Federal officials are sharpening their focus on people who point lasers into aircraft cockpits.
Handheld lasers can reach more than a mile into the sky and light up a cockpit like a flashbulb inside a dark vehicle. Pilots targeted in such attacks, known as “lasing,” report that they can become disoriented and temporarily blinded.
The FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recorded nearly 4,000 such incidents in 2013, about 10 times the 384 recorded in 2006. Officials estimate that thousands of additional attacks go unreported every year.
In March 2014, a California man was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison for aiming a laser pointer at a police helicopter in Fresno. The chopper was investigating reports of lasing incidents directed at an emergency medical helicopter for a children’s hospital.
“Lasing aircraft is not a joke or a casual prank,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Monica M. Miller said in a statement. “It is reckless behavior that can have fatal consequences for air crew, passengers and the public on the ground.”
The increase in lasing reports is the result of a number of factors, according to the FAA. These include: greater awareness by pilots to report laser incidents; the availability of inexpensive laser devices on the Internet; stronger power levels that enable lasers to hit aircraft at higher altitudes; and the introduction of green lasers, which are more visible to the human eye than red lasers.
Medical transport and law enforcement helicopters usually operate at lower altitudes, leaving them susceptible to lasing. Night-vision goggles worn by pilots also can amplify the laser beam, the FBI said.
In February, the bureau launched a Laser Threat Awareness campaign to educate the public about the dangers of lasing. The FAA and the Air Line Pilots Association International joined the effort, which includes rewards of up to $10,000 for information leading to an arrest in a lasing incident.
Additionally, the FAA can impose civil penalties of up to $11,000 per violation for lasing.
Some cities and states have added laws outlawing the pointing of lasers at aircraft. Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates laser manufacturers, has issued a consumer safety alert regarding the improper sale of powerful lasers over the Internet. The federal agency says some of the lasers may have been modified to emit dangerous levels of radiation.