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Flight For Life crew hit with laser beam, injuring paramedic

Plane was southwest of Bayfield when unknown person shined green light at aircraft

A Flight For Life paramedic suffered damage to her vision after an unknown person pointed a laser at the aircraft as it was about to land at the Durango-La Plata County Airport.

Flight For Life pilot Zach Belnap said at about 8:30 p.m. Tuesday the plane was about 5 miles from the airport, coming back from Colorado Springs, when a person with a green laser on the ground shined it at the aircraft.

Green lasers, Belnap said, are typically a more professional grade and higher power than the traditional red laser.

Belnap said the plane was about 1,500 feet off the ground, and the person was about a mile in front of it. Laser beams enlarge over space, so by the time it hit the plane, it covered the entire aircraft.

Belnap said he and a flight paramedic on board, Kelly Baker, both looked down to protect their eyes, but were forced to look up every now and then to fly the plane.

As the plane approached, the person shut off the laser. Belnap said he could see a pickup truck with its headlights on. Belnap circled the truck to get GPS coordinates and then went to land at the airport.

The pickup truck was located near Twilight Road, about 6 miles southwest of Bayfield.

Baker said her eyes were struck during the incident.

“It was really bright,” she said. “It takes one second with a laser to cause permanent damage. It’s really not funny and not a joke. And it temporarily blinds you when you get blasted.”

Baker’s program director requested she go to the emergency room after landing. There, doctors recommended Baker see a retina specialist.

Baker said she saw a retina specialist Wednesday who said the injury does not appear to be permanent, but requested Baker follow up in about a month because sometimes eye damage can take weeks to manifest.

Baker said Thursday she still has the sensation of looking into a bright light and seeing spots. She said her eyes are still sore, blurry and watery.

And in addition to the injuries she suffered, Baker pointed out that the person shining the laser could have caused the plane to crash.

“You could permanently damage someone’s vision and crash a plane,” she said.

Belnap said a report was filed with the La Plata County’s Sheriff Office in the hopes of identifying the person. Chris Burke, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, did not immediately have information about the incident.

Anyone with information about the incident is asked to call the Sheriff’s Office.

Belnap said people shining a laser at aircraft is not unheard of, but is far more common in bigger cities. He said Flight For Life has had aircraft hit on the Front Range and Albuquerque.

In his 13 years as a pilot, Belnap said he’s never had an issue with lasers. This month, however, his plane has been hit twice – the other time in Grand Junction.

About three years ago, Belnap said a Flight For Life crew member was hit with a laser and lost 30% of his or her vision, permanently.

“I think it’s ignorance,” Belnap said.

On top of the dangers, it’s also a federal offense.

In March 2019, a Florida man was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison for shining a laser at a police helicopter, according to a statement from the FBI.

In 2019, the Federal Aviation Administration received more than 6,100 reports of people shining lasers at aircraft.

“Aiming a laser at an aircraft is a serious safety risk and violates federal law,” the FAA says on its website. “Many high-powered lasers can completely incapacitate pilots who are trying to fly safely to their destinations and may be carrying hundreds of passengers.”

Tony Vicari, director of the Durango-La Plata County Airport, said it is a nationwide issue, but in his five or so years as director, he’s heard of only two or three reports of lasers hitting aircraft.

But the potential consequences, Vicari said, should not be diminished.

“There’s significant safety issues if someone shines a laser beam into the cockpit of an aircraft,” he said.


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