Pilots above imperiled by laser pointers

06/03/2014 12:46 PM

06/04/2014 12:59 PM

Kansas City police helicopter pilots were attempting a helipad landing at night when a sudden beam of light distracted them, forcing the pilots to abort the landing.

“We saw a laser beaming from a passenger seat of a car,” Cord Laws said. “At the time of landing, the concentration of the pilot has to be completely on landing.”

Laws can recount five times when a hand-held laser has interfered with the helicopter he was in.

In fact, so many more people are pointing hand-held lasers at aircraft — which can temporarily blind a pilot — that federal officials announced Tuesday a $10,000 reward for information about incidents.

“In the incidents we’ve had, people think it’s a joke,” Laws said. “It’s not a joke; there is a chance for serious potential injury.”

At a news conference at Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport, Michael Kaste, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Kansas City, announced the launch of the national campaign. Pointing a laser at aircraft is a federal violation that can result in five years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine.

The $10,000 reward is available for the next 90 days in all 56 FBI field offices, he said.

“We are lucky that, nationally, there has not been a fatality yet,” Kaste said. “It’s not an ‘if’ but a ‘when.’ It will be a bad ending to someone going out and doing something completely stupid.”

Since the FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration began tracking laser strikes in 2005, there has been more than a 10-fold increase in incidents of people targeting aircraft with hand-held lasers, Kaste said. In the Kansas City Division territory, which covers western Missouri and the state of Kansas, there were 49 laser strikes reported in 2012 and 51 in 2013.

Due to the dramatic increase in reported laser attacks, the FBI kicked off a trial program in February aimed at raising awareness and offering a reward in 12 metropolitan areas, Kaste said.

“In those areas, reported incidents have decreased 19 percent,” Kaste said. “This campaign will work.”

David Ketchmark, assistant U.S. attorney for western Missouri, said that laser-users will be prosecuted, although no one in the district has been prosecuted yet.

“Part of the message today is increased awareness of the consequences,” Ketchmark said. “This is a serious risk to the general public at large. We will be very aggressive moving forward.”

Missouri already has seen arrests for laser incidents.

In May 2012, a 24-year-old was charged with attempted assault after he allegedly pointed a green laser at a Kansas City police helicopter.

Kansas City Municipal Court spokeswoman Benita Jones said the case was dismissed by prosecutors and it is now a closed record.

A 21-year-old Overland Park man faced possible federal charges in 2010 of interfering with a flight crew after he aimed a green laser at a Kansas City police helicopter, temporarily blinding the pilot. That case is still going through the federal system, said Officer Darin Snapp, a Kansas City police spokesman.

An arrest for laser beaming did result in the prosecution of an O’Fallon, Mo., man. Last year, a federal judge sentenced Michael Brandon Smith to two years’ probation, two months’ home confinement and 40 hours of community service for pointing a laser at a police helicopter, according to news reports and LaserPointersSafety.com, a website that calls itself a comprehensive resource for safe and responsible laser use.

The website aggregates a list of national and international sentencing for laser offenses, including the longest sentence for a laser pointer: 14 years for a California man found guilty in December 2013 of interfering with an aircraft. The long sentence was due in part to the man’s past criminal record.

After the news conference Tuesday, a simulation using the Children’s Mercy Hospital helicopter and a green laser pointer showed how a laser beam can blindingly shine into the cockpit.

“Part of the reason in using the Children’s Mercy aircraft is to show that the aircraft you are blinding could be carrying someone’s child that is in dire need of help,” said Bridget Patton, spokeswoman with the FBI’s Kansas City office. “We need to raise awareness that this is never a good idea.”

People with information about a lasing incident can contact the Kansas City FBI at 816-512-8200.

To reach Caroline Bauman, call 816-234-4449 or send email to cbauman@kcstar.com.

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