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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.
Community

Rotary donates to ‘Bright Beginnings’

The Sandston Rotary Club recently donated $1,000 to the Sandston YMCA for its Bright Beginnings program, which helps provide children in need with school supplies for the new school year. > Read more.

Author, child abuse survivor to speak at Henrico event

To help celebrate twenty years of service to advocating for abused and neglected children in Henrico County, Henrico Court Appointed Special Advocates, Inc. (CASA) will host an evening with bestselling author K.L. Randis on Tuesday, Aug. 26, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at Belmont Recreation Center in Lakeside.

Randis is best known for her bestselling novel, Spilled Milk, which tells her painful – but ultimately triumphant – personal story of abuse and of child abuse prevention. The book is her first novel.

The event is free to the public, but seating is limited Reservations may be made by e-mailing .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Belmon Recreation Center is located at 1600 Hilliard Road. > Read more.

Philippines ambassador to the US visits Filipino Festival in Henrico


The Ambassador of the Philippines to the United States Jose L. Cuisia, Jr. attended the Ninth Annual Filipino Festival at Our Lady of Lourdes Church earlier this month. Cuisia (pictured above with festival performers) was welcomed by County Manager John Vithoulkas and Brookland District Supervisor Dick Glover (below) at the church, which is located in Lakeside.

While enjoying some of the cultural performances at the festival, the ambassador and his wife had a private lunch with Vithoulkas, Glover, Eldon Burton (an outreach representative from U.S. Senator Mark R. Warner’s Office) and Father James Begley, the pastor of OLL. > Read more.

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Entertainment

Restaurant watch

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

Cultural Arts Center seeks artists, designs for holiday displays

The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen is seeking artists, crafters, and creative groups for three opportunities allowing creative thinkers and doers to design and display imaginative holiday decorations.

The center is seeking designs for:

• Illumination 2014 – A Festival of Trees: Artists can celebrate the holiday season by creating a one-of-a-kind Christmas tree filled with decorations to suit any unique or traditional theme. Past trees exhibited have included Buzz Lightyear; HEROES; Santa tree; Musicology; and many others. > Read more.

Weekend Top 10


For our Top 10 calendar events this weekend, click here! > Read more.

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