Flying Blind: FAA says laser strikes on planes could hit record - WALB.com, South Georgia News, Weather, Sports

Flying Blind: FAA says laser strikes on planes could hit record this year

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) -

The FBI is calling on witnesses to people shining laser pointers at airplanes and helicopters to come forward because that kind of horsing around can have disastrous consequences.

The lasers are cheap and easy to get online or at stores like Walmart. FAA statistics reveal the numbers of incidents of lasers hitting aircraft could hit a new record this year.

"That one there actually hit me directly in the face and it made it difficult to fly," pilot Kris Scott said, describing one of the times he was hit by a military-grade laser.

Laser strikes are a familiar crisis for Scott. He was on approach into his home base at Columbia Metropolitan Airport earlier this year when his cockpit was lit up by a laser.

"That was on the final approach coming into Columbia on runway 11," Scott said. "It can really be a hazard that can blind a pilot."

In another case last fall, Scott was hit at 17,000 feet, more than three miles up, over Lexington, Kentucky. The laser was going for so long he actually had time to get video of it.

"That green flash, and when it hits the aircraft, you can see it on the wing there," Scott said.

The FAA reports laser strikes have become epidemic, targeting small planes and passenger jets full of people from major airlines including American, United, and Delta.

Almost 20 airports, big and small around South Carolina, have seen them and the area’s key hub Charlotte has gone through almost 200 in the past five years. Nationwide, the number of laser strikes has surged from about 1,500 in 2009 to more than 7,700 last year and the early stats from this year show a likely new record for 2016, too.

A big part of the problem is the easy availability and low prices for high-powered, even military grade, green laser pointers.

Pilot and volunteer animal rescuer Christophe Masiero and his wife criss-cross South Carolina taking pets from kill shelters to new homes. They were on a mission for a rescue dog east of Greenville when their Cessna was hit.  

"Suddenly you go from dark, moonless night, everything quiet to being in a place where you have rays of light everywhere," Masiero said. "Think about a disco ball in a nightclub or something like that."

Masiero quickly shut one eye and switched on the autopilot.

"You're getting blind, basically, so it's not a good thing for a pilot flying a plane at 200 mph over a city at night," Masiero said.

Even thousands of feet up, that laser light can cause and has caused serious eye damage to the pilots, according to Chuck Dyer, chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association.

"Like 39 pilots are out with after-effect injuries," Dyer said. "We've had one pilot here that I'm aware of that has been out for some length of time from having his retina burned in a laser event."

It also opens up the door to felony criminal charges. Under a 2012 law, it’s a federal offense to deliberately target an aircraft with a laser.

"Just a couple of years ago, there was a 26-year-old man in California who was sentenced to 14 years in prison -- federal prison -- for doing this kind of thing and he was pointing lasers at police helicopters as well as ambulance helicopters," FBI agent Paul Daymond said.

Local law enforcement, the FBI, and the FAA investigate laser strikes, but can end up stumped when it comes down to tracking those responsible. In Kris Scott's case, he says he calls the nearest tower.

"I mean, it's not like we have paratroopers in the back of the plane that we can drop out and send to get them," Scott said. "It would be nice because it would really put a stop to it."

Columbia Metropolitan Airport police told Scott the beam that hit him came from somewhere in a subdivision just east of runway 11, but there was no pinpointing its source beyond that. Federal investigators like Daymond say that’s where an educated community has to step in.

"We need the public’s assistance to be able to catch these people," Daymond said. "If, you know, if you’ve got a buddy, a friend who is doing this or is bragging about this or thinks it’s funny, it’s not. And you need to tell somebody. Tell somebody of authority or share it with the FBI."

Luckily, according to union leaders like Chuck Dyer, the public is starting to catch on. 

"I think some of the reports actually come from people on the ground, so we’re seeing more recognition of the problem," Dyer said. "But we’re a long way from getting our arms around the problem."

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