It was a lazy August night in Essex, and 21-year-old Joshua Brydge decided to have fun with his brother's laser pointer. Standing on his back porch, he aimed the piercing green beam at a police helicopter circling overhead.
Inside the cockpit of Baltimore County's Air 1, hovering over the houses on Maryln Avenue, pilot Hobart Wolf was temporarily "flash-blinded" by the light and was diverted from helping fellow county officers chasing a suspect.
Police say helicopters and other aircraft are increasingly being targeted by laser pointers commonly used in lecture halls. It has been a problem for years across the country, and Maryland authorities say it is now growing throughout the state, particularly in Ocean City, where pointers are sold as cheap souvenirs on the Boardwalk.
Red lasers were once ubiquitous, but the newer green-beam variety is far more powerful and is particularly disruptive because its light deflects off aircraft windshields and helmet guards, and can "envelope the cockpits" with blinding light, police said.
Authorities from several Maryland police agencies called attention to the problem on Wednesday, asking people to put down their lasers, some of which can project beams more than two miles.
"It's not a game," said Maryland State Police Lt. Walter A. Kerr, who has spent 21 years with the aviation unit and flown to more than 4,000 trauma scenes. "It's potentially lethal. Our flight crews are defenseless."
Police choppers are vulnerable because they fly low — 500 to 1,500 feet above the ground — and tend to circle. Baltimore City Police Flight Officer Arnie Russo said Foxtrot crews in the city get hit with laser beams two to three times a week.
"It was a very intense light," he said. The last time he was targeted, "it diverted my attention and blurred my vision, and later I had a massive headache. … Try driving on the highway at 75 mph on a holiday weekend and lose your vision for 30 seconds. That's what it feels like. And we can't pull over."
Maryland prohibits the use of laser pointers "to illuminate another [person] in a public place in a manner that harasses or endangers." The misdemeanor carries a maximum penalty of a $500 fine. But authorities more typically charge under the reckless endangerment statute because they're unsure whether the laser law can be applied to aircraft.
Arrests are rare, but two occurred just last month.
When Brydge flashed his light into the sky shortly before midnight on Aug. 25 night, Wolf was able to circle back to where the laser beam had originated and light up the porch with a spotlight. Officers in patrol cars sped to the house, burst inside and put Brydge in handcuffs.
He was charged with reckless endangerment and assault, and his case is pending. In a telephone interview, the young man admitted he was shining his light in the air but denied he was purposely trying to distract the police helicopter pilot.
"I was being dumb," Brydge said. "I didn't think it was going to reach. Obviously it did and the cops came. … I think it was a little blown out of proportion, but I know I shouldn't have done it. … As soon as that helicopter swung back around toward me, I knew I had done something wrong."
Two days earlier, also in Essex, county police arrested another man and charged him with pointing a laser at the same two helicopter officers. They were able to turn their spotlight and see the suspect in an alley, and officers on the ground arrested Matthew R. Danner, 23, of Arncliffe Road, and charged him with reckless endangerment. His case too is pending.
In Maryland, the laser pointers are popular in Ocean City, where boardwalk shops sell them for as little as $10.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates the industry, says that even the least powerful laser pointers "can be dangerous" and can "cause temporary visual effects such as flash blinding."
Laser pointers typically used in lecture halls generate about 5 milliwatts of power. The FDA says that anything more powerful "cannot legally be promoted as laser pointers" and must carry sufficient warnings.
Powerful laser pointers do have legitimate uses. Construction workers use them for leveling, some police officers have them on guns to help them aim and astronomers use them to point out planets and star systems in the sky. They like the more powerful green because, unlike other colors, green maintains a visible beam through the sky.
The manager of a police and military laser pointer supply store, Oregon-based Z-Bolt, said kids frequently call and e-mail his company "looking for lasers that can slice cheese and do other things." John Mueller said overseas web sites proliferate the Internet "bragging that their lasers can pop balloons or light matches."
"To me, it's no different than selling illegal firearms," Mueller said, adding that the high-powered laser pointers are used in university labs and in war zones by troops to send warning signals to drivers to avoid military checkpoints or to enforce curfews.
There are dozens of examples of pilots blinded by lasers from Maryland and around the country. Five years ago, Anne Arundel County police charged a man with blinding one of its pilots on New Year's Eve in Pasadena. At the time, federal authorities investigated but decided that the incident was not related to terrorism.
Maryland State Police say one of their MedEvac helicopters was hit by a laser in July while trying to land in Ocean City to pick up a trauma patient and again in August flying over Berlin on the Eastern Shore. Most recently state police said a pilot was hit four times by a green laser beam on Sept. 2 west of Mount Airy.
Incidents are reported to the Federal Aviation Administration, and Congress is considering new laws to make shining laser beams at aircraft a federal offense. Federal authorities can use the Patriot Act, which makes it a crime to interfere with the country's transportation systems.
One man charged under the Patriot Act in New Jersey for shining a laser at a commuter aircraft in 2004 had his charges reduced to lying to a federal agent. And a man charged with disorienting a pilot of a LifeFlight helicopter in Cleveland was sentenced to three years in prison.