Pilots compete with record number of laser attacks, FAA says

Pilots compete with record number of laser attacks, FAA says

One foggy night in December 2018, David Hill was trying to land a helicopter when a beam of light suddenly overwhelmed his night vision goggles.

Mr. Hill, an emergency services pilot, had been called in to airlift a teenager who had been seriously injured in an ATV accident from a town 35 miles north of Madison, Wisconsin.

But now, Mr. Hill has been temporarily blinded.

Flying about 500 feet above the ground, he tried to get his bearings. It was “like looking at the sun, and all I can see are bright spots,” she recalled.

A person had aimed a laser at his helicopter. From 2010 to 2021, nearly 70,000 pilots reported similar episodes, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Last year saw more than 9,700 cases, a record and a 41 percent increase from 2020.

When a laser pointer strikes a cockpit, the light can disorient or “completely incapacitate” a pilot, who on a commercial airliner could be responsible for hundreds of passengers, the FAA said. Some commercial flight routes have been disrupted, causing pilots to change course or even turn around.

“What you might see as a toy has the ability to momentarily blind a crew member,” said Billy Nolen, the FAA’s acting administrator.

Although no plane has ever been reported to crash as a result of a laser attack, Nolen said in a phone interview that there was always a risk of a “tragic outcome.” He added: “This is not an arcade game.”

The FAA said one factor in the rise in laser attacks was that lasers were becoming increasingly powerful, cheap and easy to buy. Pilots may also be getting better at reporting incidents, the agency said. Other observers point to a society frayed by the pandemic by bad behavior.

“If he’s invading the security of my plane, then he’s an aggressor,” said Capt. Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, the union that represents American Airlines pilots. “These are attacks.”

It is a federal crime to knowingly point a laser pointer at an aircraft. Violators can be sentenced to up to five years in prison; the FAA can also impose civil penalties.

In April, a Philadelphia man was sentenced to a year in prison and fined $1,000 for pointing a laser at a police helicopter. In September, an Alabama man was sentenced to eight months in prison for pointing a laser at a helicopter flown by the local sheriff’s office. Also that month, a Milwaukee man was sentenced to a year of probation for pointing a laser at a police plane during protests against police brutality in 2020.

In many cases, however, cases are difficult to prosecute because aircraft pilots cannot easily detect who is pointing the laser. As of early March, there had been more than 100 incidents involving lasers aimed at aircraft around Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The FBI has offered a $10,000 reward to find those responsible.

In some cases, the lasers they emit at aircraft have unknowingly led law enforcement officers directly to their location.

In February 2020, while on patrol near Vacaville, California, about 55 miles northeast of San Francisco, Jan Sears, a California Highway Patrol pilot, said he was hit by a laser. Her plane had an infrared camera that helped identify the source of the light.

“It’s painful,” he said of the laser, describing symptoms that can include sore and watery eyes, headaches and blurred vision. Officer Sears said that for several days after the attack, he saw bright afterimages when he closed his eyes.

“Teenagers do stupid things,” he said. “But when you start having adults do it, you start to ask yourself, what’s your motivation?”

People who point lasers at planes can be broadly divided into two groups: those who are ignorant of the dangers they pose and those who are antisocial, said Patrick Murphy, a laser safety expert who runs the website LaserPointerSafety.com.

According to the accounting of Mr. Murphy, who is also part of a committee that helps advise the FAA and pilots on the issue, there have been more than 100,000 such attacks around the world since 2004. Most of them, he added. , those in charge of aiming with lasers are men.

“It’s a guy thing,” said Mr Murphy, adding that when it comes to lasers, the bigger and more powerful the better. “It’s like having a lightsaber from ‘Star Wars,'” he added. “‘It’s pretty impressive: I have this beam of energy coming out of my hand.'”

The Food and Drug Administration restricts the sale of lasers over five milliwatts for use as pointers, but experts say the most powerful lasers are easily purchased and the devices are often mislabeled.

On TikTok, some videos promote high powered lasers with links to purchase them. Such devices can be used at close range to pop balloons and light cigarettes.

Although other countries have restricted sales of the devices, Murphy and others said such efforts are unlikely to be successful in the United States.

He and other experts said that for now, pilots need to be educated about lasers and be prepared to respond to them. Many pilots have also started wearing goggles.

But Mr. Hill, the emergency services pilot, was unlucky.

That night in 2018, he was forced to abandon the rescue. Hours later, his eyes were still burning and aching, he said. As of April 2019, he was on medical leave due to vision and balance problems. Hill, now 58, retired in April.

Mr. Hill’s doctors told him they couldn’t find any evidence that his problems were related to the laser attack, and experts say permanent injuries from laser attacks are extremely unlikely. However, Hill said that he believed there was some correlation.

“I know I experienced this laser attack,” he said. “Just over three months later, he couldn’t fly.”

sheelagh-mcneill contributed research.

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