A look at the increasing trend of shining lasers at aircraft

FAA images via Pangolin.com

Although government officials have tried to do more to prevent people from pointing lasers at aircraft, the number of reported incidents in America and elsewhere continues to grow.

Aviators need keep the issue in mind, especially when flying at night and when taking off or landing at airports near residential areas. When the intense, pulsing light of a laser hits the window of a cockpit, it can temporarily blind a pilot and compromise safety of the flight.

A 2004 FAA study showed that 75 percent of pilots exposed to a laser beam in the cockpit reported difficultly operating the aircraft (study pictured above). The shorter the distance and stronger the light, the more likely a pilot may have to abort a landing or take evasive action to get away from the beam.

Though Congress has yet to pass successfully a law to criminalize the act on a federal level (bills died in 2005 and 2007), many states have passed laws making it illegal to point a laser at an aircraft or have charged offenders under welfare endangerment or criminal mischief statutes. Other countries, including Britain and parts of Australia, have outright banned the use of some lasers in order to protect those in aircraft.

Despite the actions, however, the number of incidents and arrests continue to grow.

Just today, police in El Cajon, Calif., charged a 20-year-old man with a felony of pointing a laser at an aircraft. Officers say the man directed a beam into the windows of a police helicopter. The suspect’s friends reportedly said he wanted to see if officers would arrive if he pointed it at them. Well, he got his wish and then some.

Meanwhile in Atlantic City, N.J., pilots have filed 10 complaints this summer, stating they were targeted with lasers while flying into the airport there. Boardwalk venders in nearby Ocean City reluctantly agreed to stop selling high-powered pointers, which local government officials think are the culprit. [more]

North of the U.S. border, a man in Calgary, Canada, was charged this week after an incident similar to the California case, also involving an idiot, a laser and a police helicopter. The newspaper report, linked here, said the officers involved will remain grounded until doctors determine whether any long-term damage resulted from the exposure. After seeing the beam, the police donned protective eye gear and circled the area until they determined a location of the laser. Ground units then moved in and arrested the man, who said he merely pointed the laser at a mirror in his house and it accidentally reflected into the chopper’s windows.

Other notable incidents include several aircraft targeted near Seattle-Tacoma in 2009, prompting initial fears that the actions may have been be related to terrorist groups, though that was unfounded. A coordinated laser attack in Sydney, Australia in 2008 involved four laser beams that honed in on approaching planes, which led to the provincial government there outright banning the devices.   

A decade ago, when the FAA first looked into the issue of lasers and aircraft, the Western-Pacific regional field office reported 150 incidents between 1996 and 1999. By 2009, at the time of the Seattle-Tacoma incident, the agency said 150 laser-aircraft cases were reported in the first two months of the year alone.

Canada has seen a similar trend, reporting only a handful of cases a few years ago. Pilots filed more than 100 reports in each of the last three years, with the total for 2010 looking like it will be even higher.


The issue has become so widespread that it has been lampooned. The tech web site ThinkGeek.com once offered a fictional “PlaneTag” laser device on its site as an April Fool’s gag, even offering to cover the first $25,000 of a user's fine.

However, lasers can also be an aviator’s friend, as well, warning them not to fly into restricted airspace, possibly mark areas for holding patterns, or to potentially be used as a military tool to track and destroy enemy missiles.

Additional tools soon will help pilots identify and track a laser beam. Earlier this summer, the FBI contracted the laser company Optra to develop a Laser Event Recorder tracking system to be installed on aircraft to capture a laser signal and pinpoint it with GPS, creating evidence on a USB drive to help convict a culprit.

In the meantime, perhaps, pilots can replace their traditional aviator sunglasses with this pair of laser-resistant shades. At least then, they can still look cool and not get blinded when flying.