One pilot injured, a student pilot in a second aircraft struggled to see instruments for landing
Seattle – A 41-year-old Snohomish County resident was sentenced today in U.S. District Court in Seattle to eight months in prison for two counts of aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft, announced Acting U.S. Attorney Tessa M. Gorman. Christopher W. Harris has been in custody since his bond was revoked in August 2023. Harris was indicted in February 2023 for the laser crimes reported on November 20, 2022. At the sentencing hearing, U.S. District Judge Richard A. Jones said the conduct that temporarily damaged the pilot’s vision “was very dangerous, life-threatening, and done without regard for the victims.”
“Shining a laser at aircraft is dangerous for the pilot, those on board, and even those on the ground if the pilot cannot see to safely land,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Gorman. “Because of that danger, congress made such conduct a specific federal crime. It is fortunate both planes were able to safely land.”
According to records filed in the case, at about 5:00 PM on November 20,2022, Harris points a blue laser pointer at the cockpit of a two-person personal aircraft. The plane was on a track to land at Arlington Airport. The pilot’s eyes were damaged by the laser beam, and he was unable to see his instrument panel. He was able to switch to the backlight on the instrument screen which allowed him to safely land the aircraft. The pilot needed medical treatment for his eye injury.
Speaking in court today, pilot Jonathon Fay said once his vision was damaged by the laser, “I had to figure out how to land the plane… If I had been flying an older aircraft without the instrument visual aids, I likely would not have survived…By the grace of God, I have no permanent vision loss.”
Just two and a half hours later, Harris pointed the laser pointer at a four-seat aircraft being flown by a student pilot. The flight instructor on the plane was able to get pictures showing the origin of the laser light and also photographed how it obscured the sight of the pilot.
Based on the video from the second plane and the flight plan of the first plane, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Arlington Police were able to identify the origin of the laser light as a storage facility in Marysville, Washington. The storage facility is about 1.5 miles from the Arlington Airport.
Using entry logs and video surveillance from the storage facility law enforcement identified Harris as the person using the laser pointer on the planes. He was arrested by law enforcement at the storage facility on December 9, 2022.
In asking the judge to sentence Harris to a year and a day in prison, Assistant United States Attorney Jocelyn Cooney wrote to the court, “Mr. Harris’s behavior in this case is particularly concerning. This was not one poor decision by Mr. Harris. The two incidents are separated by approximately two-and-a-half hours. Mr. Harris left the storage facility after lasering the first plane before returning to laser the second plane. Both times, Mr. Harris’s actions were deliberate. He pointed the laser for approximately twelve (12) to thirteen (13) seconds—a considerable time—and tracked the plane’s cockpit as it moved across the sky. The fact that Mr. Harris chose to go back and engaged in the same dangerous behavior demonstrates that this was not a one-off occurrence of illegal behavior.”
Judge Jones sentenced Harris to three years of supervised release to follow the prison term, with intensive addiction and mental health treatment. Referencing the pilot in court Judge Jones said, “In this case, you almost killed this man… He has a family and people who depend on him. He could have wound up in a fatal crash… There must be consequences for what you did.”
The case was investigated by the Arlington Police Department and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
The case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Jocelyn Cooney.