CLEARWATER — It was supposed to be a training exercise. About 2 miles from John's Pass, a Coast Guard helicopter hovered above a vessel, ready to lower a rescue hoist, when a green laser illuminated the cockpit.
"A sudden bright light," said Lt. James White, a support pilot inside the helicopter. "To me, it actually looked like a lightning strike in the distance."
The green light flashed inside the cockpit, distracting crew members from the training exercise. Within seconds, the light was gone.
That incident last fall is among thousands of laser strikes reported by the Coast Guard nationwide in recent years. The Federal Aviation Administration says that in 2013, nearly 2,500 laser incidents have been reported, 36 of them Coast Guard boat cases.
Aiming lasers at Coast Guard aircraft and vessels, officials warn, is dangerous, potentially disorienting crew members already out at sea on high-risk assignments. And if they're in the middle of a rescue mission, others' lives may also be in danger.
Lasers can cause flash blindness that can last several minutes and may even lead to retina damage. In Florida, pointing lasers at anyone operating a "motor vehicle, vessel or aircraft" is a third-degree felony.
"It is an extremely dangerous occurrence," White said. "Hitting an air crew or a boat crew with a laser can impact the safety of the crew."
This month, two Coast Guard boat crews in Clearwater and Jacksonville were affected by lasers.
On Saturday night, a laser flashed at a 25-foot boat from the Coast Guard's Sand Key station, patrolling one mile southwest of Clearwater. It produced a "blue-green laser burst" that lasted about four seconds, officials said.
The six-person crew returned to the station for eye exams, but all were cleared.
On Aug. 7, a 45-foot boat searching for flares about three miles from Jacksonville Beach was struck by a green laser.
"They thought it might have been someone trying to get their attention," said Coast Guard Petty Officer Lauren Jorgensen. "They realized it was somebody next to the Jacksonville Beach Pier pointing a laser at them."
In both cases, no arrests were made.
After being flooded with the green light last fall, White, the Coast Guard pilot, underwent two eye exams, one at the station's medical clinic and another by a local doctor. He was cleared by both.
During the laser incident, White was wearing night-vision goggles, which deflected some of the effect.
"It was just an unsettling event," he said.