Saturday , May 25 2024

Special Report: Central Valley Pilots Hit Hardest with Laser Attacks in the State

Laser attacks are happening all to often on pilots in the Central Valley. The United State’s Attorney’s Office said out of the 34 counties in California’s Eastern District, both Fresno and Bakersfield report the most laser attacks in the state.

A ride with Fresno Police Department’s Air-1 gave our cameras an insight to what the pilots deal with when they’re in the air.

Officer Ken Schneider’s patrol vehicle is Air-1. He sees Fresno’s crime scenes at a bird’s eye view.
"It’s definitely a vital part of the operation," said Schneider.
The Police Department’s Air Support unit said in 2013, they increased their calls for service, and handled more than 2,500 calls. Air support was also able to relieve about 200 ground units, to make them available to handle other calls in the community.
Schneider said he has an invaluable vantage point against criminals.
"It creates a huge safety buffer for the ground guys, don’t have to go in blind, we’re giving them a view from the sky and if anything looks unusual to us, we can give them a warning and that way they’re a little bit more safer than they already are," said Schneider.
But Schneider said not everyone in the community appreciates what they do in the air. He recalled the night of March 5th of this year.
Schneider said, "We were actually flying near Herndon and Palm, and we observed a bright flash come from the left side of the helicopter. And what it was, was a green laser attack coming from the Pinedale area. Hit us a couple of times, and then we did wide orbits around Pinedale."
Fresno Police said 28-year old Johnny Quenga allegedly targeted Schneider and his tactical flight officer partner with a green laser attached to a military airsoft rifle.
"And during that time, the TFO, the tactical flight officer at that time, took several strikes to the eyes which caused him later on to have headaches, flash blindness and eye irritation," said Schneider.

The helicopter’s convex-shaped windows causes the beam of a laser light to refract off like a disco ball. That blinding prism effect is what it looked like inside the cockpit.
John Lewis is the Hunting Department Manager at Herb Bauer in Fresno. He said, "It will burn the retina of that human being, it’s a very dangerous thing as far as the application of how it is utilized."
The Federal Aviation Administration said it’s a federal felony to knowingly point the beam of a laser at an aircraft. It said the blinding effect can disorient a pilot, causing the helicopter to crash, and potentially kill people on the ground.
"Used properly, they are absolutely a extra nice thing to have. They will accentuate your experience of quick target acquisition," said Lewis.
Lewis said their lasers are sold as accessories with guns. They come in two colors, red and green, the latter being more popular.
"The human eye actually picks up green much easier as far as the way the eye accumulates the green. It’s, just works better," said Lewis.
Lewis acknowledges as much as lasers can be used to make aiming and shooting more efficient and safe, if abused, "I really don’t know what would possess any individual to want to do that. Lasers can be dangerous and land you in federal court."

Karen Escobar is an Assistant US Attorney out of Fresno. She said if one is convicted of pointing a laser beam at an aircraft, they can face up to twenty years in prison.

Last year, a federal judge sentenced 26-year old Sergio Rodriguez of Clovis to 14 years in prison for aiming a laser. First at a helicopter working for Children’s Hospital, then, at Schneider in Air-1.

"We’ve prosecuted quite a number of them in our district, the Eastern District of California. Fresno leads the way, followed by Bakersfield," stated Escobar.

Escobar said she doesn’t know exactly why Fresno and Bakersfield report more laser attacks. But, she noted law enforcement and emergency transport helicopters are particularly vulnerable, since they typically fly at lower altitudes.
Schneider said, "You look at it with a potential damage and injuries potential fatalities that it can cause, you need a stiff penalty so it’s a deterrent for people to do it."

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