A Flight for Life pilot said he has fully recovered after falling victim to a laser incident in Castle Rock.
Eric Billings, a 20-year commercial pilot, said he was leading a crew to drop off a patient at Castle Rock Adventist Hospital on Oct. 7. After safely leaving the patient at the hospital for care, Billings said they were heading out of town back to Pueblo when they were hit.
Billings said at around 1,200 feet, a crew member yelled “laser strike.” Billings said when those warnings come out, it is hard on the rest of the crew because they did not see it initially, meaning they do not know which way to look to avoid getting hit in the eyes.
“The idea when we hear a laser strike warning is to immediately turn away,” Billings said. “In this case, it was a strong laser and got all of us.”
In the helicopter, Billings said the ride back to Pueblo takes about 35 minutes. As they moved south from Castle Rock, Billings said crew members started complaining of a headache and eye pain, noting that he too was having symptoms.
In Pueblo, the four-man crew went straight to the emergency room where they were treated and referred to see an eye doctor to make sure there was no permanent damage.
Billings, who has been completely cleared, said after the attack he had swelling and inflammation in his left eye from the laser.
Over 20 years, Billings said pilots have always dealt with laser strikes, but it seems like in the last 18 months occurrences have increased dramatically.
According to data provided by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), since laser strike occurrences started being counted in in 2010, there have been 57,835 incidents nationwide. Colorado is ranked ninth with more than 1,500 strikes being reported. California has the most occurrences.
Between 2010 and 2017, the FAA reported a 250% increase in laser strikes with most strikes happening on Friday and Saturday nights.
According to the FAA, laser strikes increased in 2020 despite the decrease in flights due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Pilots reported 6,852 laser strikes to the FAA last year, up from 6,136 in 2019. The number of incidents reported in 2020 was the highest annual total since 2016.
Billings said the Oct. 7 occurrence was the first for him in Castle Rock, but his crew regularly gets attacked when transporting patients throughout Colorado Springs and parts of Pueblo.
While shining a laser light on aircraft pilots is always dangerous, Billings said the Flight for Life flights usually fly lower and are almost always in residential areas where hospitals are located.
Billings said because of the helicopter’s flight path, laser attacks are particularly concerning because if a pilot sustains direct impact to the eye that renders him blind, the helicopter can crash. Besides the dangers to the on-flight crew, Billings said innocent victims in homes on the ground could also be impacted.
Billings said Flight for Life helicopters are not the only pilots being impacted along the Front Range. The longtime pilot said military aircraft coming in and out of Colorado Springs are regularly reporting laser strikes.
“It is not just us,” Billings said. “We are all seeing this happen. When you get hit with a laser strike, especially the higher-tech ones like that in Castle Rock, it is like sleeping in a completely dark room and someone wakes you up shining a powerful flashlight directly into your eye. This can definitely cause a pilot to suffer from temporary blindness.”
Billings said he chose to speak out after the Castle Rock incident because he is hoping citizens will start reporting their neighbors committing the crimes.
In 2012, President Barack Obama signed an anti-laser measure into federal law, stating that any person caught willfully striking an aircraft with a laser pointer could face hefty fines and prison time.
People who shine lasers at aircraft face FAA fines of up to $11,000 per violation and up to $30,800 for multiple laser incidents. The FAA has issued $600,000 in fines since 2016, which includes $120,000 in 2021.
Billings said the most frustrating part of the issue is that while there are federal guidelines in place to prosecute laser strikers, it is not so easy to find them, and state and federal regulations do not always work well together.
Taylor Temby, senior media specialist for the Castle Rock Police Department, said officers rarely receive laser strike reports from aviation agencies but when they do, they try to work with federal authorities.
In Castle Rock, Billings said they could pinpoint the neighborhood where the green laser came from, but not the exact house.
Anyone who witnesses someone laser striking an aircraft can report the incident directly to the FAA. Residents can email firstname.lastname@example.org. The email should include the following:
• Your name and contact information.
• Date and time you witnessed the laser incident.
• Location and description of the incident.
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