MADISON, WIS. – Timothy M. O’Shea, United States Attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin, announced that Nicholas James Link, 43, Rochester, Minnesota was sentenced today by U.S. District Judge William M. Conley to two years in prison for aiming a laser at an aircraft. Link pleaded guilty to this charge on January 12, 2023.
On the night of October 29, 2021, pilots with Delta Air Lines reported to the Minneapolis – Saint Paul International Airport (MSP) that they had just been struck by a laser. They were flying an Airbus A319 on a commercial flight from Raleigh-Durham to Minneapolis when, at an altitude of 9,000 feet and just west of River Falls, Wisconsin, the cockpit was lit up three times by a blue laser. At the time they had just been instructed by air traffic control to change runways at MSP. The laser strikes caused a major distraction in the cockpit as they were not able to look at their iPads to brief the new approach.
The pilots were eventually able to brief and transition to the new runway approach and safely land the aircraft. The first officer did not suffer any disruption to his vision, but the captain said that vision in his right eye was affected for several hours after this event.
Air traffic control called a Minnesota State Patrol aircraft, which flew to River Falls to investigate. The State Patrol pilots circled the area at 3,500 feet and their aircraft was also struck by a blue laser. Using the aircraft’s surveillance equipment, they were able to identify the suspect, coordinate with local law enforcement, and maintain a visual on the defendant until officers contacted him. The State Patrol pilots recorded this event using their surveillance camera.
River Falls police officers contacted the defendant and found a blue laser on his person. He said that he was shining the laser at a drone but did not believe it was an aircraft because it stayed very still. He then pointed to the Minnesota State Patrol aircraft. Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, are considered aircraft under federal law.
The pilot for the Delta Air Lines flight provided a statement to the Court. The captain has been a commercial airline pilot for 28 years with over 25,000 hours of logged flight hours. During their descent into MSP the cockpit was suddenly illuminated by a bright blue light. The captain described that the approach into an airport is considered a critical phase of any flight with a high workload. Because this particular approach also required a runway change, they had to reprogram their flight computers, consult the approach charts, and establish the course and descent into the new runway.
It was at that precise moment that they were struck by the laser. The captain noted the “sheer brightness” and compared it to “suddenly turning on all the lights in a dark room.” The pilots immediately shifted their priority to protecting their eyes, with the first officer using his iPad as a shield instead of using it to brief the approach. The captain wrote that “[o]ne minor mistake during this critical phase could have led to catastrophic results.” The defendant’s action caused a severe safety threat to the safety of the crew and all passengers on board the aircraft.
At sentencing, Judge Conley remarked on Link’s extensive criminal record which included numerous domestic assaults. Judge Conley also discredited the defendant’s argument that it was not commonly known that aiming a laser at aircraft was dangerous. The defendant wrote in his sentencing memorandum that there were almost 10,000 reports of laser strikes on aircraft each of the past two years. Judge Conley said that these incidents are frequently reported in the news, so the danger is commonly known. Judge Conley also mentioned an arrest in 2017 where the defendant shined and strobed a handheld flashlight in the eyes of the arresting officer, saying that incident was similar to the defendant’s conduct in this case. Judge Conley called aiming a laser at an aircraft incredibly dangerous and reckless, and in this case forced the Delta pilots to focus on their temporary blindness which put everyone on the aircraft in incredible danger.
The charge against Link was the result of an investigation conducted by the Minnesota State Patrol, River Falls Police Department, and Federal Bureau of Investigation. The prosecution of the case has been handled by Assistant U.S. Attorney Corey Stephan.