Laser pointer targets small plane, Phoenix news helicopter

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PHOENIX – Police are trying to find the person who pointed a green laser beam both at an airplane and at the news helicopter shared by 3TV, Channel 5 and Channel 12.

It happened shortly before 6:30 a.m. Friday when it was still dark. Pilot Bruce Bates said the helicopter was on a story when they heard a report that a traffic-spotting plane belonging to a Phoenix radio station had been hit by a laser.

“We decided to pass over that area en route to another story and we were in fact hit by that same laser,” he said.

Officials with the Federal Aviation Administration have long been concerned with the increasing number of incidents in which people point lasers at aircraft.

The bright light of the laser can not only damage a pilot’s eyes, it can also temporarily blind him, forcing him to hand over control to a co-pilot or even abort a landing.

"It sounds silly, but this is a serious problem," FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt wrote in a post on a Transportation Department blog in early December.

Green lasers like the one used Friday morning reportedly can be more damaging to the eyes than red ones.

“This was very bright,” Bates said. “It was so bright it lit up the cockpit.”

Video shot from the helicopter clearly shows the laser beam, which seems to originate from a home in the area of 20th and Orangewood avenues in Phoenix.

Tammy Rose, the reporter in the helicopter, said she has heard of this happening, but it’s the first time she has experienced it herself.

“I didn’t realize how bright it was,” she said. “From the ground, it doesn’t look like it shoots that far into the sky. … I was surprised at how much it actually lit up the screens. It’s very dangerous. People don’t understand the gravity of the situation.”

There was a similar incident with another news helicopter in the same area last week, Rose said. In that case, the pilot’s eyes were damaged by the green laser.

Police did patrol the area after Friday morning's incident, but so far, they have not found a suspect. Officers were going door to door in the neighborhood.

“It’s not a joke. It’s not funny,” Bates said. “You’re not only affecting the pilot and crew, who could have irreparable damage to their eyes, but you’re also endangering the people on the ground if the helicopter or plane is forced to the ground.”

Dozens of people throughout the country and around the world have been arrested for pointing laser beams at cockpits. Most of those incidents took place near airports as planes were taking off and landing.

Two years ago, Vincent Bodin, 19, was arrested for shining lasers at commercial planes flying out of Sky Harbor International Airport.

Last year, an Orange, Calif., man was sentenced to 2½ years in prison for aiming a handheld laser at two Boeing jets as the passenger planes were about to land at John Wayne Airport.

Earlier this month, a Phoenix man was evicted from his apartment and will likely go to jail after he was accused of shining a small laser at a Phoenix police helicopter that was responding to an emergency call. The man said it was an accident and that he was aiming at a light pole, not the helicopter.

"We are taking it seriously. The FAA certainly has some concerns," said Sgt. Steve Martos of the Phoenix Police Department after that arrest earlier this month. "We have our homeland defense that has some concerns with it and we are going to be aggressively looking for those who engage in this type of behavior."

Police want to remind people that pointing a laser beam at an aircraft is illegal.

"A number of crimes can occur -- endangerment, it can be considered aggravated assault. A number of things can happen," Sgt. Tommy Thompson of the Phoenix Police Department said Friday morning. "It's foolish and it's dangerous. Don't do it."

Federal officials said in January that these kinds of incidents have increased dramatically. According to transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, more than 2,800 incidents of lasers being pointed at aircraft were reported in 2010. That's nearly double the slightly more than 1,500 incidents reported in 2009, and almost 10 times the 300 reports in 2005.

Anybody caught pointing a laser beam at a plane or helicopter could face serious fines or even jail time. Interference with air navigation is a federal crime.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.