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In 2012, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was visiting Berlin in an official capacity as head of state. After his airplane landed at whatever airport has replaced Berlin Tempelhof (closed in 2008), Prime Minister Netanyahu was transported by helicopter to downtown Berlin. The flight was brief, maybe 30 minutes from takeoff to landing. Along the route, an unidentified person shined a green laser pointer at the helicopter, temporarily blinding the German pilots. Both recovered quickly, and landed the aircraft without incident.

Charlie Chaplin image in der Spiegel

der Speigel online screen shot (7 December 2012)

When I read this news story several years ago, I thought it was genuine and a concern, but an extreme outlier risk. There were several attention-worthy aspects, not to mention the hilariously inappropriate Google personalized advertising served on the page. The latter was sufficiently silly, i.e. Charlie Chaplin was a pop-up, triggered by cursor motion, that I took a screen shot for posterity.

Laser pointer attack in Fresno

On 20 December 2013, a jury found two California residents guilty of aiming a laser pointer at a Fresno Police helicopter, Air One, and attempting to interfere with its operation. The couple, aged 25 and 23 years old, used a laser pointer that was 13 times more powerful than the usual (and legally allowed) power emission level for hand-held laser devices.

This was the truly disturbing aspect to me. According to the FBI press release, Air One was responding to a call from the apartment complex where the couple lived, near a major airport, in order to investigate an attack on yet another helicopter! That helicopter, Air George, is used only for emergency transport for Children’s Hospital of Central California.

The crew members of both Air One and Air George testified that the laser strikes caused significant visual interference.

Yes, they were attacking a helicopter whose sole goal was to help seriously injured or ill children. After repeatedly striking the emergency helicopter with the high-powered green laser, they did it to the police helicopter that came to help and investigate!

According to the FAA, law enforcement and emergency transport helicopters are particularly vulnerable when flying at lower altitudes. Their convex-shaped windows cause greater refraction and visual interference when struck by a laser the beam. If the pilots are wearing night-vision goggles, the laser intensity is effectively increased, and even more dangerous.

Incidence

This was not a fluke, an outlier event. During 2012, there were 3482 reports of people aiming hand-held laser pointers at aircraft, with potentially dangerous effects on pilots’ visual fields. Incidence count increased by nearly an order of magnitude from 2006 to 2012, the year in which it became a federal crime. The trend shows no sign of abating, with preliminary totals for 2013 over 4000. In 94% of reported incidents, green lasers were used, and occurred between 10:30 p.m. and 6:00 a.m.

How did the couple from Fresno get that non-standard laser pointer? They probably obtained it legally, as retail laser power limits exist but are not actively enforced.

Laser pointer safety

Many people consider laser pointers to be an inexpensive novelty, like a small bright flashlight. Laser pointers can be hazardous if one or both of the following exceed safety criteria: power (measured in micro Watts per cm squared) and infra-red light emission.

In March 2013, NIST researchers released findings on a laser pointer study. They found that 90% of green pointers and 44% of red pointers were out of compliance with federal safety regulations, emitting more visible power than allowed. In addition, more than 75% of green lasers exceeded regulatory limits on infrared light emissions. Green lasers generate green light from infrared light and should confine the infrared light inside the laser housing.

Motivation

The attack on the helicopter in Berlin was a serious incident. If the aircraft was forced to make an unscheduled landing or worse, the loss of life and repercussions would have been very serious, the obvious being the crew and passenger as well as the highly populated Berlin neighborhood below. Presumably, the attack was politically motivated, possibly related to conflicts in the Middle East. As for Fresno, I haven’t a clue.

WHY would anyone target a helicopter used for emergency transport to a children’s hospital?

I would be surprised if ANY terrorist organization in the world would choose to endanger an aircraft dedicated to rescuing children. The Fresno man and woman were not adolescents, unaware of the consequences of their actions.

One can’t regulate and criminally prosecute every possible misdeed. Certain behavior is beyond the bounds of what can be expected in most societies, modern or not-so-modern.

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