Lasers pose grave risk for Tucson air traffic

2014-08-09T19:30:00Z 2014-08-09T22:15:40Z Lasers pose grave risk for Tucson air trafficBy Carmen Duarte Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Tucson ranked 15th in the nation for the number of laser strikes on aircraft reported to the FAA last year.

Military, commercial, medical, law enforcement and civilian pilots reported 54 laser strikes in the Tucson-area to the Federal Aviation Administration, a significant increase over 2012. (See ‘Dangerous lights,’ A4)

Arizona had the fourth highest number of laser incidents involving aircraft last year of all states, FAA reports show. The Phoenix area accounted for 122 reports, the fourth highest city/region in the country.

Candy-bar-sized laser pointers can be bought at retail stores, online or at swap meets for as little as $20. But the risk they pose is grave and the results of pointing them at an aircraft could be disastrous, said pilots with the Tucson Police Department and the Pima County Sheriff’s Department air units.

“A person with a handheld laser has the ability to down an aircraft,” said pilot Chris Potter, 46, of the police air unit. He lives with a permanent eye injury from a laser strike.

“When pilots lose their eyesight when in control of an aircraft, it is like driving down a winding, dark country road and someone blinds you with a flashlight,” Potter said.

The veteran pilot was temporarily blinded three years ago when he was flying a police helicopter about 400 feet off the ground back to the unit’s hangar near the Tucson International Airport.

“A strong, pulsating green laser entered my right window and struck me multiple times in the right eye. I immediately lost vision in that eye,” Potter said. “All I could see was white stars, and my eye began to water.”

Potter diverted the helicopter from the laser beam and began communicating with officers on the ground about the location the strike came from before he returned to the hangar. The person who injured Potter was never caught.

“My right eye is permanently damaged. The laser burned my eye,” Potter said. He now sees through what he described as a “fuzzy line,” which has not prevented him from flying. “I have been blessed with 20/15 vision. I still have uncorrected vision,” he said.

FAA records on last year’s laser incidents show no injuries were reported in the Tucson cases. Local pilots said they knew of no other permanent eye injury, only Potter’s, caused by lasers aimed at aircraft over the Tucson area.

light spreads

Most people who shine lasers at aircraft don’t realize the light from the device spreads out as it travels, bathing cockpits in bright light that temporarily blocks a pilot’s vision, says the website laserpointersafety.com. The light can damage eyes, but the website says most reported incidents do not result in injuries.

The website, which advocates for safe, legal uses of all types of lasers, says that in reviewing cases nationally, most people convicted of endangering an aircraft with a laser said they were just playing with the device and didn’t think the light it emitted was strong enough to reach an aircraft.

TPD’s air unit received national recognition in July from the Airborne Law Enforcement Association for educating the public about laser strikes, and for its efforts to pass a state law making it a misdemeanor to aim a laser light at an occupied aircraft.

Officers will work in the next legislative session to upgrade the crime to a felony, said Sgt. Gary Arnold of the TPD air unit. He said that was the original intention, but lawmakers watered down the bill before passing it in May.

Suspects can also be charged with federal crimes. A federal law passed in 2012 makes shining a laser at an aircraft a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. FBI Agent Brian Nowak said suspects can now face federal and state charges, along with a civil penalty of up to $11,000 from the FAA.

Whether a person is charged in federal or in state court depends on evidence and the discretion of prosecutors. Juveniles, for example, will not be prosecuted in federal court, but the youth’s parents could face a civil fine from the FAA, Nowak said.

knowing the risk

Last year, there were three federal court convictions in Tucson regarding laser strikes at aircraft. Nowak said he is working on several cases, including University of Arizona-area incidents, but declined to elaborate.

TPD’s air unit has discussed the risks of lasers with the UA Police Department, which has educated students about the dangers to pilots through bulletins and emails.

Pilots from Tucson Police and the Sheriff’s Department’s air units said the UA area is troublesome because of the amount of laser incidents that originate from there.

UAPD Sgt. Filbert Barrera said a laser was used inside McKale Center several years ago, and at the football stadium.

“They point it at the players. It can damage a player’s eye, and disrupt the game,” Barrera said. The suspects were not found.

Pilots face laser incidents across the Tucson area “on a regular basis,” said Deputy Christopher Janes, a pilot with the Sheriff’s Department. Last year, the department released video of its plane being hit by a laser light on the northwest side.

“Most laser strikes happen at landing and takeoff with respect to airliner and military flights, while law enforcement aircraft get hit while on patrol. Medical helicopters are hit when they are about to land at a hospital or are flying to a scene,” Janes said.

Local pilots attend meetings to stay aware of strikes that occur in the region’s air space, and TPD’s Arnold said a website is under construction to document incidents from hand-held lasers.

Clear flying weather year-round is one reason Tucson and Phoenix rank so high in the number of incidents, he said.

Tucson last year reported more incidents than many other major airports across the country.

Laserpointersafety.com says the nationwide increase last year in cases — after a year where the number dropped — could be a result of better reporting and tracking of aircraft incidents. But that it also shows the increase in prosecutions and media attention is doing little to reduce the number of incidents.

more than a toy

Hand-held lasers originally were used by astronomers and stargazers to point out stars and constellations, or to make work presentations. Now they are often purchased as toys.

In the United States, a legal laser pointer is 5 milliwatts or under, which can still startle and cause potential eye damage to a pilot.

However, high-powered lasers can be purchased online from foreign countries, such as China, where milliwatts are unregulated.

High-powered lasers can cost up to $500, and can cut through wood.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is currently considering a ban on the sale to the general public of portable or handheld lasers over 5 milliwatts. A final decision on the proposal has not been made.

“Something bad will eventually happen” if laser use is not curtailed, Arnold said. “And we want to stop it before it does.”

Contact reporter Carmen Duarte at cduarte@tucson.com or 573-4104.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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