NEWARK, N.J. – A man charged with temporarily blinding the pilot and co-pilot of an airplane with a laser beam claims he was simply using the device to look at stars with his 7-year-old daughter.
Federal authorities Tuesday used the Patriot Act (search) to charge David Banach (search), 38, with interfering with the operator of a mass transportation vehicle and making false statements to the FBI. He is the first person arrested after a recent rash of reports around the nation of laser beams hitting airplanes.
The FBI acknowledged the incident had no connection to terrorism but called Banach's actions "foolhardy and negligent."
Banach, of Parsippany admitted to federal agents that he pointed the light beam at a jet and a helicopter over his home near Teterboro Airport (search) last week, authorities said. Initially, he claimed his daughter aimed the device at the helicopter, they said.
The jet, a chartered Cessna Citation (search), was coming in for a landing Dec. 29 with six people aboard when a green light beam struck the windshield three times at about 3,000 feet, according to court documents. The pilot and co-pilot were temporarily blinded but were eventually able to land the plane safely.
Two days later, a Port Authority helicopter trying to pinpoint the origin of the original beam was also hit by a laser.
Banach was tracked down a few hours after the helicopter incident by FBI agents canvassing the neighborhood for the source of the beam. He told the agents it was his daughter who shined the laser at the helicopter, according to court papers.
Banach's lawyer, Gina Mendola-Longarzo, said her client was simply using the hand-held device to look at stars with his daughter on the family's deck. She said Banach bought the device on the Internet for $100 for his job testing fiber-optic cable.
"He wasn't trying to harm any person, any aircraft or anything like that," she said.
Joseph Billy, agent in charge of the FBI's Newark bureau, said Banach's actions endangered not only the jet's crew and passengers but also "countless innocent civilians on the ground in this densely populated area."
Banach is charged only in connection with the jet. According to the FBI, the Patriot Act does not describe helicopters as "mass transportation vehicles."
He was released on $100,000 bail. He could get up to 25 years in prison and fines of up to $500,000.
Similar incidents have been reported in Colorado Springs, Colo., Cleveland, Washington, Houston and Medford, Ore., raising fears that the light beams could temporarily blind cockpit crews and lead to accidents.
Last month, the FBI and the Homeland Security Department (search) sent a memo to law enforcement agencies saying there is evidence that terrorists have explored using lasers as weapons. But federal officials have said there is no evidence any the current incidents represent a terrorist plot.