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  • Blinded by the Light
Oct 2010
Oct. 4, 2010 — I like to mess with my siblings’ cats sometimes when I get my hands on a laser pointer, You know: make them tumble over themselves trying to catch the tiny red spot dancing across the carpet, occasionally convince them to run headlong into the couch where the spot seems to have gone to hide.

Surely this won’t be found among the manufacturer’s recommended uses. But really, it’s a victimless crime. Every now and then a cat might suffer a bruised ego, or maybe – maybe – a slight bump where its cranium encountered a sturdy piece of furniture. In the end, though, the chances of someone getting hurt are essentially nil.

If only that were true for the other major misuse of laser pointers: shining them at airplanes and helicopters. People tend to aim lasers at airplanes during takeoff or landing, when the planes are close to the ground. Distractions to the pilots during either of these, of course, can prove disastrous.

The problem is more widespread than you might think. According to the FBI, there were approximately 1,000 reports of lasering aircraft in the US in 2008. And the number appears to be on the rise: Through August of this year, we saw 1,700 incidents.

So who are these clowns? Who wakes up in the morning and decides it might be good sport to disorient those responsible for huge pieces of machinery barreling through the sky or hovering high above the ground? We’re looking at you, Jamie Allen Downie of Rocklin, Calif. And you too, Gerard Sasso of Medford, Mass. Not to mention a parade of other doofuses (doofi?) armed with lasers of various types and powers.

Downie was arrested following two incidents in July 2009, in both of which a Placer County sheriff’s helicopter was hit by a laser he had pointed. Though according to his attorney he wasn’t actually tracking the aircraft – really, just being stupid and reckless – Downie was convicted on two felony counts of discharging a laser and two felony counts of assault with a deadly weapon on a police officer. In January, he was sentenced to four years in prison.

And then there’s Sasso, whose story might have been pulled from a Tom Clancy novel. On Dec. 8, 2007, a State Police helicopter escorting a tanker through Boston Harbor was struck by a powerful green laser, filling the cockpit with “an intense sparkling green light.” Viewing this as a possible threat to themselves as well as to the tanker and to planes landing at Logan Airport across the harbor, the helicopter pilots requested permission to pursue.

According to a Department of Justice press release, “the pilots began flying an ‘S’ shaped pattern towards the beam in order to identify its source without being struck in the face by the laser. As they flew closer to the beam’s source, the beam kept following them, and it struck the helicopter at least four more times.” Finally they determined that the laser was likely coming from a window in Sasso’s apartment.

In January of this year, the Medford man was convicted of one count of willfully interfering with an aircraft operator with reckless disregard for human life and one count of making false statements (when police officers responded to his apartment he initially claimed he had nothing to do with the incident and didn’t own any lasers). He was the second person in the US to be convicted of lasering an aircraft in violation of US Code – Section 32: Destruction of Aircraft or Aircraft Facilities, a provision of the 2001 Patriot Act.

And the cavalcade of doofuses marches on. Just last month, Joseph Aquino of Warwick, R.I. was arraigned in U.S. District Court on charges of willfully interfering with the safe operation of an airborne commercial aircraft and endangering the safety of the passengers and crew. The 31-year-old man allegedly lasered the cockpit of a commercial airliner during its final approach to T.F. Green Airport, momentarily blinding the pilot.

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