A green laser directed at a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter temporarily blinded the aircrew and forced them to land abruptly Wednesday morning while attempting to search for the source of three orange flares spotted near Garden City.
This is the third time in three weeks a Coast Guard search has been hindered due to green lasers in the Grand Strand.
The aircrew, from Air Facility Charleston, S.C., had just arrived at the search area to begin searching when the laser hit the aircraft at about 1:45 a.m., forcing the aircrew to stop searching and land.
One crewman received direct laser exposure and was not cleared to fly again until Wednesday afternoon.
Watchstanders at Sector Charleston immediately directed a boatcrew from Coast Guard Station Georgetown to take over the search. However, due to the distance from Georgetown, the boatcrew didn't arrive at the search area until about two hours after the helicopter departed.
A different helicopter crew from Air Station Savannah flew over the area at dawn to continue searching.
The search ended later Wednesday morning but the source of the flares was never located.
The green lasers limit air and boat crewmembers' vision, making it difficult from them to safely operate the aircraft and boats, thus making it extremely dangerous for the Coast Guardsmen operating them and other people nearby.
A delay during a search could also result in the death of the person or people the Coast Guard is attempting to save.
Cmdr. Gregory Fuller, commanding officer at Air Station Savannah, which provides Coast Guard air support for the Grand Strand, has deemed the entire Grand Strand very high risk and now requires aircrews to consider laser risk in the area before responding to a distress call.
"We've been very fortunate that the green laser incidents haven't yet resulted in tragedy," said Fuller. "But every time we send our aircrews to the Grand Strand, we're telling them to fly into the equivalent of a storm, where it's almost guaranteed they'll be hit. We're simply asking the public to stop putting Coast Guard men and women in senseless and unnecessary danger."
The Federal Aviation Administration reports lasing incidents rose 902 percent from 2005 to 2011. Shining any laser at an aircraft is a federal offense under 14 CFR 19.11. Several people have been convicted under this and similar state laws. These convictions have resulted in prison terms as long as five years, fines of up to $11,000, and five years probation.