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Friday, March 1, 2013

Law Enforcement Notebook: Watch Out for This Laser!

By Ernie Stephens

If you flipped though the previous pages of this issue without reading the Rotorcraft Report entitled “Laser Attack Injures Helo Crewmember,” I’m flattered that you landed here first. But what I’m about to tell you is a continuation of that piece written just for the law enforcement community. So, if you haven’t seen that short item, please check it out now, then return here.

Chris Elrod, a friend and top-drawer tactical flight officer (TFO), said that when the blue laser beam swept through the cockpit of the MD520N that he, TFO trainee Eddie Martin, and pilot Todd Dolihite were flying, they were a good 800 feet away from the knucklehead who was aiming it at them. But they managed to see which balcony of the high-rise apartment building it was coming from, and were able to guide ground units to the culprit, later identified as 40-year old Jules Labonte.

Labonte admitted to patrol officers on the scene that he was showing off his new, $299 Wicked-brand Arctic laser to his nephew. Of course, the ASP baton-size device was seized as evidence. But before sending it to the property room, officers and detectives experimented with its capabilities. Between what they witnessed at the station, what they found on Wicked’s website, and what they saw in amateur videos posted on the Internet, it was clear that the Arctic laser could be a serious threat to any law enforcement officer, and not just those who fly. When I learned of the incident, I went to the company’s website myself. I was barely through half of their marketing video when my jaw dropped. Here was a shaft of energy that was popping more than a dozen balloons lined up one behind the other. I had never seen a hand-held laser, outside of the ones in laboratories, do that before! But what made me more nervous was watching the other videos I found. Just plugging the words “Arctic laser” in my search engine revealed video after video of teenagers etching letters into stuff, popping kernels of popcorn, and (of course) recreating the company’s balloon stunt.

What I’m trying to wrap my head around are three simple things. First, how is it that a light device that can drill through material, cook food, and burn a man’s eyes from 800 feet be made available to the general public, including people I wouldn’t trust with a regular flashlight? Second, what is the attraction people have for laser pointers—outside of a learning environment, or course—that makes them the hottest selling item at beaches, carnivals and sporting events, especially among juveniles? And third, how long is it going to be before someone’s vision is seriously and permanently impaired while holding 4,000 lbs. of helicopter and crew in the air?

Elrod was very lucky. The ophthalmologist said his injury was minor, and probably wouldn’t have any lasting effects. But this thing changes the game for aviators. The first time I was hit by a laser was before the handheld kind sold at office supply stores had become popular. Laser sighting systems for firearms, however, were readily available, which is why I snatched the collective up into my armpit, and got us out of Dodge as soon as I saw that red dot ricochet through my ship. Now, there doesn’t even have to be a bullet on the other end of that beam of light in order to be a big problem. The beam itself can now be the problem! And folks, that sucker is powerful enough to reach out and touch you from over two miles away; far enough to make it difficult to identify where its coming from, particularly if your first order of business is to avoid looking directly into it.

Once word gets out about how nasty these devices are, will the bad guys begin using them to shoo police helicopters away, because they know the pilot will want to avoid the possibility of taking a hit? Elrod took the time to search for the “shooter,” but that was before he and his partners knew they had been illuminated by a laboratory-grade laser cannon that could burn their eyes.

For now, we here at Rotor & Wing are asking all pilots to be very careful when they see any shaft or dot of light that looks to be coming from a laser device. Yes, the relatively safe, low-power ones are all over the place. But according to Elrod and his partners, the tipoff that a Class IV beam is on you will be its exceptional brilliance, compared to what you’ve probably seen in the past.

By the way, the FBI and FAA were notified of the attack. Sources say that both agencies are waiting for Labonte’s trial to conclude before they take any action at their levels. And even though the FAA and the FBI have already publically announced a zero-tolerance policy toward laser attacks, I hope they kick regulatory and enforcement action up a notch with Class IV laser assaults.

Meanwhile, I’m working on an air-to-ground weapon that can lock onto the source of a laser, and use that beam to target the Jedi standing behind it with a barrage of florescent pink paintballs. Financial backers are welcome.

Be careful, ladies and gentlemen. These lasers are dangerous!

 

 

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