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

‘Hello Kitty Truck’ rolls into Short Pump Saturday


MAR. 23, 12 P.M. – Hello Kitty fans, rejoice. On Saturday, the Hello Kitty Cafe Truck, described as “a mobile vehicle of cuteness,” will make its first visit to the region.

The truck will be at Short Pump Town Center, 11800 W. Broad St., from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m. The vehicle will be near the mall’s main entrance by Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn.

The Hello Kitty Cafe Truck has been traveling nationwide since its debut at the 2014 Hello Kitty Con, a convention for fans of the iconic character produced by the Japanese company Sanrio. > Read more.

Governor vetoes Republicans’ ‘educational choice’ legislation


Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Thursday vetoed several bills that Republicans say would have increased school choice but McAuliffe said would have undermined public schools.

Two bills, House Bill 1400 and Senate Bill 1240, would have established the Board of Virginia Virtual School as an agency in the executive branch of state government to oversee online education in kindergarten through high school. Currently, online courses fall under the Virginia Board of Education. > Read more.

School supply drive, emergency fund to help Baker E.S. students and faculty


Individuals and organizations wanting to help George F. Baker Elementary School students and staff recover from a March 19 fire at the school now have two ways to help: make a monetary donation or donate items of school supplies.

The weekend fire caused significant smoke-and-water damage to classroom supplies and student materials at the school at 6651 Willson Road in Eastern Henrico.

For tax-deductible monetary donations, the Henrico Education Foundation has created the Baker Elementary School Emergency School Supply Fund. > Read more.

Nominations open for 2017 IMPACT Award


ChamberRVA is seeking nominees for the annual IMPACT Award, which honors the ways in which businesses are making an impact in the RVA Region economy and community and on their employees.

Nominees must be a for-profit, privately-held business located within ChamberRVA's regional footprint: the counties of Charles City, Chesterfield, Goochland, Hanover, Henrico, New Kent and Powhatan; the City of Richmond; and the Town of Ashland. > Read more.

Business in brief


Cushman & Wakefield | Thalhimer announces the sale of the former Friendly’s restaurant property located at 5220 Brook Road in Henrico County. Brook Road V, LLC purchased the 3,521-square-foot former restaurant property situated on 0.92 acres from O Ice, LLC for $775,000 as an investment. Bruce Bigger of Cushman & Wakefield | Thalhimer handled the sale negotiations on behalf of the seller. > Read more.
Community

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.

RIR’s Christmas tree lighting rescheduled for Dec. 12


Richmond International Raceway's 13th annual Community Christmas tree lighting has been rescheduled from Dec. 6 to Monday, Dec. 12, at 6:30 p.m., due to inclement weather expected on the original date.

Entertainment Dec. 12 will be provided by the Laburnum Elementary School choir and the Henrico High School Mighty Marching Warriors band. Tree decorations crafted by students from Laburnum Elementary School and L. Douglas Wilder Middle School will be on display. Hot chocolate and cookies will be supplied by the Henrico High School football boosters. > Read more.
Entertainment

CAT Theatre to present ‘When There’s A Will’


CAT Theatre and When There’s A Will director Ann Davis recently announced the cast for the dark comedy which will be performed May 26 through June 3.

The play centers around a family gathering commanded by the matriarch, Dolores, to address their unhappiness with Grandmother’s hold on the clan’s inheritance and her unreasonable demands on her family.

Pat Walker will play the part of Dolores Whitmore, with Graham and Florine Whitmore played by Brent Deekens and Brandy Samberg, respectively. > Read more.

 

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Grammy Award-winning jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves will perform at the University of Richmond’s Modlin Center for the Arts at 7:30 p.m. in Camp Concert Hall, Booker Hall of Music. Accompanying Reeves will be Peter Martin, piano; Romero Lubambo, guitar; Reginald Veal, bass; and Terreon Gully, drums. Tickets are $22 to $45. A free, pre-show Artistic Viewpoint Discussion with UR Professor David Esleck will take place at 6:30 p.m. in the Gardner Lecture Room. For details, call 289-8980 or visit http://www.modlin.richmond.edu. Full text

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