Flying Blind: Laser strikes on the rise at airports - KTRE.com | Lufkin and Nacogdoches, Texas

Flying Blind: Laser strikes on the rise at airports

(Source: WTOL) (Source: WTOL)
(WTOL) -

The last thing any air passenger wants is something distracting the pilot during a flight, but laser strikes are happening at our local airports. It’s when a beam of light gets shined into the pilot’s eyes, causing temporary blindness. The culprits are difficult to catch, but it’s happening more often and it’s dangerous. 

Donald Hallett is a pilot and flight instructor at BGSU Aviation. He describes his firsthand account of getting a laser shined in his eyes while in flight with a student. 

“It was certainly alarming… we were a little disoriented,” Hallett said. “Everything was a little grainy for a few moments - temporarily blind for a few seconds.” 

The stream of colored light may seem harmless, but a two centimeter light can stretch more than six feet wide by the time it reaches a pilot's eyes. 

“Lasers tend to not lose as much light energy as a real light does, so it’s a larger bright object to us as pilots and it’s a little harder to block out,” Hallett said. 

He added that these lasers are evening tougher to block out once the sun goes down. 

“Especially at night when our vision is most critical due to the low light conditions, and with such a bright light interfering with that it could cause a serious safety concern,” Hallett said. 

When a laser comes through the windshield of the cockpit, the best line of defense a pilot has is just to put his hand up to block the light. That works okay if the incident happens during a regular flight pattern. But if it happens during take-off or landing, it could pose a serious safety risk. 

Erica Donerson is a Spokeswoman at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, and she said that’s precisely when most strikes are happening. 

“Laser incidents are not good at any time, but especially when flights are beginning to take off and land, which is usually when they occur,” Donerson said. 

She said last year commercial pilots at DTW reported 44 laser strikes – that’s a 30 percent increase from the year before. 

And the perpetrators are getting away with it. 

“To my knowledge no one has been captured or arrested in those 44 incidents,” Donerson said. 

In 2012, a federal law was passed making it illegal to shine a laser at an aircraft. But the law isn’t discouraging – last year more than 5,000 laser pointer incidents were reported at airports across the country, 40 percent more than in 2014.  But why and where are these lasers coming from?  

“It’s blinding, it's disorienting and it's dangerous,” FBI Spokesman Paul Daymond said. 

The FBI investigates most laser incidents. Daymond said law enforcement doesn’t think these laser strikes are coming from potential terrorists, but more likely someone pulling a dangerous joke. 

“A lot of times it's young people who want to pull a prank and be funny, but the message we are trying to send is that it's not funny, it's a felony," Daymond said. 

Anyone found guilty of pointing a laser at a plane could face serious jail time. In 2014, a California man convicted of pointing a laser at a Fresno police helicopter received 14 years in prison. The FBI is now offering rewards up to $10,000 for information leading to a conviction of someone aiming a laser at a plane.  

Fortunately, these laser incidents haven’t caused any serious accidents yet. Hallett said part of the reason is because pilots are now skilled in what to do during a laser strike.  

“I think passengers should be aware that we are trained to handle the situation,” Hallett said. “We take it very seriously. We do everything we can to ensure the safety of those that we’re in charge of.” 

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