Laser beams threaten aviation safety

Aviation officials are worried about a steady increase of people pointing lasers at aircraft cockpits.

More powerful lasers can blind pilots and endanger lives

Aviation officials are worried about a steady increase of people pointing lasers at aircraft cockpits. They say the intense light can distract and temporarily blind pilots and has caused some to relinquish control of planes and helicopters to their co-pilots or abort landings.

An astronomer uses a laser pointer at an observatory in Bulgaria. The more powerful lasers used by astronomers can blind airplane pilots and endanger passengers. ((Petar Petrov/Associated Press))

Over the past six years, the Federal Aviation Administration in the U.S. has recorded a steady increase in reports from across the country of people pointing lasers at aircraft cockpits. This year, there have been more than 2,200 incidents, up from fewer than 300 in 2005.

There hasn't been an air crash so far, but the incidents have aviation officials worried.

"It sounds silly, but this is a serious problem," FAA administrator Randy Babbitt wrote Wednesday in a post on a Transportation Department blog.

"We know that laser pointers are an important tool for astronomers and casual stargazers," Babbitt wrote. "But we just can't stress enough the importance of being careful when you are shining them into the night sky."

The rise in incidents has coincided with a growing hobbyist market for handheld lasers that are far more powerful — and potentially dangerous — than the typical laser pointer. At the same time prices have dropped. Lasers that once cost more than $1,000 can now be bought online for a few hundred dollars or less.

A laser pointer like those used by lecturers typically generates about five milliwatts of power. One website offers a 1,000-milliwatt handheld laser.

Dozens of arrests made

Dozens of people in the United States and Canada have been arrested for pointing lasers at aircraft cockpits, most often near airports during takeoffs and landings. Those are the most critical phases of flight, when pilots need to be their most alert. Interference with air navigation is a federal crime.

In 2008 a Calgary man was charged with endangering a flight by shining a laser beam into the cockpit of an Air Canada flight that was landing at Calgary's airport. He was fined $1,000, and had to forfeit his laser pointer.

That same year in Calgary a WestJet pilot departing on a flight to Kelowna was hit in the eye with a laser. He did not suffer permanent damage, but the American Society of Ophthalmology warns that lasers can cause permanent eye damage and blindness.

Last year, a California, man was sentenced to 2½ years in prison for aiming a handheld laser at two Boeing jets as the passenger planes were about to land at John Wayne Airport.

In August, a Baltimore police helicopter pilot was temporarily "flash blinded" by a laser, preventing him from helping fellow officers chasing a suspect. The pilot recovered, circled around and spotlighted the house where the beam had come from as officers on the ground rushed in to arrest the culprit.

The same month, green lasers were pointed at the cockpits of two medical helicopters transporting patients in Pittsburgh, including a five-year-old boy injured in a bicycle accident.

There are red, blue and violet lasers as well, but the green is the most visible against a night sky.

In July, a Maryland state police helicopter pilot was briefly blinded by several green lasers while trying to land in Ocean City to pick up a trauma patient, but no one was injured. Two Coast Guard helicopters made precautionary landings this summer after the pilots were flashed with lasers while patrolling Los Angeles beaches and ports.

Last year, pilots of dozens of planes taking off and landing at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport reported being flashed with green lasers.