Toy lasers might seem harmless enough, but that cheap gadget could momentarily blind a pilot of a plane with hundreds of passengers – even if it’s thousands of feet overhead.
That’s according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which is launching a campaign to prevent such disasters from happening.
Pointing a laser into an airplane is a federal offense with a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
“People often don’t realize that what looks like a pinpoint dot here, when pointed at an aircraft can often be four to five [times that size] or even much wider,” Gregory Heeb, supervisory special agent, said. “It can have a blinding effect on the pilots and that can obviously have pretty severe consequences for the pilots, for anybody on board an aircraft or for anybody on the ground.”
Since the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began tracking reported cases of laser strikes in 2005, the numbers have increased by more than 1,100 percent.
From 2010 to 2013, the number of cases in the United States increased from 2778 to 3960.
“It’s an issue everywhere, while they’re in flight, it’s not unique to just airport locations, either” Heeb said. “We’ve seen it far from airports where people were on the ground and under a flight path.”
However, no injuries were reported in 2013.
Heeb said that it does not take a strong laser to reach a plane in mid-flight.
“On top of that, lasers are becoming even more powerful,” Heeb said. “So there’s the ability now to go out anywhere and buy lasers that would have a non-nefarious use in most cases and they’re being used for this purpose and because they’re so powerful, this is becoming an even bigger problem.”
In Pittsburgh, 17 cases were reported in 2012 and again in 2013.
The FBI is offering a reward of up to $10,000 for any information that leads to the arrest of an individual who aims a laser at an aircraft.
“Time is essential in these cases, so we’re encouraging people if they do see suspicious activity or somebody with a laser that’s targeting and aircraft to dial 9-1-1 immediately because police response is essential in that case to get law enforcement out there and then the FBI to come out and obviously do follow up investigation,” Heeb said.