LOUISVILLE — Authorities said Wednesday they tracked down a college student accused of shining a laser into a police helicopter, disorienting the pilot momentarily as he turned the aircraft away from the blinding light beam.
Jeffry Ledington, 19, a University of Louisville student, is charged with two felony counts of wanton endangerment for what authorities consider a deadly serious matter, not a prank.
"The whole cockpit lit up green," said Louisville police Officer Carey Hirtzel, one of two people aboard the helicopter early Sunday. "(I) couldn't really see anything but green as we were coming around, immediately averted my eyes and continued ... to turn away from the laser."
The aircraft was hit two more times with the intense light, he said.
"We were able to hone in on the building and fly directly to it to find out who was using the laser," Hirtzel said.
Ledington was arrested at his dorm on campus shortly after shining the laser, police said. Ledington has pleaded not guilty and a pretrial conference is scheduled for Nov. 1. Court records did not list a defense attorney.
The laser pointer was about 10 inches long and about as big around as a thumb, Hirtzel said.
It was the second time in the past couple of years that a Louisville police helicopter crew has been in the crosshairs of a laser.
Officer Bryan Arnold said he and his partner were temporarily blinded when their cockpit was engulfed in green laser light in July 2011.
"It will get in there and reflect and bounce around, and it's a washout of seeing anything," he said Wednesday. "It's pretty intense."
Authorities said what some consider a prank is a serious offense that's become more common nationwide.
"It's all fun and games until you shine a laser at a helicopter, and we're landing in your front yard, and we're going to lock you up. Because that's going to happen," Arnold said.
The Federal Aviation Administration points to a substantial increase in the number of people pointing lasers at aircraft cockpits in recent years. This year, there have been more than 2,740 such problems reported to the FAA, up from fewer than 300 in 2005.
There hasn't been an air crash so far this year caused by laser light, according to FAA.
"We will not hesitate to take tough action against anyone who threatens the safety of our passengers, pilots and air transportation system," the FAA said in a statement Wednesday. "Shining a laser into the cockpit of an aircraft is not a joke. These lasers can temporarily blind a pilot and make it impossible to safely land."
The surge in the problem resulted in a new federal law that specifically makes it illegal to aim a laser pointer at aircraft, authorities said. Convictions under the law carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Dyke said state officials haven't yet presented Ledington's case to federal authorities for possible prosecution under the new federal law.
"If they do, we'll take a look at it," he said.