Laser pointers — those cheap, entertaining trinkets that inspire household pets to chase and pounce — are causing significant problems for law enforcement. Most people see these red or green dot pointers as having weak lights, but they underestimate just how far light travels and the damage these lasers can do when pointed at aircraft.
While some may think the light stops before reaching a passing aircraft, but it doesn’t. Even the standard laser pointers used for presentations are bright enough to distract a plot. At distances up to 1,200 feet, the light from a standard laser toy can reverberate about the cockpit and cause near blindness, according to Jake Rossen, a Mental Floss contributor.
Lasing is a felony
Interfering with aircraft operation has long been a federal crime, but, according to an article from the FBI, the Federal Aviation Administration’s FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 made the act of intentionally pointing a laser at an aircraft a felony.
Since the FBI and the FAA began tracking laser strikes, there has been a significant increase in the number of laser illuminations, or lasing, by curious or malicious individuals on the ground. According to the FAA, as cited in a Laser Pointer Safety article, lasing incidents could increase 64% from 2015 to 2016.
What happens when a laser is pointed at an aircraft?
From the ground, it may seem that a small beam of light won’t make a dent on a pilot’s vision. But when pointed at airplanes and helicopters, a laser’s light can be significantly magnified by the aircraft windows. The windshield turns opaquely green and the strobe effect can cause a burning sensation in the eyes. According to a Popular Science article, lasing can even cause temporary blindness in affected pilots and crewmembers.
According to the Mental Floss article, the crew’s ability to see is seriously compromised and, while no lasing accident has been reported yet, pilots have been forced to change course, even in crowded airspace, and later required medical attention. Pilots who have been hit with lasers claim it’s the equivalent of having a very bright camera flash go off in pitch blackness right in front of you. According to an Air and Space magazine article, green lasers are especially harmful because the human eye is susceptible to damage from light in the yellow to green part of the spectrum.
The FAA, FBI, and local law enforcement teams have worked out a number of effective methods to find and prosecute those who point lasers at aircraft. Increased public awareness is helping somewhat, but tens of thousands of dollars and years of jail time and community service are doing a lot to curb enthusiasm for this curious activity as well.