FAA, more than 93 percent of reported incidents involve green lasers. Red is second, at just 2 percent.

In the incident involving the Seminole County sheriff's helicopter, Christopher Marden was arrested Sept. 4 by Volusia County deputy sheriffs near DeBary. He faces a charge of pointing a laser light at a pilot.

A citizen volunteer had reported seeing lasers in the area of the Seminole-Volusia line along U.S. Highway 17-92, and the helicopter was investigating when hit by the laser coming from Wayside Park. Two other men were questioned, but only Marden was arrested.

Though local authorities usually make arrests in laser incidents, some of those arrested end up prosecuted on federal charges.

Frank Newton Anderson of Orlando was sentenced to one year's probation and fined $4,000 in July on a federal charge of interfering with the operation of an aircraft.

Anderson, 43, pleaded guilty to aiming a green laser at an Orange County sheriff's helicopter in April 2010.

According to court documents, the pilot and a flight observer lost temporary sight of the helicopter's instrument panel and the horizon. When the helicopter was hit with a laser beam a second time, they directed ground units to Newton's location. A laser pointer was found about 100 yards from where he was apprehended.

In June, 59-year-old Mark Clay Hazlitt of Lakeland, Fla., was sentenced to five years' probation on the same federal charge. He pleaded guilty to pointing a laser at a Polk County sheriff's helicopter in November. According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, he pointed a green laser at the helicopter at least four times, causing a flight officer's night-vision goggles to shut down and causing disorientation inside the cockpit.

Hazlitt told authorities he was tired of hearing the helicopter.

(c)2011 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

 

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