Incidents of Lasers Pointed at Aircraft on the Rise

By Brenda Flanagan

Pilots radioed the control tower at Newark Airport, reporting lasers targeting their jets.

PILOT: Tower, American 966, we just got a laser shot about 8 o’clock.

TOWER: American 966, roger — 8 o’clock. How far away would you say and what color was it?

PILOT: Green, and it’s at 7 o’clock now and I’d say about a mile and a half.

Green laser lights coruscated across jetliner windshields. Sixteen pilots called in Wednesday and Thursday nights.

PILOT: JetBlue 2779. We had the laser on the right side. It was almost right underneath us.

“Lasers were being shot at planes as they were coming into Newark air space. There was also one down in Cape May and several across the United States at the same time,” said Richard Frankel, special agent in charge of the Newark Division of the FBI.

The FBI’s investigating because it’s a crime to point lasers at aircraft. And if you think pilots are over-reacting, listen to one who actually got hit by a laser over St. Louis in 2011.

“By the time it gets up to us at 1,000 feet, it’s a lot bigger than it looks at night — not just a pinpoint. So it hits that plexiglass, the light disperses throughout the cockpit and it’s the equivalent to like the flash from a camera in a pitch black car at night,” said Officer Doug Reinholz of the St. Louis Metro PD.

“After you have this flashbulb effect in your eyes, can you really see later on? Can you see just dots in your eyes?” asked J.T. Tristani.

Retired airline pilot J.T. Tristani explains, imagine landing a jet going 400 feet per second with a couple hundred passengers sitting in back. You start the so-called flare, slowing the jet dramatically, just before touch-down and the laser hits.

“You’ve hit me in my eyes and I’ve misjudged the visual landing — or my automated landing, which goes into a flare, is suddenly distracted and now I hit hard. How about blowing a couple tires? And then departing the runway,” Tristani said.

The FAA says a FedEx pilot reported a laser injury Thursday night in Newark. Meanwhile, incidents involving lasers across the country have soared — from 384 in 2006 to 10 times that — 3,894 last year. So far this year, the FAA’s already logged 2,751 — 47 in New Jersey, 24 of those in Newark.

Why do people do it?

“It started off just admiring the laser, shining it and seeing how far it’d go, what it could hit and then a helicopter flew by and I made the decision to see if it would reach the helicopter,” said Justin Stouder who shined a laser at a helicopter.

“In each case we’ve seen is different. There is no profile on exactly who is doing it. Usually we have some good leads, and again working with the local police department — which is our biggest partner in this type of case — they can help identify where it may have come from,” said Frankel.

Interfering with an aircraft is a felony. If you’re convicted, you could face up to a quarter-million fine and five years in prison. So if you feel compelled to use a laser pointer in a flight context, you could always play with your cat and watch the fur fly, instead.