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Laser Pointers Interfering with US Marine Pilots Flying in Okinawa

MV-22 Osprey
MV-22 Osprey

The Marine Corps is working with authorities in Japan to crack down on a dangerous practice in which civilians point lasers at the cockpits of aircraft in flight.

To date, there have been eight recorded incidents of "dangerous, flight-interfering" activities involving aircraft from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa, 1st Lt. Joseph Butterfield, a spokesman for Marine Corps Installations Pacific, told Military.com. Five of them have involved laser pointers; two others involved high-flying kites and one involved a crane positioned in the path of aircraft.

The first of this series of laser-pointer incidents was recorded July 14, 2014, Butterfield said. And recent reports indicate that local authorities are taking them seriously. According to the Japan Times, this week a court in Okinawa fined local man Katsuro Hiraoka, 56, more than $4,100 for aiming a laser at a helicopter in July.

According to the report, the aircraft was carrying four Marines, and the incident forced them to stop their training.

The Marine Corps reportedly has 48 aircraft stationed in Futenma. Half of those are MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft that take off and land like a helicopter and fly like a plane.

Butterfield said III Marine Expeditionary Force and Marine Corps Installations Pacific officials notify Okinawa authorities as soon as reports of laser-pointing incidents or other flight-interfering behavior surfaces so they can take action. Since the Marine Corps does not have jurisdiction in Okinawa outside Marine bases, he said anyone with information regarding these incidents should direct it to the Okinawan Police Department.

"While II MEF takes many precautions to ensure all aircraft operations are conducted in the safest manner possible, these flight-interfering activities are very dangerous to the Marines operating the aircraft and to surrounding communities," Butterfield said. "We urge those involved in these flight-interfering activities to stop."

The lasers can have severe, long-term effects on the eyesight of pilots, crew and passengers aboard Marine aircraft and can cause "flash-blindness" in the short term by causing their eyes to dilate in the dark, Butterfield said. They also pose a danger to pilots flying with night vision goggles, he said. Pointed at the goggles, the lasers can cause "blooming," a phenomenon in which the entire NVG screen turns bright green, blocking vision, because of the excess light.

"All of these issues can be extremely dangerous, especially if a pilot is on final approach and now, due to a bright laser flash, can no longer see their instruments or references on the ground," Butterfield said.

To date, he said, there have been no reported injuries due to laser pointers. But Marine officials continue to urge locals to refrain from this behavior.

--Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@monster.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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