WASHINGTON – Federal Aviation Administration officials are worried about a substantial increase in the number of people pointing lasers at aircraft cockpits, saying the intense light can distract and temporarily blind pilots and has caused some to relinquish control to their co-pilots or abort landings.
This year, there have been more than 2,200 incidents reported to the Federal Aviation Administration, up from fewer than 300 in 2005. California, Texas and Florida have recorded the most, but the problem is widespread across the country.
There hasn't been an air crash so far, but the incidents have aviation officials concerned.
"It sounds silly, but this is a serious problem," FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt wrote Wednesday in a post on a Transportation Department blog.
"We know that laser pointers are an important tool for astronomers and casual stargazers," Babbitt wrote. "But we just can't stress enough the importance of being careful when you are shining them into the night sky."
The rise in incidents has coincided with a growing hobbyist market for handheld lasers that are far more powerful — and potentially dangerous — than the typical laser pointer. At the same time prices have dropped. Lasers that once cost more than $1,000 can now be bought online for a few hundred dollars or less.
Some lasers are marketed with holsters that can be clipped onto a belt, creating a gunslinger-like appearance. Earlier this year, Lucasfilm threatened legal action against Wicked Lasers, a Hong Kong-based company whose lasers have aluminum handles that resemble the lightsabers of the "Star Wars" movies. Lucasfilm later dropped the threat.
"Wicked Lasers defeats dark forces of George Lucas," the laser company's website brags.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology issued a statement in September warning parents that new, powerful laser devices can easily cause eye damage and blindness. The academy pointed to the case of a 15-year-old boy who suffered severe eye damage while playing with a laser in front of a mirror. Lasers don't have to be pointed at someone's eyes to cause harm; reflected light can cause damage as well.
A laser pointer like those used by lecturers typically generates about 5 milliwatts of power. Wicked Laser's website offers a 1,000-milliwatt handheld laser.
The laser company didn't respond to an e-mail request for comment.
Dozens of people in the United States and around the world have been arrested for pointing lasers at aircraft cockpits, most often near airports during takeoffs and landings. Those are the most critical phases of flight, when pilots need to be their most alert. Interference with air navigation is a federal crime.
Last year, an Orange, Calif., man was sentenced to 2½ years in prison for aiming a handheld laser at two Boeing jets as the passenger planes were about to land at John Wayne Airport.
In August, a Baltimore police helicopter pilot was temporarily "flash blinded" by a laser, preventing him from helping fellow officers chasing a suspect. The pilot recovered, circled around and spotlighted the house where the beam had come from as officers on the ground rushed in to arrest the culprit.
The same month, green lasers were pointed at the cockpits of two medical helicopters transporting patients in Pittsburgh, including a 5-year-old boy injured in a bicycle accident.
There are red, blue and violet lasers as well, but the green is the most visible against a night sky. The green lasers are also 35 times brighter than equivalently powered red lasers because humans are much more sensitive to green light, according to the Congressional Research Service.
In July, a Maryland state police helicopter pilot was briefly blinded by several green lasers while trying to land in Ocean City to pick up a trauma patient, but no one was injured. Two Coast Guard helicopters made precautionary landings this summer after the pilots were flashed with lasers while patrolling Los Angeles beaches and ports.
Last year, pilots of dozens of planes taking off and landing at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport reported being flashed with green lasers.