The blinding flash of a laser beam has never caused a commercial airliner to crash, but the increasing possibility that one might has federal authorities finding new tools to prosecute perpetrators.
With the number of reported incidents up 86 percent last year, the Federal Aviation Administration said Wednesday that it will begin seeking civil charges against wanton laser wielders whose beams invade the cockpit.
“Lasers can temporarily blind a pilot,” said FAA Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt. “At a minimum, shining a laser at an aircraft can create a dangerous distraction.”
That happened 2,836 times in 2010 as planes were taking off or landing. It’s unclear why anyone would do this.
“People think these are toys,” Babbitt said. “They’re not toys. They can be very dangerous.”
The charges, of interfering with the operation of an aircraft, could lead to fines as high as $11,000 per violation.
People who flash the beams into cockpits can face criminal charges as well, although the burden of proof is higher. A Fairfax man was arrested last year after he reportedly shined one at a police helicopter that was searching for a suspected criminal. In Rhode Island, federal charges were brought against a man who allegedly blinded the pilots of a commercial flight as it landed in Providence.
Teenagers who were accused of aiming laser beams at three commercial planes and a helicopter in Nashville were charged with a felony in March after the chopper pilot directed police to their home.
Last month, a 44-year-old man was sentenced to 30 months’ probation and ordered to pay a $5,000 fine after he and two friends spent a summer evening shining laser beams from a Memphis rooftop at airplanes, a police helicopter and Mississippi River barges. The barge captains fired back with their powerful floodlights, helping police home in on the trio.
A Los Angeles teenager was charged this year after an airplane pilot pinpointed the location from which his beam was coming. The teenager allegedly pointed his green laser at the police helicopter that responded, police said.
Lawmakers have considered legislation that would make pointing lasers at aircraft a federal crime as part of the FAA spending reauthorization bill, which has been stalled in Congress.
Delta Airlines pilot Chad Smith described a harrowing incident in March in which his plane came under attack 6,000 feet over Oklahoma City by someone shining a green laser beam.
“It’s very striking how intense and how keen it is,” he said, appearing with Babbitt on Wednesday at Reagan National Airport.
As his co-pilot ducked lower to avoid being blinded, Smith said they engaged the automatic pilot as the laser repeatedly swept the cockpit.
Smith said catching laser culprits might not be as difficult as it may seem. Using an onboard navigation system, he said, he was able to pin down the location and calculate the spot where the beam originated. He relayed that information to an air-traffic controller, but police did not reach the scene in time to catch the laser operator.
The lasers are more powerful versions of the laser pointers used in boardroom presentations. They are available on the Internet and most cost less than $100. They have a variety of commercial applications and also can be used for amusement.