RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
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Lately, federal authorities have voiced concerns over a growing problem, people pointing cheap handheld lasers at aircraft. They can send an intense blinding light going into the cockpit of a plane or helicopter at night.
The number of laser attacks across the country doubled last year. Most were in the Los Angeles area. That's where NPR's Mandalit del Barco found one pilot who had a very close call.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Glendale is one of the many cities in southern California that counts on cops in the air to keep people safe. One of them is police sergeant Steve Robertson, who fires up his helicopter to do his daily rounds.
(Soundbite of helicopter)
DEL BARCO: Robertson is a veteran pilot who has seen just about everything. But one of the most dangerous things he's encountered was a powerful beam of green light from someone on the ground hitting his helicopter with a laser pointer.
Sgt. STEVEN ROBERTSON (Police Sergeant, Glendale, California): It immediately lighted up the whole cockpit and it hit both of my eyes and burned both my corneas. Instantly I was blinded. It felt like I was hit in the face with a baseball bat. Just an intense burning pain.
DEL BARCO: Robertson was 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. Robertson's at a loss to figure out what's running through their minds.
Sgt. ROBERTSON: There's been real no plausible explanation. I think the biggest part is they're surprised that we caught them. We have technology on board our aircraft that can pinpoint locations, can tell us address, can tell us property owners. So that's how we've been very successful.
DEL BARCO: Robertson says all their suspects have been young men in their late teens or early 20s, shining the lasers from apartment buildings, cars, or near the runways.
FAA administrator Randy Babbitt says the results can be disastrous.
Mr. RANDY BABBITT (Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration): Apparently they think the aircraft is, you know, a target they could test their laser on. But these are not toys, you know; shining one into a cockpit and blinding a pilot has some very, very serious ramifications.
DEL BARCO: 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 L.A. last year alone. That includes two commercial jet liners whose cockpits were hit by lasers while they were trying to land, and two Coast Guard helicopters that were grounded after laser flashes.
But it's a problem nationwide and around the world, and it's on the rise.
Mr. BABBITT: We don't think the people appreciate the seriousness of shining lasers at aircraft. These are very powerful. They weren't designed or intended to be used like this. Some of that is the availability, and some of it, let's hope, is not intentional.
DEL BARCO: Babbitt says part of the problem is handheld laser pointers are easily available for sale in home supply shops and on the Internet. Anyone can buy them; there are no age requirements.
YouTube videos show how to pop balloons or burn paper and wood with lasers, and young laser aficionados play with the handheld devices as though they were Star Wars light sabers.
(Soundbite of video)
DEL BARCO: Sergeant Robertson says the problem is not with the kind of lasers used in PowerPoint presentations, or for playing with cats or even stargazing. He says the new laser strikers use powerful green light that can beam for miles.
Sgt. ROBERTSON: There's many good reasons and uses obviously for lasers in the scientific and medical fields, but in the wrong hands it can wreak havoc.
DEL BARCO: The FAA says thankfully there have been no major accidents directly linked to laser strikes, but many cities and states are cracking down with new 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.
Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.
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