Coast Guard officials in Washington state said Tuesday that they were looking for information on anyone who might have aimed a laser at a helicopter air crew on Monday night.
An aircrew out of Air Station Port Angeles in an MH-65 Dolphin was preparing for landing when they were illuminated for "about one second," the Coast Guard said.
The crew landed safely but were grounded for two hours while they underwent a medical checkup. The air station’s ability to respond to a distress call was greatly reduced during that period, officials said.
Cmdr. Mark Hiigel, commanding officer of Coast Guard Air Station Port Angeles, stressed that this was a serious incident – and potentially a hazard to shipping.
“These types of incidents can be very dangerous to the safety of our aircrews and disrupts our ability to respond as a search and rescue asset,” he said. “In this particular case the aircrew was medically grounded for approximately two hours. This resulted in Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and Sector Columbia River, located in Warrenton, Oregon, covering our area of responsibility until the Port Angeles aircrew was medically cleared.”
“We need the general public to understand that the dangers of playing with green laser lights goes beyond medical risks to our aircrews, it places all mariners at risk due to delayed response times should they become in distress,” Cmdr. Hiigel added.
For safety, USCG policy dictates that aircrews must abort their mission and return to base in the event that a laser strikes a crewmember's eyes.
The Coast Guard noted that the act of aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft is a felony, punishable by fine and up to five years in jail.
In Washington, the USCG has taken enforcement seriously: Sector Puget Sound issued a $100,000 civil penalty in May to an individual who intentionally struck the ferryTokiate with a high-powered blue laser, resulting in injuries to the ferry master and chief mate.
The problem is not confined to Washington. This spring, in Puerto Rico, Coast Guard Office San Juan reported three laser strikes over a five day period on its SAR helicopters – including one incident which occurred in the middle of a rescue hoist.