The action was prompted in part by a July 2012 incident in South Carolina. Giuseppe Chillico and Keith Crook were sailing off the coast of Myrtle Beach when their catamaran capsized about four miles out at sea. As the sun set and the men struggled against high waves and stiff currents, the 49-year-old Chillico was relieved to see a Coast Guard helicopter begin to search for them. Then it flew off. It came back a second time but again broke off. This time it did not return.
“Every time they would go out,” Donaldson says, “they were getting hit by lasers. They decided the risk was too great to the air crews.”
Around midnight, after eight hours in the water, Chillico and Crook finally swam ashore, about 20 miles north of where they’d gone in. They were exhausted but unhurt. “Thank God we were strong enough to get out of that situation,” Chillico says. “But for someone else, the helicopter might have been the difference between life and death.”
Donaldson says the Coast Guard has a risk assessment policy that helps it determine whether to continue to fly search-and-rescue missions in areas of laser activity. Airlines do not have that flexibility, which is why they and the FAA need to do more, according to Tom Anthony, director of University of Southern California’s aviation safety center. Lasers, he says, are “the same as any other hazard that will do damage to a pilot or an aircraft or the passengers,” and need to be mitigated as part of an airline’s safety program.
From 600 feet above sprawling Los Angeles, the task of protecting the skies from lasers seems enormous. Getting the message to people like Kimberly Rogers is turning out to be a lot harder than anyone anticipated. “I don’t think the prosecution and publicity thing is working,” Murphy the laser expert told me. “We’re not even sure what the total answer is.”
Christine Negroni is an aviation and travel writer whose work appears in the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, and Executive Travel. She writes the popular blog Flying Lessons and hosts the travel site gohowknowhow.com.