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 that temporarily blinded the pilot and halted the search.
That stunt not only was 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; he is scheduled for sentencing this week.
Willingham was prosecuted under federal law because there was no applicable state law. But that will change on July 1, when a new Virginia law goes into effect.
The Virginia General Assembly passed the legislation during its 2012 regular session, and Robert F. McDonnell (R) signed it into law on March 30.
The law 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 as log as 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 as long as five years in prison.
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.
Bill sponsor Del. Barry Knight (D-Dist. 81), of Chesapeake said he also was 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.”
Although a laser’s beam is small in diameter close-up, it widens by several inches across greater distances. Also, imperfections in the glass of a plane’s windshield cause the beam to expand even more within the cockpit.