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Rescue pilot blinded by laser, lands chopper

By Todd Sperry, CNN
updated 6:23 PM EDT, Thu August 9, 2012
  • The Coast Guard chopper was responding to reports of flares off South Carolina coast
  • Temporarily blinded pilot makes a safe emergency landing, no distressed boater found
  • There have been multiple laser incidents targeting Coast Guard pilots in recent weeks

Washington (CNN) -- A U.S. Coast Guard chopper responding to a possibly distressed boater off the South Carolina coast was forced to make an emergency landing when the pilot was temporarily blinded by a laser, the service said.

The scare on Wednesday near Garden City Beach was the third time in as many weeks that Coast Guard pilots in that area, called the Grand Strand, have reported being disabled by sharp laser light.

"We've been very fortunate that the green laser incidents haven't yet resulted in tragedy," Coast Guard Cmdr. Gregory Fuller of Air Station Savannah said in a statement.

In the latest incident, the chopper responded to reports of orange flares offshore. Following the emergency landing, another crew took over and continued the search. No distressed boater or any evidence of flares were found, the Coast Guard said.

The Coast Guard is working with police to try to find out who is responsible. The pilot in this case was grounded for 24 hours before being cleared to fly again.

It is unclear what type of laser might have been used in this case. But reports by commercial and private pilots of laser incidents nationally have jumped in recent years as hand-held technology has become readily available and easily used. Aviation safety officials and law enforcement are trying to curb the activity and are stepping up prosecutions.

Phony Mayday calls vexing Coast Guard

Coast Guard officials have deemed the Grand Strand area of the South Carolina coast where pilots have reported lasers as very high risk, and now require crews to consider the possibility of a laser scenario before responding to a distress call.

"Every time we send our aircrews to the Grand Strand, we're telling them to fly into the equivalent of a storm, where it's almost guaranteed they'll be hit," Fuller said. "We're simply asking the public to stop putting Coast Guard men and women in senseless and unnecessary danger."

It is a problem becoming all too frequent for pilots. The number of reported laser incidents involving aircraft in the United States has risen 26% from 2,836 in 2010 to 3,592 in 2011. It has more than doubled since 2009.

"Shining a laser at an airplane is not a laughing matter. It's dangerous for both pilots and passengers, and we will not tolerate it," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in May.

FAA Acting Administrator Michael Huerta has said federal authorities will "aggressively" prosecute violators under a new law that makes laser targeting a federal crime, and will not treat incidents with warning notices or counseling.

The FAA and the Justice Department are pushing for stiffer penalties against those responsible for targeting aircraft. Since June last year, the FAA has started enforcement action against 28 people charged with aiming a laser device at an aircraft and has opened "dozens of additional cases" for investigation, the agency said.

Dealing with these incidents on top of an increase in false mayday calls have frustrated Coast Guard officials.

"The biggest downfall is that their night vision is ruined, and they're flying blind. It's dangerous for the pilots and the crew. Their lives and the lives of the crew are at risk," Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Jamie Fredrick told CNN.

CNN's Jim Barnett contributed to this report.

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