Henrico County VA

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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Community

RAMPS receives $8k grant


RAMPS (Ramp Access Made Possible by Students) recently received an $8,000 grant from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. The award was one of 75 grants totaling more than $600,137 awarded by the Reeve Foundation to nonprofit organizations nationwide that provide more opportunities, access, and daily quality of life for individuals living with paralysis, their families and caregivers.

RAMPS, an organization founded by then-Henrico County high school students to build ramps for local low-income residents who need them, will use the grant to purchase modular wheelchair ramp supplies. These supplies will be used by local high school RAMPS clubs, who provide volunteers to build the ramps. > Read more.

Henrico man to compete in Liberty Mutual Invitational National Finals

Henrico resident Larry Loving, Jr., will compete with three other locals – Thomas Scribner (Richmond), Roscoe McGhee (Midlothian) and Larry Loving (Richmond) in the Liberty Mutual Insurance Invitational National Finals at TPC Sawgrass, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., Feb. 26-Mar. 1. The foursome qualified for the national golf tournament by winning the Liberty Mutual Insurance Invitational, held at Whiskey Creek Golf Club in Ijamsville, Md. on June 11. That event supported the RiteCare Center for Childhood Language Disorders.

In total, 240 amateur golfers will compete in Florida. > Read more.

Henrico PAL recognizes supporters, HSHS athlete


The Henrico Police Athletic League (PAL) held its Sixth Annual Awards Banquet Feb. 5 at The Cultural Arts Center of Glen Allen, celebrating accomplishments of 2014 and recognizing outstanding contributions to the organization. Henrico County Juvenile Domestic Court Judge Denis Soden served as master of ceremonies and former Harlem Globetrotter Melvin Adams served as keynote speaker. 

Among the 2014 honorees were Richmond International Raceway (Significant Supporter), Richmond Strikers Soccer Club (Significant Supporter), Henrico County Schools-Pupil Transportation (Summer Camp Supporter), Bruce Richardson, Jr. (Youth of the Year), Sandra Williams (Volunteer of the Year), Thomas Williams (Employee of the Year), Mikki Pleasants (Board Member of the Year), and Michelle Sheehan (Police Officer of the Year).   > Read more.

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Entertainment

CACGA to celebrate 16th anniversary March 14


The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen will celebrate its 16th anniversary Saturday, March 14 at 6 p.m. with “A Date with Frank & Marilyn,” an evening of fun and entertainment designed to raise funds for the center's three outreach programs – Art Matters, Artful Living and Creative Family Studio. A performance by a duo impersonating Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe will highlight the evening.

The evening will include an artist live and silent auction with a variety of unique and hard-to-come-by prize packages including two tickets to the 2016 Masters golf tournament, a trip for two to Napa Valley, dinner for 10 by celebrity chef Patrick Evan-Hylton served at CACGA's gardens, followed by opening night tickets to The Capital Steps and 10 individual date-night packages around Metro Richmond. > Read more.

Restaurant watch

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

Weekend Top 10


It’s a great weekend to support local theatre! The Stable Theatre at Christ Presbyterian Church will present “Freud’s Last Session;” Jewish Family Theatre at the Weinstein JCC will present “Parade;” and the youth theater program CharacterWorks, Inc. will present “Fiddler on the Roof” at The Steward School. Another fun show will be at the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen tonight – “An Evening of 20s Tin Pan Alley Jazz” featuring the unique sounds of the Rumble Seat Revival. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.

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