Mandalit del Barco/NPR
Glendale, Calif., Police Sgt. Steve Robertson was first incapacitated by a laser beam while landing a helicopter in the mid-1990s. Since then, he says, he and his fellow police pilots in Glendale have been targeted dozens of times by people shining cheap, easy-to-buy lasers.
Glendale, Calif., Police Sgt. Steve Robertson was first incapacitated by a laser beam while landing a helicopter in the mid-1990s. Since then, he says, he and his fellow police pilots in Glendale have been targeted dozens of times by people shining cheap, easy-to-buy lasers. Mandalit del Barco/NPR
The Federal Aviation Administration is warning about the near-catastrophic results of an increasing phenomenon: people shining laser lights into the cockpits of commercial planes, police helicopters and military aircraft.
The number of laser strikes doubled last year, with most incidents in Los Angeles.
A Blinding Beam Of Green Light
Glendale Police Sgt. Steve Robertson remembers the first time he encountered a laser strike. He says his helicopter was hit by a powerful beam of green light one night while he was on patrol.
"It immediately [lit] up the whole cockpit and it hit both of my eyes and burned both of my corneas," says the veteran pilot. "Instantly, I was blinded. It felt like I was hit in the face with a baseball bat — just an intense, burning pain."
Robertson was momentarily incapacitated and would have crashed if his co-pilot hadn't been able to land the chopper. He recovered from his injuries. But since that incident back in the mid '90s, Robertson says he and his fellow police pilots in Glendale have been targeted dozens of times by people shining cheap, easy-to-buy lasers.
Laser Strike Suspects
"I think the biggest part is they're surprised we caught them," says Robertson from a hangar at the Bob Hope airport in Burbank. "We have technology onboard our aircraft that can pinpoint locations, can tell us [addresses], can tell us property owners, so that's how we've been very successful."
Robertson says all of their suspects have been young men in their late teens or early 20s shining the lasers from apartment buildings, cars or near the runways.
"Apparently, they think the aircraft is a target they can test their lasers on," says FAA administrator Randy Babbitt, who warns the public against beaming lasers at aircraft. "These are not toys. Shining one into a cockpit and blinding a pilot has some very, very serious ramifications."
A Growing, Worldwide Problem
The Los Angeles International Airport leads the nation in laser strikes. When you factor in several nearby suburban airports, there were more than 200 incidents in Los Angeles last year alone. That includes two commercial jetliners whose cockpits were hit by lasers while they were trying to land, as well as two Coast Guard helicopters that were grounded after laser flashes.
But laser strikes are also a problem nationwide and around the world, and they are on the rise.
"We don't think people appreciate the seriousness of shining lasers at aircraft," says Babbitt. "These are powerful lasers. They weren't designed or intended to be used like this. Some of that is the availability and some of it, let's hope it's not intentional."
Easy-To-Buy Lasers In The Wrong Hands
Babbitt says part of the problem is hand-held laser pointers are easily available. They are for sale in home supply shops and on the Internet. And anyone can buy them because there are no age requirements.
YouTube videos show how to burn paper and wood or pop balloons with lasers. And young laser aficionados play with the hand-held devices as though they were Star Wars light sabers.
Robertson says the problem is not with the kind of lasers used in PowerPoint presentations or even stargazing. He says the new laser strikers use powerful green light that can beam for miles.
"There's many good reasons and uses for lasers in the scientific and medical fields," says Robertson. "But in the wrong hands, it can wreak havoc."
The FAA says thankfully, there have been no major accidents directly linked to laser strikes. But many cities and states are cracking down with laws, and there's new technology to pinpoint where the laser beams are coming from.
Just last week, a 43-year-old man in Florida pleaded guilty to interfering with a sheriff's helicopter with a laser. He may be looking at 20 years in federal prison.