Pilots not out of danger in Horry County despite new laws limiting lasers

bdickerson@thesunnews.comJanuary 9, 2013 

  • What does it do? The new laser ordinance: • Prohibits the sale of laser pointers to those under 18 • Limits the strength of the devices to 1 milliwatt. • Allows their purchase by professionals such as educators, contractors or public safety officials

— Horry County has new laws on the books that limit the availability of not only green lasers, but all laser pointers to those under the age of 18.

Still, public safety officials say it will be a challenge to capture someone who aims a laser at an incoming plane instead of a Powerpoint presentation.

That means pilots for the U.S. Coast Guard and commercial airliners -- both of whom had problems with laser strikes along the Grand Strand last summer -- could still be susceptible once the summer tourism season ramps up again.

There were 70 strikes on approaching aircraft at Myrtle Beach International Airport during the summer months, and the Coast Guard suspended rescue operations at least three times after pilots were hit by green lasers.

So, the question is, are there measures pilots can use to protect themselves from possible laser strikes while in flight?

It doesn’t appear so.

Coast Guard Cmdr. Greg Fuller, with the Savannah, Ga., sector, said there are glasses made that can protect people from being struck by lasers.

The problem, he said, is each is designed to protect against only a specific laser wavelength.

“Right now, they haven’t found a set of glasses or a visor to protect us against different kinds of lasers,” Fuller said.

Cmdr. Brian LaFeever, with the U.S. Coast Guard, Sector Charleston, said officials at the main headquarters in Washington D.C. have been discussing possible safety eyewear. However, anything that limits a pilot’s vision would impair their ability to fly and make it difficult to search for victims while on rescue operations, he added.

Horry County Councilman Al Allen, himself a pilot, said the only equipment he’s aware of are light shields for the cockpit windows, and night vision goggles.

The goggles, he added, are a hindrance when green lasers are brought into the equation because they’ll ultimately enhance the light.

Allen said he was hit by a laser a few years ago while landing at the Loris airport. The flash caused a lot of reflection and scattering of light within the cockpit.

“It really puts on a dazzling light show,” Allen said.

Coast Guard officials started looking at the problem following a July 26, 2012 incident, when a helicopter was forced to land while searching for two men stranded in the middle of the ocean after their 19-foot catamaran overturned in unfavorable seas. Additionally, the crew of a rescue boat was hit by green lasers.

The two men were able to swim back to land and were unharmed.

Fuller addressed the County Council in August about the laser strikes and Horry County’s designation as a hot zone.

“We haven’t had any issues since the summer,” Fuller said Wednesday. He added it’s a combination of fewer visitors, which means fewer people armed with lasers, plus not being dispatched to Horry County on rescue operations.

For now, the Grand Strand remains a designated hot zone: A rescue operation must be reviewed if it pilots could be endangered because of lasers. Fuller said the district sector out of Miami has enacted a similar protocol for locations in Florida, and other sectors across the country are following suit.

“It’s gaining traction,” he said.

Fuller was also happy with the ordinance Horry County Council adopted Tuesday night.

“I think it’s a great step,” he said.

The ordinance prohibits the sale of laser pointers to those under the age of 18, and the strength of the devices can’t exceed 1 milliwatt. Those using lasers for professional purposes, such as educators, contractors or public safety officials, would be exempt.

Store owners selling lasers must maintain technical specifications showing the device has a strength not exceeding one milliwatt. Additionally, they must get customers buying a laser pointer to sign a paper that lists all warnings associated with it.

Those warnings include not buying the device for minors, and notint that it can be considered a weapon if pointed at people or aircraft.

Anyone in violation of the ordinance can face up to 30 days in jail or a $500 fine.

Contact reporter BRAD DICKERSON at 626-0301.

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