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

‘Secret Keeper Girl - Crazy Hair Tour’ returning to West End Assembly of God

Hundreds of 'tweens' and their moms will attend the Secret Keeper Girl Crazy Hair Tour at West End Assembly of God on Jan. 22 at 6:30 p.m., a popular Bible-based tour geared toward building and strengthening relationships between mothers and their daughters (typically ages 8 to 12).

The event will feature a full fashion show, oversized balloon sculptures and confetti cannons – all in the name of inner beauty, Biblical modesty and vibrant purity. > Read more.

OutRVA, ‘Say I Do!’ to give away all-expenses paid wedding at Lewis Ginter

OutRVA and Say I Do! have collaborated to offer LGBT couples an opportunity to win an all-expenses-paid wedding at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden’s Robins Tea House on March 7.

In September, Richmond Region Tourism launched OutRVA, a campaign designed to show people Richmond’s strong LGBT community and highlight the area as a travel destination.

The winning couple will say "I do" in a ceremony coordinated by event designer and floral artist Casey Godlove of Strawberry Fields Flowers & Gifts and marriage concierge, Ayana Obika of All About The Journey. The couple will receive wardrobe and styling, a custom wedding cake, florals, an overnight stay at the Linden Row Inn (including a suite on the day of the wedding for preparation), and a post-wedding brunch at the Hilton Garden Inn on Sunday, March 8. > Read more.

No CVWMA collection delays for Lee-Jackson, MLK holidays

CVWMA residential recycling and trash collections will continue as regularly scheduled for the Lee-Jackson (Jan. 16) and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (Jan. 19) holidays. Residential recycling collections on Friday, Jan. 16 and the week of Jan 19-23 will take place on normal collection day. Residents should place recycling container(s) out for pick-up by 7 a.m. on their regular scheduled collection day. > Read more.

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Entertainment

CAT Theatre announces auditions for ‘Quartet’

CAT Theatre will hold auditions for Quartet on Saturday, Feb. 21, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., and Sunday, Feb. 22, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Auditions will be held at the theatre, located at 319 N. Wilkinson Road in Richmond. Quartet will run May 22 through June 6 and will close out CAT’s 51st season.

Director Laurie Follmer is seeking two males, ages 50-70 and two females ages 50-70. British accents are required for roles and are requested for auditions. There is no actual singing in the show. Singing ability and experience is not a requirement. Audition sides are available at http://www.cattheatre.com on the Audition Page. > 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 off to the theatre – this weekend in Henrico! “Two on Tap” at CACGA brings audiences back in time to an era when couples like Fred & Ginger and Mickey & Judy filled the silver screen. CAT Theatre’s production of “Book of Days” begins tonight and runs through Feb. 7. Fans of the Emmy Award-winning 1970s Saturday morning cartoon “Schoolhouse Rock!” will love the live adaptation at the University of Richmond on Sunday. The Shanghai Quartet will also perform at the University of Richmond. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.

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