Federal officials charged a 38-year-old New Jersey man yesterday with willfully interfering with an aircraft after he allegedly admitted that he -- not his young daughter -- had aimed a green laser at a small Cessna Citation as it was approaching the airport in Teterboro, N.J.
The Dec. 29 incident was one of several puzzling pilot reports of lasers aimed at aircraft over the holiday travel period. The FBI, which has been tracking the cases across the country, said high-beam lasers can impair and even blind pilots who are exposed, even for a short period of time. None of the incidents so far appear to be terrorist-related, the agency said.
"We have no credible intelligence of a terrorist group using lasers on the homeland," FBI spokesman Bill Carter said. "Out of an abundance of caution, we're asking the Federal Aviation Administration to investigate these issues and report them to the FBI."
Pilots and FAA officials said there have been hundreds of incidents reported over the past decade in which laser beams of different varieties have tracked planes or impaired pilot vision. The most widely available lasers are display pointers. These are not as much of a concern as the high-powered lasers used for astronomy, in light shows and by the military. Some laser beams can reach 30,000 feet.
In the New Jersey incident last week, FBI agents were able to locate the alleged laser source when they took the pilot of the Cessna up in a police helicopter to recount where the incident occurred along the flight path at 3,000 feet. As the pilot pointed toward a strip mall, another laser beam hit the helicopter. Police immediately shined a spotlight on the house from which the beam emanated and later arrested David Banach of Parsippany, N.J. Banach initially told police that his 7-year-old daughter was responsible for shining the laser but later admitted that he pointed both beams at the airplane and the helicopter, according to FBI documents submitted in court.
He pleaded not guilty yesterday in U.S. District Court in Newark. His attorney did not return a call for comment.
In November, the FBI issued a memo warning law enforcement agencies to report any suspicious incidents in which terrorists might try to aim lasers into aircraft cockpits to distract or temporarily blind a pilot. The memo was not based on any specific threat or plan to target aircraft in that manner, an FBI official said, but it was issued as a precaution.
An FAA study found that advances in technology have made even high-powered lasers more widely available, less expensive and dangerous if aimed at pilots. "A laser attack could be quickly deployed and withdrawn, leaving no obvious collateral damage or projectile residue, and would be difficult to detect and defend against," said a June study by the FAA's Office of Aerospace Medicine. "The possible visual impairment, startle, distraction and the loss of spatial orientation created by such an attack could make landing an aircraft difficult at best."
Still, many pilots and federal officials said chances are slim that terrorists could successfully use lasers to target aircraft and cause them to crash. Commercial aircraft are flown by two pilots and a laser would have to impair both to cause the flight crew to crash the plane. Also, many modern aircraft come equipped with technology that allows the pilot to simply push a button and execute a "go around" maneuver to automatically abort a landing.
"If you're a terrorist and you're going to attack aviation, this would probably not be your weapon of choice," said Steve Luckey, chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association's national security committee. "These things are more of a nuisance. What bothers me is the frequency is increasing."
One Department of Homeland Security official said that the threat does not appear to be high. "We haven't seen any threatening trend" that anyone is trying to test the system, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of intelligence information.
Lasers aimed at cockpits became a problem for pilots at least two decades ago and the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that the FAA study the issue after several troubling incidents in the mid-1990s. In October 1995, a pilot flying a Southwest Airlines plane departing from McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas suffered an eye injury at 7,000 feet, apparently from a laser that swept through the cockpit from a casino. The FAA placed a moratorium on outdoor laser activities in Las Vegas after that occurrence.
Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.