People With Lasers Torment Pilots at Record-Setting Rate

'It's a guy thing,' says one expert, and also a federal crime
By Mike L. Ford,  Newser Staff
Posted May 3, 2022 6:23 PM CDT

It’s not a new problem, but it’s worse than ever. Last year alone, the FAA recorded over 9,700 cases in which laser beams struck cockpits, per the New York Times. It was a record high, but some 70,000 cases have been reported since 2010, and—worldwide—it’s happened over 100,000 times since 2004, says Patrick Murphy, a laser safety expert who advises the FAA. He told the Times there are two types of people who point lasers into cockpits: those who are ignorant and those who are antisocial. He added, "It’s a guy thing … like having a Star Wars light saber," which apparently makes certain men feel special.

When a laser hits the cockpit, it can temporarily blind, disorient, or even "completely incapacitate" a pilot, according to the FAA. Although no crashes have been attributed to lasers, the problems they cause are more than a matter of discomfort or inconvenience. For example, the Times describes one 2018 episode in which an emergency services chopper pilot was forced to abandon a rescue mission after a laser beam "overwhelmed his night vision goggles." He said the attack damaged his vision and left him unable to fly for months.

It’s a federal crime that puts pilots and passengers at tremendous risk, especially since most attacks occur during takeoff and landing. Perpetrators can get five years in prison plus fines, but they are hard to catch. Sometimes, pilots can pinpoint laser locations and give police a chance to respond. There is no shortage of recent stories: earlier this year, a 52 year-old Mississippi man was sentenced to home confinement for lasering planes near Memphis Airport; last month, a 36-year-old Philly man received a year in prison; and this week, a 19-year-old Miami woman was arrested for attacking a police helicopter (so maybe it’s not just a guy thing after all). Lasers are getting cheaper and more powerful, experts say, so the industry must adapt. Pilots are being trained to look away, if possible, and the Air Force is developing special protective eyewear. (More FAA stories.)

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