New law prohibits pointing lasers at aircraft

When a police helicopter was flying overhead searching for a criminal suspect in Virginia Beach, Christopher Willingham did something he now acknowledges was “stupid”: He pointed a green laser at the helicopter – temporarily blinding the pilot and halting the search.

That stunt was not only stupid – it was illegal: Willingham was charged with a felony under a federal law that prohibits pointing a laser at an aircraft. In January, Willingham pleaded guilty to interfering with the authorized operation of an aircraft and is scheduled for sentencing this week.

Willingham was prosecuted under federal law because there was no applicable state law. That will change on July 1, when a new Virginia law kicks in.

The Virginia General Assembly passed the legislation – House Bill 87 – during its 2012 regular session. Gov. Bob McDonnell signed it into law on March 30.

The bill, proposed by Delegate Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, states, “Any person who knowingly and intentionally projects a point of light from a laser, laser gun sight, or any other device that simulates a laser at an aircraft is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.” A Class 1 misdemeanor is punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine.

The bill will be added to an existing state law that forbids interfering with the operation of an aircraft. Under that law, if the interference endangers the life of the pilot or anybody else, it’s a Class 6 felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.

Willingham, 28, was convicted for flashing a laser pointer at a Virginia Beach police helicopter from his backyard near Naval Air Station Oceana around midnight on Nov. 1. The helicopter was assisting ground units in pursuing someone who had run from a traffic stop.

The pilot suffered temporary blindness from the laser strike, and so the co-pilot assumed control of the helicopter.

The pilots flew over Willingham’s residence. He ran back into the house, came back out and then continued to point the laser at the helicopter, according to Neil MacBride, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. When police arrived, Willingham confessed to flashing the laser pointer at the aircraft.

He pleaded guilty in January. Afterward, at a news conference at Oceana, Willingham apologized and warned the public against pointing lasers at aircraft. “It’s very dangerous,” he said. “A lot of people don’t understand how dangerous it is.”

Willingham’s case is not an isolated incident.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there were about 3,600 laser strikes nationwide last year, including 98 in Virginia. Willingham was the first person to be convicted of a felony in a laser-pointing case in the Eastern District of Virginia.

Naval Air Station Oceana reported 13 laser incidents last year. Oceana expressed its concern about the strikes to Virginia Beach officials, who then asked Knight to propose the legislation to protect naval and police pilots.

Another impetus for the legislation was a loophole in an existing law found by the cities of Virginia Beach and Chesapeake. The law stated that shining a bright light at aircraft was illegal but did not specifically cover laser pointers.

Knight said he was also influenced by personal experience. He is a licensed helicopter pilot who has been in a similar situation.

“I have had a bright light shined into my eyes probably on accident. It was very dark; a boater shot it, and it temporarily blinded me,” Knight said. “Your eyes can’t refocus for 20 seconds or so, and that can be disastrous when you’re flying along at low levels and fast.”

Even though a laser’s beam is small in diameter close-up, it widens by several inches over greater distances. Also, imperfections in the glass of a plane’s windshield cause the beam to expand even more within the cockpit. The stronger the laser, the more amplified the effect.

Capt. Bob Geis of the Naval Air Station Oceana said laser strikes make landing particularly dangerous.

“It’s a busy phase of flight for the pilot, so distractions at this time are particularly bad,” Geis said.

He sees the new law as an opportunity to spread the word about a practice that “can be blinding either temporarily or permanently.”

Many people like Willingham may not know the full danger of laser strikes for pilots, Geis said. He said Willingham “was very apologetic; he didn’t have any idea how much damage he would cause with the laser he had. He was just goofing around and had no idea of the magnitude of what would happen.”

Willingham is scheduled to be sentenced Friday. He faces up to 20 years in prison. He is hoping for a lighter sentence because of his apology and his cooperation with authorities.
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Henrico house fire contained quickly


APR. 24, 9:15 A.M. – A house fire in Henrico's West End Sunday caused minor damage but resulted in no injuries. At about noon Sunday, Henrico Emergency Communications Officers received phone calls of smoke coming from a home in the 1700 block of Shewalt Circle, just one block off Hungary Road. > Read more.

Business in brief


The Jenkins Foundation has granted The McShin Foundation $25,000 for residential recovery services to serve those with a Substance Use Disorder. The Jenkins Foundation is focused on equitable access to health care services, as well as programs that help reduce risky behaviors and promote safe and healthy environments. The McShin Foundation was founded in 2004 and is Virginia's leading non-profit, full-service Recovery Community Organization (RCO), committed to serving individuals and families in their fight against Substance Use Disorders. > Read more.

Early voting for Democratic nominations in Brookland, 73rd House districts tonight


APR. 24, 11:10 A.M. – Henrico Democrats will hold an early voting session tonight from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in two party caucus elections.

Democrats in the county are selecting a nominee for the Brookland District seat on the Henrico Board of Supervisors and a nominee for the 73rd District seat in the Virginia House of Delegates.

Danny Plaugher, the executive director of Virginians for High Speed Rail, and Courtney Lynch, the founder of the Lead Star leadership development organization, are seeking the Brookland District nomination. > Read more.

Crime Stoppers’ Crime of the Week: April 24, 2017


Crime Stoppers needs your help to identify the suspects who participated in a home invasion and robbery in the City of Richmond.

At approximately 2:33 A.M. April 12, four or five men forced their way through a rear door and into an apartment in the 1100 block of West Grace Street.

According to police, the suspects – one with a long gun and all but one in ski masks – bound the occupants with duct tape and robbed them of several items, including cash, mobile phones and a computer. > Read more.

HCPS named a ‘Best Community for Music Education’ for 18th straight year


For the 18th year in a row, Henrico County Public Schools has been named one of the best communities in America for music education by the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation. The school division has earned the designation in each year the group has given the awards.

The designation is based on a detailed survey of a school division’s commitment to music instruction through funding, staffing of highly qualified teachers, commitment to standards and access to music instruction. The award recognizes the commitment of school administrators, community leaders, teachers and parents who believe in music education and work to ensure that music education accessible to all students.
> Read more.
Community

YMCA event will focus on teen mental health


The YMCA, in partnership with the Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation and PartnerMD, will host a free event May 2 to help parents learn how to deal with teen mental health issues. “When the Band-Aid Doesn’t Fix It: A Mom’s Perspective on Raising a Child Who Struggles” will be held from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Shady Grove Family YMCA,11255 Nuckols Road. The event will focus on education, awareness, and understanding the issues facing teens today. > Read more.

Villa’s Flagler Housing wins national NAEH award


St. Joseph's Villa’s Flagler Housing & Homeless Services was one of three entities to earn the National Alliance to End Homelessness' Champion of Change Award. The awards were presented Nov. 17 during a ceremony at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

NAEH annually recognizes proven programs and significant achievements in ending child and family homelessness.

Flagler completed its transition from an on-campus shelter to the community-based model of rapid rehousing in 2013, and it was one of the nation's first rapid re-housing service providers to be certified by NAEH. > Read more.
Entertainment

Restaurant Watch


Find out how your favorite dining establishments fared during their most recent inspections by the Virginia Department of Health. > Read more.

 

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Glen Allen Library will screen “Captain America: Civil War” (2013, PG-13, 147 minutes) from 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. A movie gift card will be given away; wear something Marvel Comics-related and you will get an extra entry into the contest. Snacks will be provided. Sponsored by Friends of the Library. For details, call 501-1950 or visit http://www.henricolibrary.org. Full text

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