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

Preschoolers give pillows to families in need


A group of preschoolers from Chesterbrook Academy Preschool donated 56 pillows to local families in need at the Housing Families First shelter. The shelter is always in need of pillows and linens as, since families take the donated ones with them to their new homes.

Housing Families First provides shelter and support for homeless families and assist them in finding a permanent housing solution. The shelter serves people year-round, said Terri Iguina, operations and volunteer manager at Housing Families First. > Read more.

Dairy Queen’s Blizzard sales July 27 to benefit Children’s Hospital of Richmond


Dairy Queen’s 13th Annual Miracle Treat Day – Thursday, July 27 – will raise fund to benefit sick and injured children being treated at Children's Miracle Network hospitals throughout the United States. Locally, $1 or more from every Blizzard Treat sold at participating locations will be donated to the Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU. Last year, the event raised more than $14,400 for the hospital. > Read more.

Crime Stoppers’ Crime of the Week: July 24, 2017


Crime Stoppers needs your help to find the person who struck a pedestrian in the City of Richmond.

On July 21 at 12:52 a.m., a woman was crossing the street at Forest Hill and Sheila Lane when she was struck by a dark colored four-door sedan that was traveling eastbound on Forest Hill. She was transported by ambulance to Chippenham Hospital for minor injuries and released. > Read more.

Henrico Police locate missing man

Henrico Police have located a missing 46-year-old Henrico man.

Police had reported Kevin William Cannelli missing this weekend, after he was last seen July 18. He was located safe in the Richmond area July 24. > Read more.

Business in brief


For the ninth year in a row, Puritan Cleaners is conducting a one-day-only community program that offers everyone in Richmond a free cleaning of one pair of pants. The event, called Free Pants Wednesday, will be held on Wednesday, Aug. 2. The offer is good at all 13 Puritan locations throughout the greater Richmond area with no strings attached. There are no minimums or other stipulations (other than suede and leather pants are excluded). This year, Puritan has partnered with the Richmond SPCA to help raise awareness for the Free Pants Wednesday program while also raising awareness for homeless kittens awaiting adoption at the Richmond SPCA’s humane center. The two organizations collaborated on a short movie which can be viewed at http://www.puritancleaners.com/community/free-pants-wednesday. This video is the latest in the light-hearted, low-budget, and intentionally campy videos associated with the Free Pants Wednesday program. Previous versions have featured racing at Richmond Raceway, ex-VCU basketball coach Shaka Smart, Todd “Parney” Parnell and the Flying Squirrels, and Bill Bevins and Shelly Perkins of Easy 100.9. > Read more.

Henrico Business Bulletin Board

July 2017
S M T W T F S
·
·
·
·
·
·
3
5
·
·
·
·
·

Calendar page

Classifieds

Place an Ad | More Classifieds

Calendar

The Henrico County Community Author Showcase, a program that connects writers and readers in the community, will begin at 7 p.m. and continue on the second Monday and every Thursday of the month at various libraries. Suzanne Starseed will share her book “The Ecology of Learning: Re-Inventing Schools” at Fairfield Library. For details, visit http://www.henricolibrary.org/authors. Full text

Your weather just got better.

Henricopedia

Henrico's Top Teachers

The Plate