In a groundbreaking case, Oak Island police have charged a man with pointing a laser at a flight instructor and student who were practicing night landings at Cape Fear Regional Jetport. Although temporarily blinded twice, the aviators landed safely.
Instructor Jessica Ward was leading student Chad Johnson late on May 5 when their helicopter was hit with a green laser that illuminated the cabin, obscured the instruments and destroyed their night vision. After the initial incident, the pilots flew away from the laser, only to be hit again during a second attempt at landing.
Ward told authorities it was as if someone was trying to kill them and they had to fly blind for at least several seconds. The beam appeared to track the chopper and bounced around until it hit the acrylic window, which “glowed like a light bulb, blinding us,” said Ward, owner of High Tide Helicopters.
With Johnson in control of the aircraft, Ward pinpointed the origin of the laser and notified authorities. Oak Island Sgt. Michael Oxford went to the house, adjacent to the airport, but no one responded. The officer observed three people at a residence across the street in the 4200 block of Long Beach Road and found the suspect and laser there.
Christopher L. Funk, 33, of Long Beach Road, Oak Island, was charged with directing a laser toward an aircraft, a Class H felony. He was jailed under $5,000 unsecured bond.
Funk admitted pointing the laser at the aircraft and told police he “was drunk last night and did not remember much except for shining the laser light around.”
If convicted, the suspect faces a presumptive sentence of five to six months in prison. Funk is a convicted felon who already has served prison time, according to the N.C. Department of Corrections. Listed on a police report as a tattoo artist, Funk’s convictions include felony larceny, possession of burglary tools, damage to property, violation of probation and driving while impaired.
Police confirmed that the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) was notified of the incident. In early 2012, reforms signed into law by the president made it a federal crime to laser an aircraft, punishable by up to five years in prison.
“Aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft is a serious matter and a violation of federal law,” said Ron Hoska, assistant director of the Criminal Investigations Division of the FBI, in a prepared statement. “It is important that people understand that this is a criminal act with potentially deadly repercussions.”
The FBI reports that incidents of aircrafts threatened by lasers have increased from 1,527 in 2009 to 3,690 in 2013.
Ward said that Johnson earned his helicopter certification Saturday.
The incident prompted a safety alert to aviators issued by Brunswick Air, a charter, tour and flight school at the airport.
The FBI and FAA encourage the public to alert authorities whenever someone sees a laser pointed at aircraft.