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US: Airplane flight patterns changed after Tampa man aims laser at landing aircraft

A 24-year-old Tampa man using a laser pointer hit four commercial aircraft on approach to Tampa International Airport on September 7 2014. Ahmed Maher Elhelw also illuminated a Tampa police helicopter that was investigating, hitting it four times within four minutes.

Ahmed Maher Elhelw laser
Ahmed Maher Elhelw

As a result of the laser strikes on the commercial aircraft, air traffic controllers rerouted “a handful” of flights. This is one of the first times that LaserPointerSafety.com is aware of commercial aircraft in the U.S. being redirected to avoid laser attacks.

A spokesperson for the Tampa airport was quoted as saying ““It’s really not a big deal for us to reroute flights at night. We do it all the time for different reasons. The passengers probably wouldn’t even know.”

A police spokesperson said that one or more of the commercial jets that were targeted, had devices that can locate the laser’s source. The coordinates were provided to a Tampa police helicopter that was on routine patrol. It flew to the area north of the airport where it was illuminated by laser light. The pilot was able to direct ground officers to an apartment complex. Elhelw was located and arrested.

He told the officers that it was a “prank” and he did not mean to intentionally interfere with the aircraft. Elhelw was charged with misuse of a laser lighting device and was released on $2,000 bail.

From the Tampa Tribune and WPTV news. Thanks to Greg Makhov for bringing this to our attention.

Postscript: A Tampa Tribune conservative political blogger posted a column online at the Tampa Tribune website entitled “Egyptian picks wrong week to laser-target airliner.” Staff writer Tom Jackson began by noting that the lasing occurred on the 9/11 anniversary week, and was done by a person the FBI said was born in Egypt. Jackson then wrote “Just now, we have no reason to believe this was anything but a dopey prank by a goofball 24-year-old taking a break from his PlayStation 4, and that may well be what he claims if he’s ever called to throw himself on the mercy of the court. But the court of public opinion is already rendering its verdict, and it is not in a mercy-granting mood for fellows whose mugshot reminds it of Mohamed Atta’s baby brother, and shares his homeland. In other words: Middle East fellows who are guests in America, think, for heaven’s sake.”