FBI targets soaring number of laser attacks on aircraft

Pointing lasers at aircraft can injure and distract pilots during crucial times of flight. The FBI announces a new effort to address this federal crime, including rewards of up to $10,000 for reporting such attacks.

Damian Dovarganes/AP/File
Los Angeles Police Air Support Division helicopter pilots listen to law enforcement agents, as they announce a 60-day FBI campaign, 'Don't Let a Prank Lead to Prison, Aiming a Laser at an Aircraft is a Federal Crime,' during a news conference at the Los Angeles International airport Feb. 11, 2014.

Federal agencies have begun a new effort to crack down on lasers aimed at aircraft, a dangerous trend that could have catastrophic results.

For the next two months, the FBI, working with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Air Line Pilots Association, is focusing the effort on 12 cities where laser strikes against aircraft are prevalent. In addition to a public information campaign, the program includes rewards of up to $10,000 for information leading to the arrest of any individual who intentionally aims a laser at an aircraft.

“Aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft is a serious matter and a violation of federal law,” Ron Hosko, assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, said in announcing the new effort. “It is important that people understand that this is a criminal act with potentially deadly repercussions.”

Although no crashes have occurred due to “lasing,” the problem has grown steadily in recent years. Reported incidents of laser attacks on aircraft in flight in the US have increased more than 1,000 percent since 2005, according to the FAA, from 283 up to 3,960 in 2013 – an average of 11 incidents a day.

Such attacks also have been on the increase in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. The FBI estimates that thousands of attacks go unreported every year.

“The increase in reports is likely due to a number of factors, including greater awareness and outreach to pilots to encourage reporting; the availability of inexpensive laser devices on the Internet; stronger power levels that enable lasers to hit aircraft at higher altitudes; and the introduction of green lasers, which are more easily seen than red lasers,” the FAA reports.

The problem cropped up years ago with the first laser light shows that inadvertently illuminated commercial and private aircraft. Since then, the light show industry has worked with the FAA and law enforcement agencies to develop regulations and practices that have all but eliminated the threat from that source.

Here’s the essence of the problem as described by the FBI: “When aimed at an aircraft from the ground, the powerful beam of light from a handheld laser can travel more than a mile and illuminate a cockpit, disorienting and temporarily blinding pilots. Those who have been subject to such attacks have described them as the equivalent of a camera flash going off in a pitch black car at night.”

Such incidents can be especially dangerous because they typically occur during takeoff or on approach to landing, when an aircraft is close to the ground and flying at fairly low speed. As of December 2013, the FAA has documented at least 35 incidents in which pilots required medical attention after a laser strike, the agency reported this week.

Federal agencies have been increasing regulations and penalties for aiming a laser at an aircraft.

In 2011, the FAA announced that it would begin imposing civil penalties of $11,000 for, in effect, interfering with a flight crew. A year later, President Obama signed the "FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012,” which makes it a federal crime to aim a laser pointer at an aircraft.

Laser devices can be fun and legitimately useful in some civilian professions, but they also have the potential for being deadly weapons.

As proposed by former President Ronald Reagan in 1983, the Strategic Defense Initiative – dubbed “Star Wars” – included research into powerful X-ray and chemical lasers to counter incoming enemy warheads and satellites.

Last December, the US Army announced that, for the first time, it had used a truck-mounted laser weapon to stop a barrage of 90 incoming mortars and several drones in midflight.

“Defense officials at the Army Space and Missile Defense Command hailed it as a ‘big step’ in the development of targeted, high-energy laser beams that might also one day be used to defend US airspace against, for example, fighter-jet or cruise-missile attacks,” Monitor Pentagon correspondent Anna Mulrine reported.

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which represents pilots in the US and Canada, welcomed the new effort to prevent laser attacks.

“We applaud the FBI for recognizing how serious this situation is and believe that this campaign will have a positive effect on reducing the laser threat to airline safety by raising public awareness of the serious consequences of illuminating aircraft with lasers,” ALPA first vice president Capt. Sean Cassidy said in a statement. “We are calling on industry, government, and the public to take steps to help safeguard the skies against laser strikes.”

The 12 FBI offices participating in the new program are Albuquerque, N.M.; Chicago; Cleveland; Houston; Los Angeles; New York; Philadelphia; Phoenix; Sacramento, Calif.; San Antonio; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and the Washington Field Office.

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