June 3, 2014

FBI, FAA announce crackdown on lasers pointed at aircraft

Enough laser pointers have interfered with aircraft flights to catch the FBI’s attention.

Enough laser pointers have interfered with aircraft flights to catch the FBI’s attention.

Officials announced a national campaign to crack down on “lasing” Tuesday at a news conference at Yingling Aviation near Wichita Mid-Continent Airport. The campaign offers rewards of up to $10,000 for information that leads to the arrest of any individual who has aimed a laser at any type of aircraft since 2012, when the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act made the act a felony.

“If you think this is a prank, you’re mistaken,” said Barry Grissom, U.S. attorney for the District of Kansas. “Don’t let that prank send you to prison.

“We don’t want to have to spend $10,000, but make no mistake, violators will be prosecuted.”

Lasers, even handheld ones, can temporarily blind the pilot or permanently damage his or her eyes when pointed at the cockpit of a plane, posing a danger to pilots, passengers and the public miles below. The FAA documented at least 35 incidents where pilots required medical attention after a laser strike.

“It’s like shining a big white strobe light in someone’s face,” said Wichita Airport Police and Fire Chief Roger Xanders.

The campaign comes after a documented increase in lasing incidents in recent years. The FBI and FAA recorded fewer than 300 incidents in 2005, but the number jumped to more than 3,900 in 2013.

“That’s about 11 a day,” Grissom said. “There could be hundreds or thousands more that go unreported.”

Fifty-one laser strikes occurred in Kansas and western Missouri in 2013. Twenty-three of those were at Mid-Continent Airport – more than double the amount reported there in 2012, Xanders said.

“It may not seem like a lot when you compare it to the amount of flights we have coming and going, but it only takes one incident to pose a threat to hundreds of people,” he said.

The incidents occur between midnight and early morning hours, officials said, most often striking commercial aircraft during takeoff or landing – critical flight periods.

Wichita pilot Jeff Greenberg, who flies small aircraft, said he estimates that just a few seconds of blindness could cause a flight disaster.

“When planes are landing they’re just a couple hundred feet off the ground, traveling at an average of two miles a minute,” he said. “Just 15 seconds of blindness and you’ve already traveled half a mile or more without being able to see.”

The FBI reported a 19 percent decrease in the number of reported incidents after launching a pilot version of the program in February in 12 metropolitan areas, including Chicago, Houston, New York, Phoenix and Washington.

More than 140 individuals have been arrested so far, but none of those arrests have been in Kansas, said Bridget Patton, with the FBI’s Kansas City division. The offense is punishable by a fine of up to $250,000 and up to five years imprisonment.

In March, 26-year-old Sergio Rodriguez of Clovis, Calif., was sentenced to 14 years in prison for pointing a laser at a Fresno County police helicopter, according to an FBI news release. Rodriquez, who had a significant criminal history of probation violations and gang connections, used a laser 13 times more powerful than the permitted power emission level for handheld laser devices, the release said.

While the FBI reward is available for 90 days in all of its 56 offices, the campaign is also aimed at raising awareness. The campaign will include video presentations, social media presence, digital billboard advertisements and public safety messages broadcast on radio stations and shown at movie theaters.

“Pointing a laser at a plane cockpit is like pointing a gun at someone,” said Bruce Landsberg, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. “It has the potential to do extreme damage. Just a single look at a laser can damage a pilot’s eyes or lead to a fatal accident. This is a no-win situation.”

Larger commercial planes and helicopters, rather than the smaller aircraft flown by AOPA members, are more likely to get hit, Landsberg said. AOPA tells pilots to keep their eyes in the cockpit and adjust in their seats to a position where lasers can’t reach them if they see any suspicious flashes of light.

“That’s about all you can do,” Landsberg said.

Landsberg said he would like to see laser manufacturers place warning labels regarding aviation safety on their products. Deterring lasing is an educational process, he said.

“They put warnings about pointing lasers in your eyes, but they don’t make the clear connection between that and pointing them at a pilot’s eyes,” Landsberg said. “I don’t know that lasing has any malicious intent. People with laser might just not think about it, but would I shine lasers in my own eyes and then try to drive a car? No, the answer is that I wouldn’t be that stupid.

“This is no different.”

The FBI asks anyone with information about a lasing incident to call local FBI officials or dial 911.

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