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

Henrico woman earns national pharmacy fellowship


Henrico County native Nilofar “Nellie” Jafari recently was named the American College of Clinical Pharmacy-American Society of Health-System Pharmacists-Virginia Commonwealth University Congressional Healthcare Policy Fellow for 2017-18.

Jafari is a 2007 graduate of J.R. Tucker High School.

Pharmacists selected for the fellowship have the opportunity to gain real-world insight into health care policy analysis and development via immersion in the congressional environment. > Read more.

Section of Lauderdale Drive to be closed April 26 for drainage improvements


The westbound lanes of Lauderdale Drive will be closed between John Rolfe Parkway and Cambridge Drive on Wednesday, April 26 for drainage improvements.

The lanes are expected to be closed from approximately 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Motorists will be detoured from westbound Lauderdale onto John Rolfe, Gayton Road and Cambridge before being directed back onto Lauderdale. > Read more.

Henrico Police to host prescription drug take-back event April 29


The Henrico County Division of Police and the U. S. Drug Enforcement Administration will participate in the nationwide Prescription Drug Take Back Program Saturday, April 29. The event will take place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Henrico County Training Center, 7701 East Parham Road, next to the Public Safety Building.

The program is free and anonymous. Unused or expired pills, patches and liquid prescriptions (in their sealed original container) will be accepted. Needles and sharp items will not be accepted. No questions will be asked. > Read more.

Henrico home sales rose in March

Parts of the greater Richmond real estate market experienced an increase in the number of homes sold during the month of March, according to Long & Foster.

The number of homes sold increased in much of the Richmond region in March compared to year-ago levels. In Henrico County, the number of homes rose by 16 percent. Median sale prices varied in the Richmond region in March when compared to the same month last year. In both Hanover and Henrico counties, the median sale price rose by 10 percent. > Read more.

Henrico house fire contained quickly


APR. 24, 9:15 A.M. – A house fire in Henrico's West End Sunday caused minor damage but resulted in no injuries. At about noon Sunday, Henrico Emergency Communications Officers received phone calls of smoke coming from a home in the 1700 block of Shewalt Circle, just one block off Hungary Road. > Read more.
Community

YMCA event will focus on teen mental health


The YMCA, in partnership with the Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation and PartnerMD, will host a free event May 2 to help parents learn how to deal with teen mental health issues. “When the Band-Aid Doesn’t Fix It: A Mom’s Perspective on Raising a Child Who Struggles” will be held from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Shady Grove Family YMCA,11255 Nuckols Road. The event will focus on education, awareness, and understanding the issues facing teens today. > Read more.

Villa’s Flagler Housing wins national NAEH award


St. Joseph's Villa’s Flagler Housing & Homeless Services was one of three entities to earn the National Alliance to End Homelessness' Champion of Change Award. The awards were presented Nov. 17 during a ceremony at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

NAEH annually recognizes proven programs and significant achievements in ending child and family homelessness.

Flagler completed its transition from an on-campus shelter to the community-based model of rapid rehousing in 2013, and it was one of the nation's first rapid re-housing service providers to be certified by NAEH. > Read more.
Entertainment

Restaurant Watch


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

 

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The J.R. Tucker High School Drama Boosters will host the “Race to the End” Color Run from 7:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the school, 2910 N. Parham Rd. Participants of the event will be rewarded with post-race events on campus including vendors, concessions and kid activities. Race registration includes bib, color packet and t-shirt (guaranteed to participants that register by May 4). Cost is $25 for students, $35 for adults and $30 for groups of five or more. Proceeds from the race will benefit the J.R. Tucker School String Players’ trip to Edinburgh, Scotland to perform in The Fringe. To register, visit http://bit.ly/JRTcolorrun. Full text

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