JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crew from Charleston was forced to land abruptly while searching for a possible boater in distress Monday night due to laser lights being shined into the cockpit of the helicopter from shore.
Officials report that the aircrew still had 40 minutes before their search for the source of Mayday call was complete when they were forced to land early.
Coast Guardsmen at Air Station Savannah, which provides crews for Air Facility Charleston, have experienced six separate lasing incidents in the past year and a half, four of which occurred during searches for mariners in distress.
According to authorities, when a laser is directed into a Coast Guard aircraft, the aircrew has to stop searching immediately and land. The Coast Guard says that 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."
Officials with the Coast Guard say that the life-threatening incident is not the first of its kind for Coast Guard aircrews, and puts the lives of the pilots, crew, citizens on the ground near the aircraft, and mariners in distress at risk
The Federal Aviation Administration reports lasing incidents rose 902 percent from 2005 to 2011. Shining any laser at an aircraft is a federal offense under 14 CFR 19.11. Several people have been convicted under this and similar state laws. These convictions have resulted in prison terms as long as five years, fines of up to $11,000, and five years probation.