Several federal and local agencies converged on the beaches near Myrtle Beach International Airport this past weekend. Their objective was to crack down on laser pointers which they say have become a dangerous problem for both planes and Coast Guard search-and-rescue missions.
Plainclothes officers issued six citations for illegal use of laser pointers on the beach over the weekend. One man was accused of pointing a laser at a helicopter. His case was referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for prosecution. Six businesses were also fined for selling the pointers to minors.
Capt. Michael White, the commander of Coast Guard Sector Charleston, says the Coast Guard has had to stop some of its search-and-rescue missions off the Grand Strand for safety reasons. He says people on the beach were illegally pointing high-powered lasers at aircraft, disorienting helicopter and boat crews. Shining a laser into an aircraft is a federal offense that can carry an $11,000 fine and jail time. But it is difficult to enforce, White says.
“The use of these lasers has really inhibited our ability to work in that area,” White told South Carolina Radio Network, “I’m concerned that, in some cases, our air crews when they’re lased will be on the ground going through medical checks… while somebody out on the water is waiting for a rescue that’s not coming.”
White said the Coast Guard Investigative Service partnered with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and local law enforcement agencies to conduct an enforcement operation on the popular Springmaid Beach Pier this past weekend. TSA officials say the pier is in the path of air traffic at the nearby airport, making it one of the worst spots for illegal laser-pointing.
TSA officials say Myrtle Beach pilots had reported 70 laser incidents this year— the most of any airport in the country and nearly double last year’s total.
White said helicopter crews flying within three miles of shore at night have “virtually a 100 percent chance” of being hit by a laser. However, he says one flight reported the pointers as far as five miles offshore. A rescue mechanic was hit directly in the eye and was grounded for three days afterwards in that incident, White said.
White said the Coast Guard will no longer fly night missions within five miles of Myrtle Beach this year unless special arrangements are made. These could include waiting for the light of dawn or possibly getting local police to clear beaches until the mission is completed.
A TSA official who asked not to be identified for security reasons told South Carolina Radio Network that enforcement is “extremely difficult,” saying that only “seven or eight” people have been prosecuted for pointing lasers at aircraft under a new federal law that took effect in February. “We were lucky to catch someone on (Saturday),” he said.
It is illegal for minors to purchase laser pointers. Police said an undercover minor visited 22 different businesses in the Grand Strand and attempted to buy the pointers. Six businesses were cited for making the sale, according to the Coast Guard.
The Horry County Police Department, Horry County Sheriff’s Office, and the Myrtle Beach Police Department assisted in the operation.