Green lasers endanger pilots in flight

By Stefanie

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) - Just one little green flash of light can bring down a big U.S. Coast Guard orange helicopter.

"The laser starts out as a tiny dot but as it goes out it gets bigger so it's sort of like a spotlight," said Lt. Alex Drake of the U.S. Coast Guard.{}{}"By the time it gets to the helicopter, it's a bigger beam of light."

U.S. Coast Guard officials say the trend of people shooting green laser pointers into the sky is growing in the area, with one incident early this week that delayed a search and rescue mission along the coast.{} It's a problem that can seriously injure pilots.

"Worst case scenario, pilots have temporary blindness," Lt. Drake said.

With only two helicopters on stand-by in the area, laser pointers can disrupt life-saving missions

"The delay to be able to get to the people who are in trouble is another big problem; the effects of shining that little laser light are far-reaching."

Over the past 18 months, officials say there have been six incidents involving green lasers: one on Isle of Palms, another on Folly Beach, and four in Myrtle Beach.

"I think a majority of people aren't malicious or trying to hurt us, they just don't know how it affects our operations," Lt. Drake said.

Federal law states that it is illegal to shine a laser pointer at any aircraft while it's flying. Penalties for breaking the law include five years in jail and fines of up to $10,000.

If a Coast Guard helicopter is hit by a laser, officials say it can take up to 24 hours for pilots to get back into the cockpit after having to see two doctors to get clearance to fly again.

"We've got windows everywhere so there is nowhere where you would be protected from a laser beam," Lt. Drake said.