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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State trooper shot in Henrico cul-de-sac


SEPT. 20, 11:30 A.M. – A North Carolina woman who Virginia State Police say shot a state trooper in Henrico last night has been charged with attempted capital murder of a police officer and the use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.

The woman, Karisa Shyanne Daniels, 23, of Durham, N.C., allegedly fired at Senior Trooper C. A. Putnam on Lakeway Court, a Henrico cul-de-sac near September Drive shortly before midnight, following a chase. > Read more.

C-SPAN bus to visit UR Sept. 27


The University of Richmond will host a multi-media C-SPAN bus Sept. 27 from 1 to 3 p.m. The "50 Capitals Tour” – open to the public on – is designed to engage students and community members through interactive demonstrations of C-SPAN's multi-platform public service resources.

The 45-foot customized motor coach will be placed on the University Forum. > Read more.

Free flu shots available at MedExpress, opening Sept. 20


MedExpress Urgent Care will open a new neighborhood medical center in Henrico Sept. 20 at 8040 W. Broad St. To help Richmond-area residents prepare for the upcoming flu season, the new center will offer free flu shots to patients ages four and up starting the day the center opens and while supplies last.

An open house celebration and ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held prior to opening day, Sept. 19 from noon to 2 p.m. > Read more.

Crime Stoppers’ Crime of the Week: Sept. 18, 2017


Crime Stoppers is seeking information about a shooting in Richmond that resulted in an injured child and the murder of an adult.

At approximately 10:21 p.m., Sept. 9, Richmond Police were called to the 3200 block of 5th Avenue for a report of a person shot. They quickly located two victims suffering from gunshot wounds, a 57-year-old male and a 9-year-old female. > Read more.

Business in brief


Commonwealth Senior Living at the West End, located at 2400 Gaskins Rd., will hold their grand opening on Oct. 3 from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. The community recently underwent a multi-million-dollar renovation which included the addition of a new memory care neighborhood, new resident suites, an expanded dining room, and brand-new courtyards and additional outdoor spaces. Commonwealth Senior Living associates will be on site to provide tours of the newly renovated community. > Read more.

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September 2017
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Get your “passport” and time-travel through Henrico history by visiting historic sites during Time Travelers Weekend Sept. 23-24 from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Participating sites include: Dabbs House Museum, Meadow Farm Museum, Walkerton Tavern, Virginia Randolph Museum, Courtney Road Gas Station, Clarke-Palmore House Museum and Deep Run School House. Admission is free. For details, call 652-1426 or visit http://www.henrico.us/rec. Full text

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