Green lasers halt Coast Guard air searches

A green laser shining on an aircraft. Photo courtesy of Department of Transportation.

A green laser shining on an aircraft. Photo courtesy of Department of Transportation.

The SAR alarm is sounded and a Coast Guard helicopter is launched. As the aircrew arrives on scene, ready to search for the boater who needs their help, a green light enters the cockpit. It’s a green laser being shined from land and its blinding beam forces the pilots to head back to base, unable to finish their search.

This life-threatening incident is not a made-up story but something happening to Coast Guard aircrews along our nation’s coasts as they take flight to save lives.

An MH-65 Dolphin rescue helicopter crew from Air Station Savannah, Ga., transits the Grand Strand, N.C. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. Daniel Lavinder.

An MH-65 Dolphin rescue helicopter crew from Air Station Savannah, Ga., transits the Grand Strand, N.C. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. Daniel Lavinder.

When a laser is directed into an aircraft, the aircrew has to stop searching immediately and land. The crew is grounded until each person has an eye exam and is cleared by a flight surgeon. This process can take up to 24 hours, depending on when and where the incident occurred. Additionally, there is typically a two-to-three hour delay to get a new helicopter and crew on scene to resume a search.

“People need to consider how many lives they’re putting in danger before they choose to point a laser light at an aircraft,” said Cmdr. Gregory Fuller, commanding officer of Air Station Savannah. “It’s not only incredibly dangerous for those in and around the aircraft, but it also keeps our aircrews from responding during maritime emergencies. This isn’t something we take lightly.”

In one recent case, a Coast Guard aircrew still had 40 minutes before their search for the source of mayday call was complete, when they were forced to land early because of a laser light.

In another case, an aircrew from Air Facility Charleston, S.C., had just arrived at an area called the Grand Strand to start a search. As they began, a laser hit the aircraft, forcing the aircrew to land.

A boatcrew from Station Georgetown was launched to take over the search; however, due to the distance from Georgetown, the boatcrew didn’t arrive at the search area until two hours after the helicopter departed the scene. The source of the flares was never located.

“We’ve been very fortunate that the green laser incidents haven’t yet resulted in tragedy,” said Fuller. “But every time we send our aircrews to the Grand Strand, we’re telling them to fly into the equivalent of a storm, where it’s almost guaranteed they’ll be hit. We’re simply asking the public to stop putting Coast Guard men and women in senseless and unnecessary danger.”

Since 1963, Air Station Savannah has provided search and rescue coverage 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for 450 miles of shoreline.

Since 1963, Air Station Savannah has provided search and rescue coverage 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for 450 miles of shoreline.

This is a growing problem, and one in which the Coast Guard needs the public’s support. The Federal Aviation Administration reports laser illumination events rose 902 percent from 2005 to 2011. Coast Guard crews at Air Station Savannah have experienced six separate incidents in the past year and a half alone, four of which occurred during searches for mariners in distress.

In addition to the threat on aircrew safety, shining any laser at an aircraft is a federal offense. Prison terms from recent cases have been as long as five years with fines of up to $11,000.

Shining a laser light inside an aircraft puts the lives of the pilots, crew, citizens on the ground near the aircraft, and boaters in distress at risk. You can do your part by reporting any suspicions or reports of incidents to the Federal Aviation Administration. By spreading the word about these dangers you can keep our aircrews safe and ready to fly.

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