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.
Bail Bonds Chesterfield VA

Therapeutic healing


In a room labeled the garden room, a bright space with lavender-colored walls and pebble-gray chairs, art therapist Becky Jacobson might ask her patients to imagine a safe place, but she doesn’t ask them to describe it to her — she wants them to draw it.

The patients are free to draw whatever they envision, expressing themselves through their colored markers, a form of healing through art therapy.

“Some people might not feel safe anywhere because they have had hard things happening to them, and I have the background to help that person reground and feel safe in the group,” Jacobson said. > Read more.

Eight’s enough? Crowded race for 56th District develops


Following the retirement of Delegate Peter Farrell [R-56th District], a number of candidates have thrown their hats into the ring to vie for the open seat in the Virginia General Assembly district, which contains a portion of Henrico’s Far West End.

Democratic challengers include Lizzie Basch and Melissa Dart, while Republican contenders include George Goodwin, Matt Pinsker, Graven Craig, Surya Dhakar, Jay Prendergrast and John McGuire. In addition to a section of Henrico, the district also includes portions of Goochland and Spotsylvania County, as well as all of Louisa County. > Read more.

On the trail to Awareness


Twenty-five teams, composed of some 350 participants, gathered at Dorey Park in Varina April 8 for the Walk Like MADD 5k, to benefit Mothers Against Drunk Driving Virginia. The event raised more than $35,000, with more funds expected to come in through May 7. > Read more.

Leadership Metro Richmond honors St. Joseph’s Villa CEO


Leadership Metro Richmond honored St. Joseph's Villa CEO Kathleen Burke Barrett, a 2003 graduate of LMR, with its 2017 Ukrop Community Vision Award during its annual spring luncheon April 6.

The award honors a LMR member who demonstrates a purposeful vision, a sense of what needs to be done, clear articulation with concern and respect for others with demonstrated action and risk-taking. > Read more.

Glen Allen H.S. takes second in statewide economics competition

Glen Allen H.S. was among six top schools in the state to place in the 2017 Governor’s Challenge in Economics and Personal Finance.

Taught by Patricia Adams, the Glen Allen H.S. team was runner-up in the Economics division, in which teams faced off in a Quiz Bowl. > Read more.

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The Modlin Center for the Arts at the University of Richmond will present The Gloaming at 7:30 p.m. in Camp Concert Hall, Booker Hall of Music. Dublin’s The Gloaming features five of the world’s greatest Celtic musicians, including singer Iarla Ó Lionaird, fiddler Martin Hayes, hardanger fiddler Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, guitarist Dennis Cahill, and pianist Thomas Bartlett. They are recognized for extending the Irish and Celtic music traditions both literally and metaphorically. Tickets are $36. For details, call 289-8980 or visit http://www.modlin.richmond.edu. Full text

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