A PILOT was forced to take evasive action when a high-powered torch was used to deliberately target his helicopter while flying at 1,300ft.

The quick-thinking police helicopter pilot managed to move to safety while other crew used high-tech cameras to locate the suspect and direct police officers to where Tony Gaffney was hiding.

Teesside Crown Court heard how the 34-year-old focused the torch on the helicopter for around seven minutes after it had been scrambled to help in the search for a vulnerable missing woman at 10.50pm on May 27 last year.

Jenny Haigh, prosecuting, said the highly experienced National Police Air Service pilot was distracted by the torch beam as it changed colour whilst shining in the cockpit.

She said the crew used a thermal imaging camera to trace the source of the torchlight while flying at around two to three kilometres away from the area.

“He was able to pinpoint the light, which was in a residential area, and was coming from under a tree,” she added. “The light was distracting and if he hadn’t taken action he feared he would have lost his night sight.

“The defendant was seen to try to hide the light in bushes but it was recovered by police and the defendant was arrested.”

Gaffney, of Fabian Road, Middlesbrough, pleaded guilty to endangering an aircraft.

John Nixon, in mitigation, said his client hadn’t intended to cause an damage to the helicopter or its crew and didn’t believe that his high-powered torch would reach its target.

He added: “He failed to appreciate that shining the torch from that distance could have that impact.”

The court heard he was planning on using the torch for hunting.

Judge Howard Crowson jailed Gaffney for 15 weeks.

He said: “For seven minutes you shone your high-powered torch into the cockpit window – that could have led to the pilot losing control or a catastrophe.

“It forced the helicopter to divert itself from its primary purpose of searching for somebody who had gone missing – for ten minutes they were not looking for that person.

“You tried to hide it because you realised that you have done something wrong.”

Speaking after the hearing, Superintendent Emily Harrison, of Cleveland Police, said: "This was a particularly dangerous action to take and it could have had very serious consequences. All emergency services are under even more pressure than usual at the moment and to have to deal with such incidents could mean essential resources not being available for other emergencies.

"We will do all we can to identify and bring before the courts anyone who puts pilots, their aircraft and the public in danger."