(WXYZ) — A laser light incident targeting an MSP helicopter on Tuesday appears to be intentional and malicious. What most people fail to understand is just how numerous and dangerous such incidents are. In fact, about 10,000 such laser incidents were reported by pilots in 2021.
Kenny Winn used to work for Max Flight Helicopters out of Detroit. He now works for a Medivac emergency medical services company, transporting patients with a flight medic and flight nurse. He had a scary situation recently.
“I had a medical crew. We were responding to a scene and it was about 11 at night,” Winn explained. “I saw a green laser light. I was getting lightheaded. It hit me right in the eye. That’s what got my attention. My medic looked through the right window, caught it in the eye.
He explained what makes being in a helicopter particularly problematic.
“We are surrounded by glass. There isn’t much obstruction between us and the laser coming into the cockpit of the helicopter. This is the advantage of the helicopter. It has great visibility. But it also lets laser light through,” Winn said.
As anyone who has been there knows what it feels like to have a laser shined in the eye.
“It can be very dangerous to the pilot. It can disorient the pilot,” explained Winn.
He says that fortunately, the pilot can rely on the autopilot system when needed. Still, he doesn’t think most people understand how serious it is to target an aircraft with a laser.
“It’s a federal crime. I don’t think most people realize that,” Winn said.
In 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration received 9,723 reports of lasers from pilots, a 41% increase from 2020.
There were 42 reports last year in the Metro Detroit area alone.
Patrick Murphy is a Ledger security expert who runs the website laserpointersafety.com,
He explained what the public does not understand.
“I don’t think they understand that hitting a target on a plane is any different than playing with your cat. It’s not a small point. It won’t be under the plane so you don’t interfere with the pilot. It’s most likely , if the plane is coming towards you the pilot will come into sight,” Murphy said.
Maybe some believe it is just a “small” laser.
“Here’s a cat pointer, the little thing you buy at a pet store for a few dollars,” Murphy demonstrated. “But it can actually be a distraction for pilots two miles away.”
Vin said in his case, he was flying just 500 feet above the ground.
Fortunately, as the laser travels a distance, the power decreases. The main risk is temporarily blinding light.
“You have a bright light, it’s interfering with the pilot. If the power is high enough, it’s going to completely block the pilot’s view and cause a flash blindness after the image which means that they can no longer see for a minute until the afterimage becomes clear.
According to the FAA, people who shine lasers at aircraft face fines of up to $11,000 per violation, up to $30,800 for multiple incidents, and even years in federal prison.
“I also think they don’t understand that the police, it’s like an arrow pointing at you,” Murphy explained. “They have all the cameras and things that can see that beam going right back to you. They call in ground units like they did in the Detroit case and ground units will be there within minutes.
Winn says to remember the people who are already putting so much on the line.
“We’re assuming a huge risk anyway to go help someone,” Winn said. “I don’t want to be permanently out of my job because of someone playing on the field and not realizing what they’re doing.”