Commentary: Star Wars fun can have unintended consequences

By Tech. Sgt. Heath Fortenberry: Flight Safety NCO

Not that long ago, in a town not that far away, I sat on my back porch having a drink while enjoying the many stars in the beautiful Saturday night sky.

As fun as this may sound, believe it or not, boredom kicked in rather quickly. This dilemma did not last long, however, considering I discovered that my dogs went crazy whenever I shined my key chain laser pointer around the yard. No matter where the bright little red dot went, they would chase it in hopes of catching that annoying little territorial intruder. Needless to say, that kept me entertained for quite some time. It was easily the funniest thing I had witnessed in a long time.

Unfortunately, my attention was soon altered.

Several minutes into my humorous doggy play time, I became distracted by an easily recognizable humming sound in the background. I knew the sound quite well from my many days working on the flight line as an aircraft maintainer. It was the roar of a C-130’s engines. As the sound got ever increasingly louder, there was only one thing left to figure out. I began searching the night sky to determine whether the aircraft flying over was an AC-130H or a MC-130W from the region’s nearest Air Force base.

It wasn’t long before I spotted the aircraft’s anti-collision lights flashing across the night sky. The flying fortress wasn’t flying very high and it seemed to be circling a particular location, so I assumed it was a gunship. My interest in the aircraft, along with the lower altitude it was flying, combined with the comical fun that I had already been having with the dogs resulted in what seemed to be another awesomely entertaining idea. I wanted to see if my amazing little laser pointer was strong enough to reach the aircraft.

For several minutes I shined my source of that evening’s entertainment at the aircraft as it circled the area. Even though I couldn’t see the red dot on the aircraft itself, I continued to fervently attempt the near impossible task.

A few days later, long after I had forgotten about that Saturday evening’s events, there was a knock on the door. Two men in suits were at the door and introduced themselves as being from the Air Force base’s Office of Special Investigations. Being the hospitable southern gentleman that I am, I quickly invited them in, even though I had no idea why they wanted to talk to me. After answering only a few questions about what I was doing that previous Saturday, shockingly, I found myself being read my rights and handcuffed.

Even though the above story is fictitious (although not farfetched), you too may be wondering why I would have been going to jail. The simple answer is: If caught pointing a laser at a moving or flying aircraft a person could be prosecuted, resulting in large fines and maybe even jail time.

During the last 10 years, reported incidents involving aircraft lasing has increased significantly. The Federal Aviation Administration has established a mechanism to record laser incidents through its operations center in Washington, D.C. When pilots report a lasing incident to the center, it contacts the FBI and local law enforcement agencies. Cannon Air Force Base also tracks these events when reported by aircrew or ground personnel and employs a Laser Incidence Response Team to investigate.

Some of you may ask: what’s the big deal? Well, lasers can distract or harm an aircrew member, posing a considerable flight safety hazard to Cannon and local civilian aircraft. When directed against aircraft cockpits, lasers, under certain conditions, can distract or impair a flight crew member, posing a significant safety hazard.

Those found maliciously using lasers to interfere with aircraft can be subjected to up to 20 years in prison and a hefty $250,000 fine.

If you have any other questions about laser safety regarding aircraft, or if you would like to report an aircraft lasing incidence, please contact the base flight safety office at 784-4467.