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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Varina meeting May 2 to address opioid crisis in Henrico


Varina District Supervisor Tyrone E. Nelson will hold a Community Conversations meeting Tuesday, May 2 to discuss the opioid epidemic in Henrico County.

The meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. at the Henrico Theatre, 305 E. Nine Mile Road. Nelson will be joined by County Manager John A. Vithoulkas and members of the Henrico Heroin Task Force for a discussion of heroin and opioid abuse and ways to prevent it. > Read more.

Baker ES to remain closed until fall


Baker Elementary School students will complete the 2016-17 school year at other locations and will return to a restored building in fall 2017, school leaders have decided.

The decision was made in order to provide ample time for repairs to be completed at the fire-damaged school and to avoid additional interruptions to instructional time. > Read more.

Henrico Police arrest 2 Georgia men in connection with January murder


Henrico Police have arrested and charged two Georgia men with first-degree murder in connection with the Jan. 18 murder of 36-year-old Lamont Cornelius Baldwin in the 1200 block of Dominion Townes Terrace.

Antonio Tyrone Johnson (above, left) and Santonio Rodrigus Brown (above, right), both 24 and both of Atlanta, were charged. Johnson also was charged with use of a firearm in commission of a felony and possession of a firearm by a felon. > Read more.

Man struck and killed in western Henrico hit-and-run

A 24-year-old man died after being struck by a hit-and-run driver in western Henrico April 23.

The victim, Emmanuel Isaiah DeJesus, was found lying on the side of the roadway at about 10:25 p.m., April 23 near Patterson Avenue and Palace Way. He was transported to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead. > Read more.

Henrico woman earns national pharmacy fellowship


Henrico County native Nilofar “Nellie” Jafari recently was named the American College of Clinical Pharmacy-American Society of Health-System Pharmacists-Virginia Commonwealth University Congressional Healthcare Policy Fellow for 2017-18.

Jafari is a 2007 graduate of J.R. Tucker High School.

Pharmacists selected for the fellowship have the opportunity to gain real-world insight into health care policy analysis and development via immersion in the congressional environment. > Read more.

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