'Lasing' planes harmful— and hurts you more than the pilot
Aug 30, 2017 02:30PM ● Published by Jana Klopsch
Shining lasers at aircraft is punishable by a $25,000 fine and up to five years in federal prison. (Robert Williams/courtesy)
On the night of July 11, a National Guard helicopter circled Herriman for about 15 minutes, much to the annoyance of city residents. Soon messages appeared in neighborhood Facebook groups: “What’s up with the hovering helicopter?”
More concerning than these initial complaints were the replies that followed, some offering such sage advice as, “Next time, take your laser pen out and shine it at them. They stop circling when you do that.”
“No. Don’t do that,” said Chief Warrant Officer Robert Williams in an interview. He was one of the pilots of the helicopter in question. “That would be breaking federal law, and breaking federal law is bad.”
“Lasing” an aircraft, as the practice is known, is a felony punishable by fines of up to $25,000 and up to five years federal prison time. The FBI even offers a $10,000 bounty in exchange for reporting incidents. However, most people aren’t even aware that it’s a crime, which means that many end up facing harsh punishment for something that they perceived as a harmless prank.
“This is actually a serious crime,” said Dave Teggins, the general aviation manager at the Salt Lake City Department of Airports. “I think people don’t realize that as the beam travels, it widens. So, what you’re seeing right here as a little pinprick could illuminate a whole window.”
This can be very dangerous for the pilot.
“If it’s dark, and your eyes are dark-adjusted, and all of a sudden, your window turns green and lights up, it causes disorientation, and the afterimages left behind can make it difficult to land safely,” Teggins said.
Lasing is not only illegal and dangerous, but it is also terrible at making helicopters go away. In fact, Williams and his copilot wouldn’t have circled Herriman at all had somebody not lased them when they were returning home from a training exercise.
“I was hoping that it was just an inadvertent thing and that we could just forget about it and go home,” said Williams. “But then a few seconds later they did it again. And again. And they wouldn’t quit doing it. So, we said, ‘OK, we’re going to come find this guy.’”
Williams and his copilot circled the area for around 15 minutes, remaining at least a mile away, and used the helicopter’s infrared camera to identify the source of the laser.
“We were able to video the guy in his house, identify the shape of the yard,” he said. “Then we went to Google street maps, and there was their address, painted on the curb.”
The perpetrator turned out to be a teenager.
“We specifically requested that the cops not get the FBI involved,” Williams said. “I don’t want any kids going to jail or getting felony charges on their record. When the cop showed up at the door and explained to the dad what was going on, the dad broke the kid’s laser there on the spot.”
In 2009, one of Williams’ coworkers did report a lasing incident to the FBI. The perpetrator, a 30-year-old Bluffdale man, had been outside shining a laser pointer for his cats when, on a whim, he decided to turn the laser toward a passing helicopter. He hadn’t realized that the laser was bright enough to hinder the pilot, but even so, he faced up to five years in prison. Tragically, he committed suicide shortly before he could be sentenced.
Since that sobering incident, no Utah National Guard pilots have reported lasing incidents to the FBI—but not for lack of occurrences. “My unit alone has had two incidents in the past three months,” said Williams.
“It’s way more prevalent than people think,” said Teggins.
Over the past two years, Salt Lake International had 239 reports of aircraft illuminated on approach or takeoff, roughly one every three to four days according to Teggins.
And that’s just from one airport.
“The problem with it is, I don’t think any of them are really nefarious; they’re usually people of the younger persuasion out trying to have fun,” said Teggins. “Parents who buy these laser pointers for their kids have no idea how much trouble they can get in. There are kids on probation that are now felons because they’ve done this. It is serious business.”