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Boston Man Charged With Pointing a Laser at a Coast Guard Helicopter

Purple laser
File image

Published May 14, 2024 8:49 PM by The Maritime Executive

Police have arrested and charged a Massachusetts resident for allegedly aiming a high powered laser at a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter as it came in for a landing. Lasing incidents are an increasing and unwelcome threat to Coast Guard aircrews, and the service takes infractions seriously. 

Philip Gagnon, 59, has been indicted on one count of aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft. The maximum penalty for the felony offense is up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. 

On September 21, 2023, Gagnon allegedly aimed a green laser from his apartment window at a Coast Guard helicopter. The aircraft was flying at 400 feet and coming in for a landing at Massachusetts General Hospital. Four crewmembers were aboard for a training flight. The laser beam went through the helicopter's windows, according to the Coast Guard, and the pilot aborted the landing. The aircrew flew to a different location to set down safely. Luckily, no one in the helicopter was hit or injured by the laser; high-powered lasers can cause temporary or permanent vision impairment, a critical safety issue for pilots. 

Gagnon made his initial court appearance on Monday in a federal district court in Boston. He pleaded not guilty and has been released pending trial. 

FAA statistics suggest that pilots (civilian and military) reported more than 13,000 laser incidents last year alone, a jump of forty percent year-on-year. Consumer-grade laser pointers can be dangerous at power levels above five milliwatts, and many are unlabeled or mislabeled, according to the American Academy of Opthamology. Serious damage - including injury requiring surgical intervention - is possible in the event of a direct hit on the eye. 

The National Defense Authorization Act for FY2021 also made it a felony crime to aim a laser pointer at any vessel operating on the navigable waters of the United States. It is the first statute covering lasing incidents involving vessels, like Coast Guard patrol boats, ferries, merchant ships and small watercraft. Offenders who target a Coast Guard vessel with a laser pointer and harm an officer can receive up to $25,000 in civil fines, and criminal penalties can include up to 25 years imprisonment, according to the Coast Guard Investigative Service.