Coast Guard aircrew member hurt in laser strike

PORT ANGELES — A Coast Guard helicopter crew member suffered eye damage when he was stuck by green laser lights while training in Port Angeles.

He and two other members of the MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew landed safely after being hit by a laser several times at about 9 p.m. Wednesday, the Coast Guard said.

The aircrew conducted visual acuity tests with the duty corpsman and, after consultation with the flight surgeon, two of the three aircrew members were medically grounded until they received further examination by an optometrist.

One of the crew members was found to have suffered eye damage and was grounded for seven days. The crew member will be reevualuted this week, said Petty Officer Amanda Norcross on Friday.

The other crew member was grounded for two hours but has since returned to duty, Norcross said.

The Coast Guard is seeking information from the public about the person or persons who directed the laser light at the helicopter while it was training at Coast Guard Air Station/Sector Field Office Port Angeles.

The laser light originated from the area of Fourth and Eighth streets on the east side of Lincoln Street.

“These types of incidents can be very dangerous to the safety of our aircrews and always disrupt our ability to respond as a search and rescue asset,” said Capt. Mark Hiigel, commanding officer at the Port Angeles Coast Guard station.

Because members of the crew were medically grounded, Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and Sector Columbia River in Warrenton, Ore., became responsible for covering the Port Angeles station’s area of responsibility until port Angeles aircrews were medically cleared or replaced, he said.

“We need the general public to understand that the dangers of playing with green laser lights not only degrade Coast Guard response capabilities, placing mariners at risk, but can permanently damage eyesight,” Hiigel said.

Laser pointers are dangerous because they can cause glare, after-image, flash blindness or temporary loss of night vision.

If a laser is shined in the eyes of an aircrew member, Coast Guard flight rules dictate that the aircraft must abort its mission.

Aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft is a felony offense under 18 U.S. Code Section 39A, which states whoever knowingly aims the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States, or at the flight path of such an aircraft, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.

Coast Guard Investigative Service agents have notified the Port Angeles Police Department, which will assist if asked to do so, said Deputy Police Chief Jason Viada.

Anyone with information about the case is encouraged to contact Coast Guard investigators at 206-220-7170.

The Coast Guard has reported laser strikes in Port Angeles on April 20, 2015; Nov. 30, 2015; and Sept. 26, 2016; as well as on April 20 2016 near the Squalicum Harbor area of Bellingham where a Port Angeles helicopter crew and a Bellingham boat crew were training.

For more information about laser safety and the effects of an aircraft laser incident, see http://www.faa.gov/about/initiatives/lasers/.

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