Quick thinking prevents chopper crash in Wilmington

Reported and Posted by Kristy Ondo - bio|email

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - The man at the controls of the local law enforcement helicopter, SABLE, was targeted from the ground by a laser light.

Now, he and other local pilots are warning the public against creating any unnecessary distraction for aircraft crews.

Saturday night, Wilmington Police Officer Peter Leston kept control and piloted the efforts to find the person responsible for distracting him.

"As I was looking, a bright red laser shone right at us," said Leston.  "It wasn't so much a sweeping but a very strong pinpointing right at us."

He was flying over Wilmington helping fellow police officers on the ground when he suddenly needed help himself.

The laser struck him once, then a second time.  Letson acted quickly, pulling down his night vision goggles to keep the SABLE chopper in the air.

"It would initially blind you, and of course where we fly in proximity to the ground it could be disastrous," said officer Jim Ryan, who also flies the SABLE.

He wants to get the word out that distracting a flight crew isn't a game.

"People have to understand that the consequences are very extreme if you blind a crew with these hand-held lasers," said Ryan.

In this case, the consequences weren't extreme, but they were immediate.

Officer Letson and his co-pilot, tactical officer Joshua Miller, switched on their two-month-old FLIR technology--the infrared system that can track people on the ground with incredible precision.

"He locked in on the specific person standing at the house," said Leston.  "We maintained that square, locked on that subject until the ground units could arrive and secure him."

Within two minutes of the laser sighting, a suspect was in handcuffs.

30-year-old Nicholas Wheeler is facing felony charges, but has been released on bond.

The New Hanover County Sheriff's Office wants to add that it's not just lasers that can get people into trouble. Spot lights, flood lights and anything you point right at an aircraft can blind the pilot.