Lasers are actually an old, but an alarmingly increasing, problem, particularly as the price of very powerful lasers has dropped to as low as $20 and they are readily available online and anonymously.
When I was Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation, we had some of our first laser problems back in 1995. They arose out of commercial laser light shows at Las Vegas hotels and Orlando amusement parks. While the FAA and airlines were able to work with laser operators to develop reasonable restrictions in navigable airspace and define appropriate eye-safe practices, those light shows signaled a new era of aviation dangers.
Since that time, the number of laser-related incidents have been climbing at an exponential rate, with 283 documented incidents in 2005 compared to a frightening 3,960 in 2013. Already in 2015 almost 3,000 laser hits on aircraft have been reported, a 60% increase over 2014, bringing the expected number in 2015 to be 6,000 to 7,000.
Accidents and Eye Damage
A laser beam, short for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, works by focusing on a very tight spot and remaining in that narrow focus over great distances. Because of this intense beam focus, there is less diffusion, causing an increased risk for eye damage. For example, the focused light of a 1 milliwatt laser is the same as staring at an equivalent amount of space on the surface of the sun—and lasers with an output of up to 5 milliwatts are legal in the United States.
The technology is out there, as lasers were initially intended as pointers for rifle and archery sights as well as for star gazing. Some were actually made and intended to be pointed into the sky—at stars. While no planes have crashed because of a pilot’s eyes being hit by a laser, car accidents have been reportedly caused by these devices and pilots have suffered serious eye injuries.
As a former pilot, I can tell you that pointing lasers at aircraft is dangerous and can cause significant chaos in landing patterns and at airports when one of these strikes occur, let alone what immediate and potentially long-term damage it can cause to the pilots’ vision.
Coordinated Idiocy is Also a Felony
Despite this danger to flights and the persons on the ground over whom they fly, apparently some people still think it’s “fun” to point powerful laser beams at airplanes. From shooting lights into cockpits from the top of skyscrapers to creating a flashbulb-like effect on the cockpit glass of police helicopters, to the more recent rash of close to three dozen flights over New Jersey and New York reporting lasers attacks on their planes, it looks to me like more than just “monkey see, monkey do” is taking place.
Given the coordination of those 34 planes targeted in a 24 hour period, as well as the four additional laser strikes on aircraft the following day, it seems to me that these attacks on airplanes were a concerted and intentional action. One person in New Jersey, for example might be able to hit a few planes in one area in an hour, but no more than that. One person cannot conduct these disorienting attacks in multiple sites around the country at the same time.
The problem is also not limited to the United States. Other areas of the world, including the Middle East, have had problems with individuals targeting planes with lasers.
Laws broken, both civil and criminal
Federal aviation regulations state that pointing lasers at aircraft is both a civil and criminal violation, and an FBI program announced in early 2014 encourages people to report this felony to the FBI Federal Laws, including 18 U.S.C. Section 39A and 18 U.S.C. Section 32 if damage or death occurs. These felonies are punishable by up to $250,000 in fines and five to 20 years in prison.
Prosecutors have a very power tool in the federal criminal code. As a former assistant United States attorney, I knew about this law when I became Inspector General and started using it in all sorts of aviation crimes. At first there was resistance from U.S. attorneys to criminalize aviation regulator violations, but not after the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Today, everyone understands the grave risk to persons on the ground of a plane being brought down. Someone endangering an aircraft can expect to be prosecuted with this statute.
And prison sentences are being handed down. Sentences already given out in the United States for this criminal behavior have included: two years in prison; three years in prison; 14 years in prison; eight years in prison; and dozens of others.
But, if a laser strike should actually cause a plane to crash and someone dies, U.S. Code permits the application of the death penalty. That may not deter concerted criminal activity, but hopefully it will deter those who think it’s fun to “monkey see, monkey do.”