DAYTONA BEACH — An aviation student who told police he is studying to be a pilot at a flight school here was arrested Sunday night after officers said he pointed a green laser at a pilot and at the control tower at Daytona Beach International Airport.
Suspect Gerardo Sanchez was stopped Sunday just after 10 p.m. as he walked along Clyde Morris Boulevard near the Bellevue Avenue Extension, an arrest report states. Police approached Sanchez because he was the only one walking near the airport after a 9-1-1 call was made by the control tower at DBIA regarding a green laser being pointed at the control tower and at an American Airlines plane arriving at the airport, the report states.
When an officer approached Sanchez at Clyde Morris and Bellevue, she asked the 23-year-old if he had a laser with him. Sanchez answered "yes," the report states, and took the instrument from his front jacket pocket to show it to the officer.
After being read his rights, Sanchez spoke with the officer, saying that he was on Clyde Morris, on the flight path. Sanchez said he was playing with the green laser light pointing it in various directions, the report states. The suspect said he saw an incoming plane "on short approach," the report states. Conley recognized the phrase as an aviation term and asked Sanchez if he was a pilot.
Sanchez said he is studying to be a pilot at ATP Flight School, an airport property tenant. ATP had not confirmed that Sanchez is a student.
The suspect told the officer that he saw the plane's landing light and that he began playing with the laser "in the areas of the in-flight American Airlines aircraft, the report states. Sanchez also admitted that he pointed the laser at the clouds in the general vicinity of the plane and that the pilot may have flown through the laser beam, the report states.
Sanchez also admitted that he pointed the laser at the control tower "several times," the report states.
Officers interviewed air traffic controller Richard Steele and Joseph Gambino and both said they were struck in the eyes by the green laser beam, the report states. Both men said they saw the light coming from Clyde Morris and Aerospace Parkway. Steele, who had binoculars, told police that he spotted someone walking south along Clyde Morris and he called 9-1-1, the report states.
American Airlines pilot Francis McMillan and co-pilot Jeremy Rae also spoke to police. McMillan, 54, said the green laser did affect him for about one or two seconds because it was pointed at his eyes, the report states. Rae saw the laser beam, but it was not pointed at him. McMillan said he was attempting to land the aircraft on runway 25R, descending about 500 feet when he was hit with a green laser beam that lasted one to two seconds, the report states.
McMillan said he was able to land the plane without any problem, but he and Rae both reported the issue to the control tower, the report states.
Sanchez has been charged with pointing a laser light at a driver/pilot, a felony. He was released Monday afternoon from the Volusia County Branch Jail after posting $1,500 bail. He could not be reached.
In 2014, the FBI launched a campaign to address the issue and make the public aware of the consequences of pointing a laser at motorists or aircraft.
According to the federal agency, there was a 1,100 percent increase in incidents in which aircraft pilots have reported laser flashes while flying. At least 3,700 incidents were recorded in 2013 — compared to just 283 in 2005. And that doesn't include the thousands of attacks that go unreported every year, the agency reported. Though laser light-into-aircraft incidents have increased, there are no reports that laser pointers are responsible for bringing down any airplanes or seriously injuring people, said local defense attorney David Damore, who represented a man who was accused of pointing a laser at a Daytona Beach Shores Public Safety officer in 2015.
The misuse of hand-held lasers is what prompted Patrick Murphy, who has a degree in Laser Art from Oberlin College in Ohio, to launch the website laserpointersafety.com to educate the public about laser pointers. While laser pens can be useful and fun, they are often misused because of the lack of education or warning “never to aim laser pointers at aircraft,” Murphy said.
Murphy is working on a proposal for a label to appear alongside the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's warning that laser pointers may irritate the eyes. The label, which Murphy hopes will get approval from the FDA, would warn people not to point lasers at aircraft.
Volusia County spokesman Dave Byron reiterated that pointing a laser light at a pilot could result in a tragedy.
"This is not a game, this is dangerous," Byrion said Monday. "We have had some incidences, this is not the first.
"People who engage in this activity are risking the safety of the aviation industry and they could be facing some pretty significant charges," Byron said. "It just perplexes me that someone who wants a future in aviation would do this."
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