Officer Eric Kelly, a pilot with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, was answering a robbery call near UNC Charlotte when a green light shone on the pilot side of his aircraft.
The laser pointer partially blinded Kelly, forcing him to maneuver the plane out of the light’s way by descending to an elevation of only 500 feet.
This was the second time Kelly had an experience as a pilot with laser pointers. The first time, Kelly was on a night patrol when someone from a parking deck hit Kelly’s night vision goggles with a green laser.
In both instances, Kelly and the other members aboard the aircraft were able to shine a spotlight in the area, and the person with the laser pointer stopped targeting the aircraft.
“It wasn’t anything malicious, just someone who didn’t know what was right and what was wrong,” he said.
Under a federal law passed in 2012, knowingly aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft is a felony offense, and individuals who are convicted can face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Last week, the FBI launched a public awareness campaign in Charlotte to address the problem.
In 2013, the FBI reported 68 laser incidents in the state. From the beginning of this year through May 15, there were six incidents in Charlotte alone.
A national initiative, which began earlier this year, decreased incidents by 19 percent in 12 major metropolitan areas, the FBI says.
The most likely consequence of pointing a laser at aircraft is causing a distraction for the pilot, Kelly said. A laser pointer is unlikely to cause any physical harm, but the pilot cannot be sure the light is not attached to something more dangerous.
“We need to make sure it’s a pointer (and) not attached to a weapon,” he said.
Through Sept. 3, the FBI will offer a reward of up to $10,000 for information that leads to the arrest of any individual who aims a laser at an aircraft. A similar reward is already being offered in 12 other cities across the country.
Adams Outdoor Advertising will publish billboards in the Charlotte area to educate the public about the dangers and penalties of shining laser pointers at aircraft. The company is donating time and space on digital billboards as a service to the community.