Worried US aviation officials have warned that a rise in the number of people pointing lasers at aircraft cockpits has increased the risk of blinding pilots and could lead to crashes.
They say the intense light can distract and temporarily incapacitate pilots and has caused some to relinquish control of planes and helicopters to their co-pilots or abort landings.
Over the past six years, the Federal Aviation Administration has recorded a steady increase in reports from across the country of people pointing lasers at aircraft cockpits. This year, there have been more than 2,200 incidents, up from fewer than 300 in 2005.
There hasn't been an air crash so far, but the incidents have aviation officials worried. "It sounds silly, but this is a serious problem," FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt wrote in a post on a Transportation Department blog.
"We know that laser pointers are an important tool for astronomers and casual stargazers," Babbitt wrote. "But we just can't stress enough the importance of being careful when you are shining them into the night sky."
The rise in incidents has coincided with a growing hobbyist market for handheld lasers that are far more powerful – and potentially dangerous – than the typical laser pointer. At the same time prices have dropped. Lasers that once cost more than $1,000 can now be bought online for a few hundred dollars or less. Some lasers are marketed with holsters that can be clipped onto a belt, creating a gunslinger-like appearance. The American Academy of Ophthalmology issued a statement in September warning parents that new, powerful laser devices can easily cause eye damage and blindness.
Dozens of people in the US and around the world have been arrested for pointing lasers at aircraft cockpits, most often near airports during takeoffs and landings. Those are the most critical phases of flight, when pilots need to be their most alert. Interference with air navigation is a federal crime.
Last year, a California, man was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for aiming a handheld laser at two Boeing jets as the passenger planes were about to land at John Wayne Airport.
In August, a Baltimore police helicopter pilot was temporarily "flash blinded" by a laser, preventing him helping fellow officers chasing a suspect. The pilot recovered, circled around and spotlighted the house where the beam had come from as officers on the ground rushed in to arrest the culprit.
The same month, green lasers were pointed at the cockpits of two medical helicopters transporting patients in Pittsburgh, including a five-year-old boy injured in a bicycle accident.
There are red, blue and violet lasers, but green is the most visible against a night sky. In July, a Maryland state police helicopter pilot was briefly blinded by several green lasers while trying to land in Ocean City to pick up a trauma patient, but no one was injured.
Two US Coast Guard helicopters made precautionary landings this summer after the pilots were flashed with lasers while patrolling Los Angeles beaches and ports.
Last year, pilots of dozens of planes taking off and landing at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport reported being flashed with green lasers.