Med Flight pilot cleared to fly same day as December Pardeeville laser pointer incident; investigation continues

March 6, 2019

A UW Health Med Flight pilot was cleared to fly again the same day a laser pointer forced his aircraft to abort an emergency flight near Pardeeville last Christmas Day, but the high risks associated with such hazards have drawn concern from medical experts.

Columbia County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Wayne Smith said aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft is a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines. In the case of a medical helicopter crew, the crime also can carry charges of obstructing emergency and rescue personnel.

“It’s not a good practice to shine bright lights at aircraft,” said Phil Jennings, senior lead pilot for UW Health Med Flight. “That’s why there’s such a stiff penalty.”

Toni Morrissey, senior media specialist at UW Health, said the pilot was not injured during the attempted landing, but he was examined at UW Hospital as a precaution.

“He’s fine,” Morrissey said, adding that the pilot was cleared the day of the incident.

Unknown outcome

Columbia County Sheriff Roger Brandner said the medical helicopter was requested to take an injured 17-year-old to a Madison hospital. The teen instead was driven to Divine Savior by ambulance.

Divine Savior Marketing and Community Relations Director Haley Gilman couldn’t offer an update on the 17-year-old patient’s condition or whether the change in transportation method affected treatment without a name, which various other officials could not disclose. Officials also did not disclose the name of the UW Med Flight pilot.

Jennings said the pilot saw an abrupt flash and experienced minimal discomfort in the December incident.

“The pilot wasn’t injured,” Jennings said, adding that UW Med Flight has conducted dozens of operations since the incident. “He was evaluated, and he was fine.”

But the threat lasers pose to pilots during landings and takeoffs is especially dire, he said. If a pilot is taking off above a tree line, for example, any sudden distractions could risk a crash. Pilots wear night-vision goggles and distractions are hazardous.

“We’re uniquely vulnerable to that, because we’re flying in close proximity to the ground,” Jennings said.

The issue isn’t new to pilots, either. Jennings said thousands of laser-pointer encounters occur every year, although many go unreported.

“A lot of times, this is done out of ignorance,” Jennings said. “I think here, as in most cases, it’s probably people not knowing.”

Being forced to ground emergency medical flights due to laser pointers is a waste of resources, and risks the life of patients in need of immediate medical assistance, Jennings said.

Laser danger

Dr. Tucker Webb, an optometrist at Elliott & Webb in Portage, said people need to be careful when using laser pointers, because they’re not toys.

Webb served in the U.S. Coast Guard in Alaska and the U.S. Navy during the first Gulf War. He later was stationed at the U.S. Navy Hospital in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“I took care of the eyes of the pilots and the crews,” Webb said.

He said the military uses high-powered lasers to disable enemy pilots, and common laser pointers sold commercially can cause permanent damage, too.

“You look into one of those lasers, it’ll pop the center of the eye,” Webb said. “It’s sort of like looking at the sun. It sort of microwaves those receptors.”

He urges people to use laser pointers responsibly.

“Even though laser pointers have been around for 20 years, they’re still a public safety issue,” Webb said.

Dr. Kimberly Stepien at UW Health said direct eye exposure to laser pointers can cause momentary blindness and damage retina nerve tissue, which could reduce pilots’ vision for the rest of their lives and jeopardize their pilot’s license.

Stepien said intentional acts like the one in December are serious and can result in significant consequences.

Brandner said an investigation into the incident remains active after deputies narrowed down a search for a suspect to the radius of a couple of blocks, but no precise location was determined. A suspect has not yet been identified.

“Unfortunately, we have not solved that yet,” Brandner said. “It’s too important of an investigation to close.”

Anyone with information about the incident is encouraged to contact Columbia County Crime Stoppers by texting tips to CRIMES using the keyword TIPCOSO, submitting tips online at tipsubmit.com or calling the tipline at 800-293-8477. Callers can remain anonymous.

“We sure hope the community would call us if they know something about it,” Brandner said.