Laser pointers becoming a dangerous toy’
When the bright green beam of a laser pointer struck a Coast Guard helicopter on a rescue mission near Myrtle Beach early Wednesday morning, Lt. Alex Drake knew his crew was in trouble.
By the numbers
The Federal Aviation Administration created a system to record laser incidents involving aircraft starting in 2005, when it received 300 reports. The most recent numbers:
2012: 1,869 (through Aug. 3)
“It’s just like a really bright light,” Drake said. “Your eyes constrict, and that glare hinders your ability to see other things around you.”
Here’s how lasers can affect the eyes:
Sudden exposure on approach or departure can distract or disorient a pilot and cause temporary impairment.
Glare or after-images can persist after exposure.
Recovery may take a few seconds to several minutes.
Green lasers have the most debilitating effect because the human eye is more sensitive to green.
Threat is highest at night when pupils are open.
It was the latest incident in what’s becoming a vexing national problem. Aircraft are most at risk, but an increasing number of people on the ground are also complaining that they’re being harassed by laser pointers. Officials are scrambling as they try to figure out what to do about it.
This beam came from a handheld laser pointer on the beach 3 miles away.
By the time it hit the Charleston-based chopper, the beam had expanded to become more like a spotlight, temporarily blinding the crew.
Three of the crew members were wearing night-vision goggles, which helped shield their eyes. A mechanic who didn’t have eye protection was the most severely affected.
But even with goggles, a laser can creep through the side of the eyewear and hit the pupils. Sometimes, a beam will bounce around the cockpit and reflect off windows and other shiny surfaces, further disorienting a crew.
The crew had to abandon the mission, land the chopper and get checked out before returning to the air.
Laser pointers, a hot item in many of the knick-knack shops lining the Grand Strand, have become a potentially dangerous toy for beachgoers.
“It’s getting to the point where it’s going to be a hazard just to fly up the coast,” Drake said. “It’s just a risk. We almost know with certainty that we’re going to get hit if we get too close to shore.”
Drake said other Coast Guardsmen have photographed airplanes hauling banners over packed beaches, advertising green laser pointers for $5.99 at a local shop.
“They think it’s just a fun toy to play with,” Drake said. “I can’t say what the allure is.”
The lasers aren’t just affecting aircraft.
On July 22, a 50-year-old man told Myrtle Beach police he fell down a set of motel stairs after somebody shined a green laser at his face from an adjacent motel, according to The Sun News.
About a week later, a Myrtle Beach police officer cited a teen from Huntington, W.Va., for pointing a green laser at him while he was driving a patrol car, the newspaper reported.
Fortunately, people aren’t pointing lasers at each other on the highway, said S.C. Highway Patrol Cpl. Bob Beres, at least not yet.
Within the last year, Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach enacted ordinances that restrict the sale of laser pointers to minors. Horry County officials are considering a similar ordinance so the Grand Strand has a uniform policy, Myrtle Beach spokesman Mark Kruea said.
Of course, that won’t help when the offenders are over 18, as is often the case, Kruea said.
Police are scrambling to keep up with complaints. Just in the three months from May through July, Myrtle Beach police responded to 198 complaints involving lasers, Lt. Doug Furlong told a local TV station earlier this month.
Federal officials are also grappling with the problem and considering new regulations. Nationwide, the number of incidents involving lasers and aircraft rose from 2,836 in 2010 to 3,592 last year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. So far this year, 73 incidents have been reported in South Carolina, including 51 in Myrtle Beach and four in Charleston.
People who are caught face civil penalties ranging from $11,000 to $30,000 and up to five years in prison.
Though no serious injuries or crashes have been reported because of a laser, the FAA says the potential is there.
Kathleen Bergen, a regional spokeswoman for the FAA, said the agency is now pursuing cases against seven people who purposely targeted aircraft in the Southeast.
Flight simulators can train pilots to react to lasers — to shield their eyes, engage autopilot systems or just look away. Eyeglasses also have been developed to filter out certain colors, but they also dim aviators’ vision, creating another hazard.
Commercial airlines are most concerned about occurrences during critical times: takeoff and landing. In some instances, lasers have duped pilots into thinking another aircraft is on a collision course, startling them and causing a rapid redirection.
The laser pointers that are typically sold in gift shops or office supply stores would need several seconds of exposure from a distance of about 1,200 feet to permanently damage an eye. But much more powerful laser pointers are available online.
Dr. Lucian Del Priore, chairman of the Medical University of South Carolina’s Storm Eye Institute, has treated people whose retinas were exposed to a laser beam. Those injuries, which manifest most commonly as blind spots, often occur in medical settings in which high-power lasers are used for research. Laser sights also can cause injuries for hunters and target shooters.
But those cases are extreme and the result of a strong laser being shined toward the center of a retina, he said.
“You have to have pretty good aim to hit the center of the retina with a laser,” he said. “But it can be visually distracting for pilots.”
Occurrences of retina burns have steadily increased over the years as more powerful lasers are sold, Del Priore said.
“The ones available to the general public and the teens shining them at people have become much brighter,” Del Priore said. “They’re being treated like toys, but they’re not really toys.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede. Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553 or twitter.com/dmunday.