Laser Attacks Against Aircraft
A Threat to Citizens and Law Enforcement Personnel
By Gregory McMahon, M.A., J.D.
The FBI assesses with high confidence based on its own reporting, as well as that of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and open sources, that a laser directed at an aircraft during its operation puts the aircraft in a perilous position.
Since 2005 there has been a 1,273 percent increase in laser strikes against aircraft based on annual FAA reporting. As the number of reported incidents continues to increase, so does the risk of pilot disorientation/blindness and loss of aircraft control, all of which could contribute to a crash causing serious physical injury and, perhaps, the death of not only those in the aircraft but also of innocent bystanders on the ground. Aircraft flying at the lowest altitudes, including commercial airliners on approach and landing, medevac flights, law enforcement craft, and media helicopters, are most susceptible.1
Physical reactions to laser illumination can be severe. There are visible and ultraviolet light spectrum physiological effects. Pilots and copilots have experienced dazzle, after-image formation, flash blindness, and retinal bruising.2
As of December 31, 2013, the FAA has documented at least 35 incidents where pilots required medical attention after a laser strike.3 In June 2011 a Garland, Texas, man was arrested for pointing a laser at an FBI aircraft.4 In March 2011 a commercial flight on final approach to Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport was struck with a laser. The pilot’s vision was degraded, forcing him to release control of the airplane to the first officer. None of the nearly 200 passengers onboard were harmed.5
According to the FAA there were 3,960—the highest number ever recorded—aircraft laser strike incidents in 2013. This constitutes an average of almost 11 per day.6
Mitigation Efforts to Reduce Laser Attacks
In March 2012 a federal statute codified at 18 U.S.C. § 39A entitled “Aiming a Laser Pointer at an Aircraft” went into effect. The statute makes it a federal offense for a person to knowingly aim the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft within the jurisdiction of the United States. Individuals convicted under this statute can receive a sentence of up to five years or a fine.
Mr. McMahon is an intelligence analyst in the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.
In September 2012 the FBI’s Newark, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, offices conducted a joint laser strike press conference followed by a public service announcement to advise the media and public on the extent of the problems, dangers, and penalties associated with aircraft being targeted by handheld lasers.7 The FBI is coordinating with the FAA and the Airline Pilots Association to promote a new rewards program that launched on February 11, 2014. The program offers up to $10,000 for information leading to an arrest in laser strike incidents. It focuses on 12 cities—Albuquerque, New Mexico; Chicago, Illinois; Cleveland, Ohio; Houston, Texas; Los Angeles, California; New York, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Phoenix, Arizona; Sacramento, California; San Antonio, Texas; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Washington, D.C.8
Laser attacks on aircraft likely will continue as reports of such attacks have increased dramatically in recent years and as laser devices have become more affordable and available for purchase online for as little as $5. In addition, technology has advanced the effectiveness of laser devices, which may increase safety hazards for pilots, crew, and passengers on an aircraft.
The FBI has investigated and determined that recent illuminations do not stem from an organized effort to disrupt commercial U.S. air operations. Nevertheless, law enforcement agencies should be aware of the possible threat, and laser strike working groups should be cognizant of clusters of attacks in specific areas, as well as message board traffic that might indicate organized efforts to disrupt law enforcement and U.S. air operations.
Laser Strike Incidents
- In December 2013 a commercial airline pilot and copilot averted a disaster by landing an airplane safely at Palm Beach International Airport after a blinding laser was pointed at the cockpit from the ground, according to the Palm Beach County, Florida, Sheriff’s Office.9
- On December 26, 2013, a commercial flight approached New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. The pilot of that plane was temporarily blinded by a laser and experienced blurry vision for a week following the incident.10
- On March 21, 2013, a 27-year-old man pointed a bright green laser at the pilot of a Columbus, Ohio, Division of Police helicopter. The prosecutor stated at sentencing that “the blinding effect when the laser beam came through the helicopter’s windshield could have caused a crash in a heavily populated residential area.” The subject stated that he pointed the laser because he was bored. He was sentenced to 45 days in jail plus 18 months probation.11
- The security council chair for the Airline Pilots Association has been struck by lasers on five separate occasions during his career. The most serious of the laser strikes occurred 45 seconds prior to landing a CJR-700 aircraft with 67 passengers and four crew members on board in 2011. The captain reported temporary blindness and disorientation.12