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.
The Race to Protect Children will be held at West Broad Village Saturday, May 2, to benefit Greater Richmond SCAN.
The 1-mile Kids Run will begin at 8:30 a.m., followed by the 5K Run/Walk at 9 a.m. The event is designed to be family friendly, and the flat course is walker-friendly.
A children’s festival will begin at 9 a.m., offering activities and performances for children and families. > Read more.
Citizen Staff Reports 04/16/2015
Last summer, hundreds of Anthem LemonAid stands dotted Central Virginia and raised more than $100,000 in support of cancer treatment and research at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU (CHoR). This July 17-19, Anthem is inviting community members to host an Anthem LemonAid stand in support of the children who are battling the disease. During the past 13 summers, Anthem LemonAid has raised more than $1 million. All funds raised support the Hematology and Oncology Clinic at the Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU.
Anthem LemonAid is Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals’ signature summer event. It’s free to participate and is designed for children, families, community groups and businesses alike. > Read more.
Citizen Staff Reports 03/30/2015
The Henricopolis Soil & Water Conservation District will sponsor a tree seedling giveaway on April 2 at Dorey Park Shelter 1 from 2:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. and on April 3 at Hermitage High School parking lot from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Bare-root tree seedlings are available to Henrico County residents free of charge for the spring planting season.
The following seedling species will be available: apple, kousa dogwood, red maple, river birch, red osier dogwood, loblolly pine, sycamore, bald cypress, white dogwood and redbud. Quantities are limited and trees are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Each participant is allowed up to 10 trees total, not to include more than five of the same species. > Read more.
It’s that time of year – charity races are popping up everywhere! On Saturday, St. Joseph’s Villa will be the site of the sixth annual CASA Superhero Run and the fifth annual Richmond Free to Breathe Run/Walk will be held in Innsbrook. Also in Innsbrook, the 2015 Richmond Take Steps for Crohn’s and Colitis will take place on Sunday. If you’re more into relaxation than exercise, check out Wine for Cure’s Dogwood Wine Festival or the Troubadours Community Theatre Group’s production of “West Side Story” at the Henrico Theatre. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.
There are several fun events this weekend taking place outside including the third annual Virginia Firefighter Games at Short Pump Town Center; Twin Hickory Park’s “April Showers: A Celebration of Spring” event; the Young Life Richmond West 5k in Innsbrook; and the Gold Festival on Broad which benefits Prevent Child Abuse Virginia. Fingers crossed for no rain! For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.
The University of Richmond will host its annual Global Family Concert this weekend – a free, family friendly concert featuring Japanese, Indonesian, West African, Indian, and Brazilian music and dance performances. Country music fans can head to The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen for “An Evening of Country” featuring The Honky Tonk Experience. Enjoy the spring weather at Meadow Farm for “Sheep to Shawl” or join the Henrico Hiking Club at James River Park. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.
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